Digging Deeper Into CCSF Story: $39 million for non-usage of LMS not really about DE

When I wrote my initial post on Tuesday about the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) having to repay the state $39 million for non-usage of LMS, there was one number that kept bugging me.

We’re not talking about an isolated problem with some faculty forgetting or refusing to use the official LMS. 92% of all courses (based on FTES count) did not comply with collegiate policy, and therefore there are no official participation records ensuring students understood the course requirements or that faculty interacted with students.

The original San Francisco Chronicle article described the problem as occurring “in hundreds of online classes from 2011 to 2014”, and the independent audit document describes their charge to “review compliance of contact hours claimed for distance education” by CCSF. But 92% of faculty choosing to not use the campus LMS for an online course goes beyond sloppy processes or faculty resistance. There had to be more to the story.

I was able to find the deeper part of the story through an interview and set of emails with Jay Field, CTO at CCSF. It turns out that the problem in question is based on coding of TBA (to be arranged) classes – in this case one unit labs designed purely as self-paced extensions of a 3 or 4-credit course – and not for the distance education program. Put another way, CCSF was penalized for an administrative decision on how to manage this type of class (coding it as distance education, not requiring LMS usage). The state set a policy in 2008 on how to manage these courses in order to receive state funding (apportionment), and CCSF did not comply for three academic years. Excerpted from the policy:

  • Specific instructional activities, including those conducted during TBA hours, expected of all students enrolled in the course are included in the official course outline. All enrolled students are informed of these instructional activities and expectations for completion.
  • During TBA hours, there must be some kind of instruction provided (such as course content) and/or activity that is not an activity that should be done independently outside of class time.
  • Students may demonstrate that they fulfilled their regularly scheduled TBA responsibilities by signing in and out every time they come to the lab or learning assistance center in a manner that documents the days, times, and the number of TBA hours fulfilled. An electronic system may be used to document regular attendance and fulfillment of the individual TBA schedule.

The administrative role of the LMS should have been to enable compliance with all three items. Communicating expectations to students, proving there was some form of instruction, and documenting interactions and activities, all done in a manner to allowing the school to track and manage these items. For some reason, the administration and curriculum committees at the time chose not to require the usage of LMS for these TBA extensions, and they chose to code the TBA portion as distance education but not to coordinate with CCSF’s Education Technology department. I say “for some reason” because all the administrators involved in the decisions are no longer with the school. When the new administration came in starting in 2013, they found the problem and self-reported it to the state.

CCSF, it turns out, is not the first college having to repay the state for lack of processes and documentation on TBA labs. Nine years earlier, the West Valley-Mission district had a civil grand jury report describing a similar situation.

In 2005, it was brought to the State’s attention by a student that the West Valley-Mission Community College District was overcharging the State for apportionment funds. It was alleged that West Valley-Mission Community College District was claiming hours by arrangement (HBA) that lacked the documentation necessary to prove they had been completed. Due to the lack of proper monitoring and recording, a special audit was ordered by the California Community Colleges System Office. The audit revealed an overpayment by the State to the District in the amount of approximately $12M.

In fact, it was this West Valley-Mission case that led to the 2008 clarification memo described above.

Susan Lamb, interim Chancellor at CCSF, emailed faculty and staff last week at the college to describe the issue.

The second audit report [to be discussed at board meeting Dec 15] represents a practice that we discovered in November 2013 and immediately reported and corrected. During my first month as Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, I became aware that we were collecting apportionment for distance education lab hours in which no web-based shell was created. These distance education labs were paired with a face-to-face class. These shells are required in order to collect apportionment from the state. As a result, the college was not compliant with state requirements for maintaining and providing documentation supporting students’ individual participation. I brought this to the attention of then-Chancellor Tyler in January 2014 after thoroughly researching and verifying the situation. Dr. Tyler reported the situation to the California Community College State Chancellor’s Office which required that the District undergo an external audit of these identified courses. The results of the audit have now been received. The audit identified a total of $38.9 million that we must repay to the state.

The State Chancellor’s Office has worked collaboratively with us to negotiate an extended payback period of 10 years. I want to stress that this is not representative of the District’s operations today; rather, this is the conclusion of a previously identified issue. The college will continue to move forward, incorporating the payment plan into its financial planning models.

I also want to point out that this past incident is in no way a reflection of the overall quality of our distance learning program or our online and hybrid-online classes. We have an exemplary program with substantive and regular interaction with our students. The issue we uncovered was related to distance education labs attached to specific face-to-face classes. The intent of the online supplemental labs was to give students more exposure to the material so they could get a better understanding of the subject matter. The lab hours were not required for the credit units awarded. Even without the additional hours, students met the required hours and course content necessary to receive credit for the course.

Jay Field shared an email that he sent out to all CTOs within the Community College System, stating in part:

I have heard from a few of you about the recent news regarding CCSF distance education classes not meeting the criteria for regular and effective contact. The reporting was a bit imprecise.

CCSF had classes with one unit labs whose hours were TBA. The idea at the time was that these one unit labs could be offered in a self-paced “virtual” manner. Where CCSF went wrong was to NOT require these classes to go through the regular processes associated with distance education. There were no distance education addenda created, no requirement to use the college’s course management system (Moodle at that time), and most importantly, there was no interaction with the college’s Education Technology department. Many excellent “real” online classes were taught through the Education Technology department during this same timeframe.

I asked Jay if the school would have been able to stay in compliance had the previous administration required and enforced usage of the LMS for these TBA-extended courses, and Jay said yes.

So the initial story from the audit and from the San Francisco Chronicle holds up in terms of a $39 million repayment caused by lack of usage of the LMS. But this problem was not about the actual distance education program at CCSF and was not really about individual faculty decisions to not use the LMS. It was about collective decisions by past administration and faculty committees on how to handle one unit labs.

That’s still a very expensive lesson to learn.

For those wanting to read the 2008 policy requirements for TBA labs in California:

Download (PDF, 273KB)

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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