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California Community Colleges Online Education InitiativeFrom its inception, the California Community Colleges (CCC) Online Education Initiative (OEI) has focused on student support services that allow all students equitable access, increasing their chances of success in the online environment.

This is most apparent through the OEI’s effort to help California's community college system deliver quality counseling services to its ever-growing online student population. By leveraging and partnering with the technology vendor ConexED — whose focus is technology in student services while retaining the human connection — the OEI has been able to support the CCC’s attempt to offer robust online counseling services.

This accomplishment not only provides equitable access to one of the more important student support services available to college students, but maintains the integrity of the college counseling profession as it is being practiced in the online environment.

Through the California Community Colleges Online Counseling Network (OCN), the OEI has provided online counseling resources in the form of professional development for online counselors, the creation of a structured community of professionals (which never existed before in the CCC), and introduced ConexED’s Cranium Café platform to our community college system. Most importantly, all of this work conforms to regulations and accreditation standards regarding the provision of equitable student support services in distance education. This means all equivalent on-campus counseling services, including mental health, are now viable possibilities for online students.

Elevating Online Counseling

In its efforts to elevate online counseling to the next level and truly meet the needs of the online students of today and tomorrow, the OEI paid close attention to two important facts. First, the mission of community college counseling, which was clearly stated in the CCC Board of Governors’ 1979 task force report on counseling. The report, which addressed the multidimensional nature of counseling and its importance to student success, stated that “the mission of community college counseling and guidance is to assist the individual with decisions that affect educational, vocational and personal goals, and to provide appropriate support and instruction, which will enable the individual to implement these decisions. These may include career, educational, academic choice or personal social decisions” (Farland & Hirschinger, 1979). Thirty-eight years later the mission remains the same, and its importance is more pronounced when it is applied to the online learner.

Second, research and data revealed that there was strong interest among colleges to provide online counseling, but the level of expertise and resources to help execute impactful programs at individual campuses were not always available. By listening to the needs of the system and valuing the role counseling can play in helping promote a student’s academic success, the OEI was able to effectively respond.

Prior to the advent of the OCN and the introduction of Cranium Café to the system, only 27 percent of California community colleges provided real-time counseling video appointment workshops and drop-in sessions online (Online Education Initiative, 2017). Thanks to the OEI, three years later that number has increased to over 50 percent of California community colleges in varying stages of implementation of the Cranium Café online counseling platform. Specifically, 38 colleges have implemented Cranium Café at their campuses, and 20 more are in the process of implementation.

Replicating On-Campus Services

The appeal of the Cranium Café platform is that it is designed specifically with online student services in mind, while replicating on-campus style counseling services. Students have direct access to counseling support in very much the same way they would on campus. Cranium Café is FERPA and ADA-compliant, and is accessible entirely online with no downloads or software installations required. It features a virtual lobby for walk-in sessions, as well as opportunities for virtual counseling appointments and interactive workshops.

Because it allows for single sign-on authentication, the platform can be utilized for all areas of counseling offered at the colleges, including for example, mental health counseling. Various customizations developed to suit the specific needs of the CCC have been incorporated into the platform.

Features include the opportunity to add an informed consent statement (a necessity in the practice of online counseling), as well as the build out of a highly intuitive and interactive scheduling system, which allows for either students self-scheduling or front desk scheduling. These and other features have made the platform even more desirable.

Online Counseling Professional Development

The highlight of the professional development component of the OCN is the creation of the Online Counseling Course offered in Canvas. This course was developed once it was revealed that counselors had almost zero professional development opportunity to receive quality training as it pertains to the practice of online counseling.

The course, which was fully launched in the summer of 2016, provides counselors with access to the Cranium Café platform for six weeks of training and practice, examines techniques and strategies for serving and supporting students in the online arena and its most recent upgrade incorporates an elective two-week online mental health online counseling training module. This course also is approved for three units of Continuing Education Graduate Credit by Fresno Pacific University.

The response from the field has been very positive. To date, 109 counselors from across the California community college system have completed the OEI Online College Counseling Course, with 154 counselors having completed the introductory ConexED Technical Training. Counselors who have completed the training have gained access to:

  • Standardized training and materials aligned with the National Board of Certified Counselors Standards for Distance Counseling Professionals
  • A community of online counselors trained in working with online students utilizing the same platform
  • OCN Community of Practice discussion forums
  • Counseling webinars and forums
  • Partnering with participating OEI pilot colleges to establish a uniform approach to online counseling
  • An online student services resource repository
  • A Community of Practice

With the OEI continuing to scale up its services and resources, more and more online students will have access to support services and tools that can improve the online learning experience. A strong online counseling program serves as a great first step.

On The Horizon: Innovative Student Support

As the OEI continues its bold strides in the advancement of online student support services, its vision and mission going forward is not only to ensure that counselors have the tools and resources needed to serve online students, but also to seize the opportunity to work with colleges to support the seamless integration of a number of additional online student support services into a college’s Distance Education program.

Going forward, the OEI will continue to introduce colleges to a new model that includes localizing services, providing real-time synchronous services, creating online support communities and hubs specifically for online students and providing phases of support along a guided pathway — all of which will connect students via the college’s student portal and learning management system, specifically Canvas.


Farland, R., & Hirschinger, J. (1979). Community College Counseling Services in California: A Report by the Statewide Task Force on Counseling with Commentary and Recommendations Provided by Staff.

Online Education Initiative. (2017). Counseling for online students: Online Education Initiative. Retrieved from

Bonnie Peters is Chief Student Services Officer of
the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative

Dr. Marilyn Harvey is Student Services Consultant for
the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative