The Right to Educational Access Paper, Part III

Update: This paper can be found at the 20MM site and has also been broken into four separate posts on e-Literate:

Focus on Student Rights and Perspectives

Given these four approaches that California’s public higher education systems have available to address bottleneck courses, where should the state begin? There are important questions or organizational priorities for the three systems as well as faculty autonomy to consider. Unfortunately, much of the public discussion of online education issues has tended to focus on organizational needs or advocacy for the power of technology. Often what is lost in the shuffle is the perspective from those who are most impacted – the students.

The key to addressing bottleneck course problems is to consider a new right for admitted students to have access to the courses they need. Rather than starting from the institutions and how they operate, the opportunity California higher education leaders and state government leaders have is to start from the perspective of the student’s rights and needs and then define institutional incentives to ensure those rights are preserved.

The Right to Access

Students enrolled in California public colleges and universities should be guaranteed timely access to the core courses that they are required to take in order to graduate. Given that there are a variety of ways in which the institutions could meet this obligation, the state should avoid being overly prescriptive about the method. Rather, it should supply the mandate for educational access, support institutions in meeting this mandate, and provide a safety valve to ensure the mandate’s right is preserved.

Regarding support for the mandate, the state can provide faculty and institutions with funding, training, and other resources for helping them solve the bottleneck problem locally and organically. We will make recommendations in this regard later in this paper.

The safety valve should be a mechanism consistent with the broad goals of California SB 520. If a school fails to support the student right of timely access to crucial required courses, then the students should have the right to take courses from a state-approved third party and receive credit for that course. And the burden of paying any extra costs involved should fall to the institution rather than the student.

Given the mandate to support a student right to educational access and support for that mandate, institutions and statewide systems can and should play a central role in applying their considerable experience and creativity to craft solutions based on local needs and diverse student populations. Despite some of the public rhetoric, no realistic solution to bottleneck courses should bypass the local faculty and their knowledge of student needs.

At the same time, the local politics of the individual institutions should not be allowed to take precedence over the students’ right to access. For this reason, the support of local solutions and the administration of the safety valve provision must be treated differently from each other. The support of local solutions, which should always be the preferred approach, should focus on providing campuses with maximum support and autonomy to meet access goals. The safety valve, which is the solution of last resort, should ensure that students are guaranteed access to courses regardless of campus limitations or local politics.

Beyond Access: The Right to Quality

It is important to remember the real goal of using online education to address bottleneck courses here. It is not to offer students seats in courses. It is to get students to complete those courses successfully so that they can complete their programs more quickly. While California cannot guarantee student success, the state can put in place provisions that guarantee students access to the kinds of support that are known to increase the likelihood of student success. This includes taking care to preserve existing campus support networks when bringing in new solutions—particularly solutions implemented by third parties—as well as taking care to provide students with extra support when it is needed. These considerations are important for locally developed solutions, but they are especially important for safety valve solutions where some of the traditional campus support and quality control mechanisms may be circumvented to achieve greater accessibility.

Targeting appropriate students for online solutions

Online education classes typically require more self-discipline, better reading skills, and better awareness of when to seek help than traditional classes do. Offering an online class to a student who otherwise would be shut out altogether is often better than nothing. But we need to recognize that we are already starting with a solution that has its challenges for achieving a goal of high completion rates, even if everything else is equal. Not all students are equally well-prepared for online learning, and pushing students who are likely to fail into an online course may, in fact, be worse than the status quo. Online courses are not a panacea. Students will need help in evaluating whether online is appropriate for them. And if it is not, those students should be given priority access to the traditional on-campus or blended courses.

Wisconsin’s eCampus provides a valuable model in their approach to informing students about the online course options in a neutral manner – seeking to inform and qualify students rather than purely marketing the online courses. This type of qualification approach is crucial to student retention, and it is the basis for the New America Foundation recommendation to “Institutions and state systems should provide support and retention efforts given the attrition problems that can occur with online course-taking”.

Preserving the campus support network

In a traditional course, faculty on campus are able to talk to each other and to support staff such as student advisors in order to best meet the needs of particular students. This can happen with online courses too; many fully online programs include online advising and even provide Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software so that all of the staff who interact with a given student can share insights and keep track of is working with the student on what. However, once third-party course vendors are brought into the picture, it is easy for this support network to be severed. Any legislation supporting the use of third-party vendors should account for the fact that support of student success goes beyond the work of individual faculty members behind closed classroom doors and take steps to ensure that the students’ support network in their home institutions are able to continue providing students with the support they need. This is a complex problem, since it can potentially involve sharing private student data with the private corporations that are providing the courses. A balance will need to be struck between privacy and support for success. But at the very least, the students’ home institution should have timely access to information about their progress during the course, as well as early warning of any problems that might result in the student failing or dropping the course.

Timely course access

A third issue is primarily relevant to the safety valve provisions. According to the early drafts of SB 520, students are only eligible for third-party courses once it is determined that no such courses are available on their home campus. But the bill is unclear about when the determination of eligibility would be made. Every week of class that the student misses while waiting for the question to be resolved lowers the student’s chances of passing the course. Likewise, every week that goes by before financial aid, which is determined in part by course load, can be distributed, may be a week when students cannot afford to buy the textbooks and therefore lowers their chances of success. More generally, the workflow for the students—from deciding that they need to take a special course to determining whether those courses are appropriate to registering and receiving financial aid for those courses—must be addressed. Courses that are theoretically available but practically inaccessible are not consistent with supporting the students’ right to access.

Metrics – How Will We Know?

For any state government investment and attempt to influence public higher education, it is critical to get beyond the level of hype and platitudes. The state needs changes that are effective, and there should be a systemic capability to learn which efforts are working, which are not, and which adjustments are warranted. There should be a reasonable set of top-level metrics to inform this process.

Before going too far, however, it is also important to apply metrics with care. There are hard and soft measurements for any strategic initiative not everything can adequately be measured with hard data. In particular, student learning is difficult to measure with simple metrics. The state should take care and apply metrics judiciously and appropriately.

Focus on Student Outcomes

The problem at hand is bottleneck courses and their impact on student degree completion. The key metrics should be based on desired student outcomes. Did they successfully complete the bottleneck course? How many courses are overenrolled and unavailable to students? Are the online initiatives impacting student time-to-degree or time-to-transfer?

There are new efforts nationwide and statewide based on a scorecard approach – making information on institutional performance for student completion available and accessible online. CCC has just released its statewide scorecard. There is much to commend in these efforts, particularly in their transparency, ease of access for each institution, and breakdown along demographic lines (ethnicity, full-time or part-time, and remedial status). The data for this last item – remedial status of students – is crucial, given the number of unprepared students entering college in California.

However, the measurements in the CCC scorecard have some flaws. Why are measurements based on 6-year completion rates for degrees or transfers at the community college level? While it would be naive to pretend that all students see community college as a 2-year degree or transfer, measuring only 6-year data is an acceptance of the status quo.

Short term, higher education institutions and systems should collect 2-year, 4-year and 6-year data for community colleges (2-year only for full-time students), and 4-year and 6-year for CSU and UC undergraduates. Long term, there should be a shift to collect information from students on their desired goals: 2-year degree, 4-year transfer, unknown, 5-year degree, etc. These student records would be easy to add to student information systems and could be updated annually by students. This method would allow a more direct measurement of how well our public institutions enable students to meet their educational goals.

Additional Considerations

When getting into the world of online education, particularly for open education models such as MOOCs, there are additional dynamics at play. Namely, it is not safe to assume that all students have the same goals. In fact, there appears to be five different student types emerging within MOOCs and open online courses: No-Shows, Observers, Drop-Ins, Passive Participants and Active Participants. This variety of student types is a strength, not a weakness, of open education.

The subset of online students of particular interest to this report are Active Participants – those who desire to complete the course and receive credit. Online providers planning to work with the state  should collect and publicly share this information.

Since the problem is bottleneck courses, per se, and not online education (the means to an end),  there is a parallel need to collect and report on the same data for face-to-face bottleneck courses.

Key Metrics to Collect

The recommended metrics to measure progress on bottleneck courses include the following:

  • Waitlist data (number of students per course and per institution) for high-enrollment lower-division courses
  • Completion rates for all bottleneck courses, both for face-to-face and online versions, normalized for demographics such as remedial status and student preparation
  • Degree-completion rates for 2-year, 4-year and 6-year periods for CCC, 4-year and 6-year for CSU and UC
  • Transfer rates for 2-year, 4-year and 6-year periods for CCC
  • Degree and transfer completion against student goals
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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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