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California Community CollegesThe recent conversation and disruption caused by the proliferation of massively open online courses (MOOCs) combined with a huge loss of course availability for students in the economic wasteland of the past few years shifted attention to the promise of access for our students via virtual means. The attention by and the subsequent conversations with the governor’s office brought us money from our state budget to provide increased access to online courses for students.

The dream of a California Online Campus has been with us since the late ‘90s when we took the reigns of the idea from our colleagues at the California State University system and began to study this online learning thing. A California Virtual Campus started off with an online catalog of course offerings, free “seed” resources (Blackboard, WebCT, Turn-it-in, SmartThinking), and a conference.

Early efforts saw a CVC made up of regions with their own missions. After five years, the CVC was reconfigured and the Virtual Campus still was not a reality. However, we were developing online programs at a remarkable rate, thanks to the regional work that formed a foundation for what we are doing now.

Here we are, more than a decade later, and we have dutifully developed our own programs through local efforts with support of people in the Chancellor’s Office, giving what little they had. We went through feast and famine times to get to where we are now. We weren’t ready to enjoin the original CVC vision in 1999, but we are an evolved distance education system that has been through fire and learned to generously share our knowledge and resources with each other. The ability to collaborate across 112 colleges will be a critical strength in the months to come.

Grass-Roots Efforts

Looking back, faculty members of the CCC have been creating online learning environments since the ‘90s. It started as grass-roots efforts of early-adopter, edge-dwelling innovators. We made our own Web pages using hand coding and Web authoring tools. At my college (Mt. San Jacinto College) there were only three of us.

As we became excited about the possibilities, more teachers experimented with the environment and we defended our belief that this methodology would provide students with access to learning that, at the time, any of us could only dream about. We defended it in the curriculum committees, in the local and statewide senate meetings, in department meetings, in board meetings, and in our hallways, cafeterias and libraries.

All the while, we kept building, trying new tools — Blackboard, Etudes, Web CT and others. We found that each step forward led to some new wrinkle to iron out.

During those first years, all the colleges were chasing FTE, trying to capture funds in any way possible. We fell into many traps along the way with some administrators (and students) thinking there was no cost to this methodology and that there was an endless supply of seats to be had in classes. That "chase" led to some poorly developed course offerings. (Oh, the horror stories I could tell you!) On the flip side, we created a rich heritage of quality online teaching that developed out of a dedication to the open access and nurturing mission of our colleges.

Defining Distance Education

"DE Programs" came later, after colleges had many courses up and running. We sought to get a grip on all of the issues that came with teaching at a distance and some of us began building programs with policies and procedures, DE strategic plans, writing the programs into Master plans, and so on. Title 5 regulations stood woefully behind for a long time. We had to redefine partially online courses as distance education, as well as define what correspondence courses were, how to determine apportionment and more.

While the program design was happening, faculty members were building best teaching practices and learning what worked with course design, professional development and student preparation. The regulations have grown and changed. Articulation, which had been an uphill battle, started to open up. The private colleges dragged us into federal financial aid issues and we still built best practices around a belief that Regular Effective Contact needed to be the design mantra.

Most of us built courses, learned and gave of our time for no compensation. There really were no instructional designers and we had no money to fund them. We had trouble with unions not wanting different qualifications for online teaching faculty so implementing any standard online teaching qualifications was tough! Through all of that we worked with cobbled-together components, and we did well. Our success and retention rates haven't grown much but they haven't slipped either — and the number of sections has skyrocketed.

Opportunity To Bring Pieces Together

California Community CollegesThe reason I say all of this is because the opportunity we have now is one that can put everything that we know works into one solution. This project will have all of the pieces funded — a great common course management system, instructional design support, 24/7 help desk support, orientation for students, professional development for faculty, standards for design, and standards for qualifications, mentors, coaches and student services. Everything we have fought for, piece by piece, can happen here in one grand plan. For some of us, it's a dream come true.

Additionally, we have, over the past few years, joined together as DE faculty and managers to share our professional development activities and shared successful practices for both teaching and managing online programs. I believe we are the best. The Online Education Initiative allows us, finally, to put it all together into a model that will show what all educational institutions need to do. We have a wealth of experience among us.

The experience that we have had, without enough funding and support, has produced some amazing courses, and the infusion of support could really make the level of experience rise to solve some of the success and retention issues of the past. There are new heights we can reach that solve problems by using the proper support systems that this initiative could foster. We have done so much with so little for so long, in spite of very little support. Imagine how much $56.9 million dollars can do for our programs.

My recent foray into the MOOCs showed me what our university colleagues don't know. I think our work will help them, too. All of the students of California stand to gain. It's always been about access and now it can be about success, too.

I invite you to imagine a little and let your dreams out! We are an amazing group of educators and I look forward to watching us grow forward. See you at the Online Teaching Conference in June!

Pat James is the CCC Online Education Initiative’s Chief Professional Development Officer.