California’s bold experiment in online education took steps Monday to progress beyond the idea stage, but it faces a tight timeline to be up and running by the last quarter of 2019.
The California Online College, designed to offer job-ready training to workers ages 25 and older who lack a college education, legally exists and is fully funded despite early opposition from some key lawmakers and faculty. But many aspects of the college are not yet in place.
Among the major milestones left on the to-do list: Hire a Chief Executive Officer and develop a system for evaluating the prior knowledge of students so that they’re rewarded for what they’ve learned before entering the college — a hallmark of the online college proposal.
The governing body overseeing the new online college met Monday in Sacramento for the first time to formally approve the search for a CEO, begin finding a legal team to represent the college, appoint members to an executive committee to handle the main aspects of the college and discuss next steps.
Overseeing one college will be new for the governing body. That’s because the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges oversees the 115-college system.
To keep the responsibilities for the system and college separate, the body overseeing the college will be called the Board of Trustees.
Still, the chancellor of the California Community Colleges, which the online college joins as the system’s 115th college, believes the college will be ready on time.
“The timeline is aggressive,” said Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley in an interview last week. But he said he believes several aspects of the college are working in its favor.
“The career pathways that we’ve chosen are pretty well mapped out in terms of what skill attainment needs to happen,” he said, referring to the three types of professions the college has announced for which it will prepare workers — medical coding, information technology and supervisor roles such as in retail and government.
Oakley’s point is that because employer and labor groups have offered training for these programs and are partners with the college in developing the coursework, the work needed to finalize the programs can be done by next year. And unlike associate or bachelor’s degrees, which require at least two or four years of study, each discipline at the online college is supposed to take less than two years to complete — and in some cases students can earn credentials in as little as four months.
According to a timeline the Legislature approved this year, the college is ahead of schedule. It had until July 2019 to pick three course programs.
Nor does Oakley think the college will struggle to find students, workers in low-paying positions who are most at risk of being displaced due to automation or globalization. He said partnering labor groups, including the The Service Employees International Union and its roughly 700,000 members, “have a pool of candidates that we would be quickly able to identify to participate” in the three job-centered programs of the online college.
“If we just serve 10 percent” of the 2.5 million California adults who are thought to be between the ages of 25 and 34 with jobs but no college degrees or certificates, “it will be a huge accomplishment,” Oakley said Monday.
And though Oakley will serve temporarily as the chief executive of the college, it’s expected that the first CEO of the college will be picked by January of next year.
While the online community college is the first of its kind, Ajita Talwalker Menon, a special advisor to Oakley, told the trustees that the list of skills of the first CEO will be based on traditional community college presidents and institutions that specialize in online instruction.
“This is a high-profile position,” said Cecilia Estolano, president of both the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees. “This first hire will be pivotal. It’s setting the tone and the expectations and the success of this new district.” (Estolano will leave both roles to join the governing body of the University of California pending state Senate approval, it was announced today.)
Trustee Geoffrey L. Baum stressed the challenge for the candidate picked to lead the college. “We’ve identified actually the most difficult group of students to reach,” he said. “Every other model across the state has not worked” to educate these students.
It’s expected that the search for a new CEO will begin in September, candidates will be interviewed in November and the board will pick the new executive by January.
Less clear is how the online college will evaluate how much students have learned in previous jobs as a way to give them course credit for programs the online college will offer. The concept, known as competency-based learning, was a key talking point for backers of the online college when funding for it was being debated in the Legislature.
“So we’re gathering information from a lot of different examples. And the reality is there’s only so many ways to approach this,” Oakley said.
Oakley cited some models for assessing prior learning, including work done by the multi-state Western Governors University, a private non-profit online college that has a transfer agreement with the community college system. The largest lobbying group of colleges and universities in the United States, the American Council on Education, “is giving us a lot of information about how they’re doing prior learning,” Oakley said.
An “advance team” is preparing a report on how best to roll out competency-based education, Oakley said, but that report won’t be ready until next year.
Oakley said he expects that the college will try multiple methods “so that we can evaluate what is the best method for the type of learner that we’re going after.”
Like other local governing bodies, the trustees overseeing the online community college will follow transparency laws spelled out by the Brown Act. The Board of Governors, because it’s a statewide body, follows the The Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act. One key difference is that the community college trustees are required to give the public three days notice of public meetings while the statewide Board of Governors must follow the law’s requirement of a 10-day notice.