The Right to Educational Access Paper, Part IV

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


The scope of this position paper is an analysis and set of recommendations on the “application of state-driven online education initiatives to address the bottleneck course problem at the three public systems in California”. In particular, we should address the question of of how the state could most effectively invest the proposed $37 million in funding, above and beyond the increased general funding to the three systems.

The key aspect for increased online education is to create and support a new right – for matriculated students to have access to the courses they need to complete their degrees.

Towards achieving that goal, we recommend the following:

General Issues

  1. Maintain Focus – The state government should remain in a supporting role – provide funding, provide incentives, and require accountability from the systems on use of funding. The additional funding and public pressure do not replace the general budget funding, and it should be used selectively to maintain the greatest effect. While there are other laudable goals for online education options in public higher education systems, the state should invest additional funds to support only those online programs that measurably address bottleneck course problems.
  2. Develop measurable goals – Measuring both the size and the impact of bottleneck courses can be difficult, but it is also essential to ensuring that the state’s investment pays off. Likewise, it will be important to measure student completion and other success measures for any non-traditional solutions to bottleneck course problems, including but not limited to safety valve programs. The state should work with the systems to identify a small number of practical success measures and then provide funding necessary to implement the data collection to track these measures.
  3. Ensure that students have access to support services and academic mentoring – As described by multiple studies, a crucial aspect of successful online programs is to provide support and retention services for students taking online courses. This is especially important for any systemwide initiatives where the student’s home institution may not have the knowledge or resources to help the student taking a course originating outside the institution. For example, campus advisors should receive alerts when their advisees sign up for third-party courses as well as when those students are in danger of failing to complete those courses.

Increasing Capacity in Traditional Courses

  1. Foster a culture of experimentation and craft among faculty – Campus faculty should be encouraged to learn about how they can incorporate technology to solve educational problems and be empowered to develop their own solutions for their campus’ bottleneck course problems. To this end, the state should fund a broad grant program in which faculty develop pilot bottleneck course solutions. Participants should be led through a development process using educational technologies that exposes them to a range of technology-supported course design options.
  2. Encourage the implementation, dissemination and broader adoption of faculty-developed solutions – When good bottleneck solutions are developed by faculty, either through the grant program or through other means, every effort should be made to see that they are implemented locally and adopted broadly. Knowledge of and experience with solutions developed to teach with quality at scale should be recognized as an essential part of California faculty’s professional development.

Internal Online Providers for Statewide Systems

  1. Avoid the trap of treating all three systems with the same solution – Each of the three systems has a distinct mission and student population, and care should be taken to craft different solutions based on the systems’ needs.
  2. Identify and support an organization to share best practices at California Community Colleges. While CCC has expanded its use of online education already, there is little support for the campuses to share best practices in course design. The state should consider a model similar to Tennessee’s Regents Online Campus Collaborative (ROCC), which provides peer review of online courses and dissemination of best practices. CVC seems the most likely organization to provide these services, but its charter and organization would have to adapt to the new mission.
  3. Review the missions of CVC, Cal State Online and UC Online – CCC,  CSU  and UCleaders, with the encouragement of the state, should consider adjusting the CVC and Cal State Online missions to directly focus on the bottleneck course problem. For CVC, there would need to be expansion of services beyond a catalog to include transfer articulation agreements and cross-campus registration of common courses. For Cal State Online, there would need to be a change in model to support the provision of online courses that are not necessarily part of a fully-online program. UC Online would need to shift its priorities to accelerate the development of lower-division courses.

3rd Party Providers (Safety Valve)

  1. Provide a “safety valve” of outside provision of credit-bearing, transferable online courses by filling gaps to allow SB 520 to succeed. To achieve the key balance we envision – enabling and supporting faculty to create local solutions while keeping in mind the student right to have access to needed courses, there is an implied two-tiered course selection system.
  2. Provide a multi-level course approval process for SB 520 – Whenever possible, faculty should retain oversight of quality. The initial list of approved safety valve courses should therefore be reviewed by a faculty-driven mechanism, which can be set up through the academic senates. However, since access should be a student right, there must always be some safety valve option. Therefore, in the event that the faculty-driven process is not able to recommend adequate provisions, an administrative body should review any gaps in the list and ,where solutions are inadequate, either fund development or partnership to provide the necessary courses or select contingency solutions until such time as a faculty-approved alternative can be provided.
  3. Reduce the bottleneck course problem by reducing the number of students who need to take bottleneck courses – The state should support individual campuses experimenting with competency-based education or prior learning assessments. We are not yet in a position to leverage successful pilot programs in this area, so the focus should be on supporting local innovation. At the statewide level, New York’s Empire State College has been a leader in developing this model, leading to the SUNY REAL (Recognition of Experiential and Academic Learning) program.

Funding and Sustainability

  1. We also believe, however, that the three public systems need to take a longer-term perspective and establish organizational models to encourage effective use of online education. California is behind other states, but there is no reason we cannot learn from others and harness the resources of the state to once again take a leadership position on this important subject. Therefore, beyond the recommendations provided here for short-term action, we strongly believe that California should study other established statewide models for online such as New York’s Open SUNY, Penn State’s World Campus and Tennessee’s ROCC. All three examples provide viable models to foster collaboration in online and blended learning, including key issues such as course discovery and transferability. California should form a group to study these models, including in-person meetings, and make recommendations for California adoption.
  2. Provide adequate funding – The Governor’s budget proposes $37 million for additional support of online education. It is worth considering whether this amount is proportionate to the need given the recommendations of this paper. We believe that the amount is roughly appropriate to fund the first stages of the safety valve provisions alone, the bulk of which would go to developing a state-wide registration system and building capabilities for campus support networks to receive information relevant to student success from third-party course providers. (The capacity built in these areas will also be useful for supporting students taking bottleneck courses from other California state schools, whether online or on campus.) For building campus capacity, appropriate additional funding would be in the range of $20 million to $25 million, the majority of which would go to providing Phase 1 grants for development of hybrid of fully-online courses by campus faculty and a smaller number of larger Phase 2 grants for adoption of courses across multiple campuses. The cost for building system- or statewide capacity to address bottleneck courses through programs such as UC Online, Cal State Online, or California Virtual Campus is likely also somewhere in the $20 million to $40 million range. However, it is also much further than the other two from being “shovel-ready.”  For the current budget year, we recommend sufficient funding to study state-wide programs in other states and propose a plan. The budget for this first step is more likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than in the millions.


We believe that California has a real problem with bottleneck courses and a real opportunity to address the problem. Matriculated students in our public higher education systems should have the right to access courses needed to complete their degrees, and accessible, scalable online education – when properly designed and supported – can be an important component in the state’s ability to deliver on its promises. The recommendations in this paper are meant to help pave a path forward with changes that can impact students in the next few years.

What we hope to have provided is a framework that addresses the bottleneck course problem at several levels. This framework acknowledges the need to expand access at the local college and course level and at the systemwide level, while providing a safety valve of 3rd party online courses to ensure that students have the right to access needed courses.

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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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