As community colleges struggle to maintain enrollment, rural colleges are finding they can attract more students, including dually enrolled students, by expanding distance learning options.
Lamar Community College’s (LCC) distance learning program is a lifeline for high school students in the remote eastern plains of Colorado who can’t otherwise take advantage of concurrent enrollment opportunities.
LCC’s service area for concurrent enrollment includes 13 high schools in four rural counties that together are about the size of Massachusetts, says LCC President Linda Lujan. One high school had just one senior last year, and several schools have 80 or fewer.
To reach those students, LCC partnered with the Southeast Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services (Southeast BOCES) to provide synchronous delivery of college courses at a high school or at one of LCC’s centers. The courses are taught by a mix of college instructors and high school teachers certified to teach college courses.
The courses are conducted in real-time, which Lujan says make them “very, very effective.”
Addressing an access issue
Last year, LCC received a five-year, $2.5 million Strengthening Institutions grant from the U.S. Education Department to implement the program.
“It all started with trying to solve the high schools’ problem,” Lujan says. “It’s a model that serves our region well.”
The college benefits financially, too, Lujan notes, as concurrent students count as part of LCC’s total enrollment for state reimbursement. Concurrent students comprise about 20 percent to 30 percent of total enrollment each year.
LCC views the need to serve rural high school students through distance learning as an access issue, Lujan says. “Why shouldn’t rural students have the same access to higher education as urban students?” she says.
The program allows high school students to take courses, like advanced math, unavailable to them at their high school. LCC offers a calculus class that serves just six concurrently enrolled students in three separate school districts, notes Annessa Stagner Stulp, dean of academic services at LCC.
Last year, about 14 high school students finished an associate degree at the same as they completed high school, Lujan says. Most concurrent students, however, graduate high school with 15 to 30 college credits.
The courses take place in real-time through the Desire2Learn distance learning management system. Students can be 100 miles away and spread among several schools, but they all can see the instructor on a video screen at the same time, ask questions and show their work – while the teacher can see a student raise their hand.
Concurrent students complete the college courses at a rate similar to students who take courses live in person, Stulp says.
Providing distance learning to concurrently enrolled students “is all about relationships and trust and coming together collaboratively to provide services to students,” Lujan says. “High school principals, counselors, faculty and parents have to be involved from the beginning.”
The next step for LCC is expanding the concept to adult students. A new, synchronous distance learning program to help working adults earn degrees or certificates is expected to start in fall 2020. Adult students will access courses from four remote high schools that are making classrooms available after hours – or from anywhere they have good internet access.
“We are excited about this, particularly for adults interested in earning credentials in early childhood education,” as qualified early childhood educators are in short supply in rural areas, Stulp says.
A statewide platform
The platform serves as “an aggregator of courses,” for all 13 community colleges in the state system, says Tina Parscal, executive director of CCCOnline. “One of our main missions is to provide access to students in rural communities,” she says.
The system offers 230 courses in multiple sections. That allows students to keep on track to earn a degree when a traditional course they need is not offered at their campus.
The average section has about 20 students. Keeping the sections small encourages more interactions with the instructor and among students, she says.
Students can log in whenever and wherever they want. The courses are not self-paced, however; students must complete certain assignments before they can proceed to the next session, Parscal says.
The courses are standardized and consistent among all 13 colleges. There is a standard course numbering system, a common set of learning outcomes, course descriptions and credit hours.
A team of instructional designers ensures that the discussion forums are aligned with the learning outcomes, and the courses “require critical thought and real engagement with the content,” Parscal says.
There are multiple ways to access the material, which supports students with disabilities and students with different learning styles. Students with visual impairments can hear a description of images and videos, for example, and there are transcripts of videos, which helps students who prefer to read text.
Total CCCOnline enrollment for academic year 2019 is just over 48,700.
Online courses with the highest enrollment are in general education, such as basic English courses needed for transfer. Online courses in computer science and career technical subjects are also popular, Parscal says.
For science courses, students are sent lab kits with activities they can complete at home. A biology kit includes items like a microscope, slides, and a cow’s eye to dissect.
“The lab kits are really engaging,” Parscal says. That gives them the kinetic experience of working a microscope, carrying out chemistry experiments and writing authentic lab reports – along with the convenience of online learning.
To keep costs down, the courses rely on open educational resources (OERs).
“We are really intentional about that. If good OERs are available, we build our courses around them,” she says.
CCCOline offers 82 courses with zero textbook costs, and students have access to more than 160,000 ebooks.
The system is also introducing 3D technology students can access with smart phones. There is a political science course, for example, that includes a 3D tour of the state capitol that is particularly helpful for students in the far corners of the state who can’t easily take a field trip to Denver.
At Southside Virginia Community College (SVCC), “the virtual campus is the largest generator of enrollment,” says Michelle Edmonds, special assistant to the vice president of academics.
SVCC has a total enrollment of 1,800 and serves 10 mostly rural counties. Its main campuses are 60 miles apart so distance learning is the only way many students can access the college.
About 400 SVCC students are taking one or more online classes, Edmonds says.
“Virtual classes allow us to meet students’ needs. We can’t duplicate programs or course offerings in every community,” she says.
More than half of SVCC’s courses are available online, and most of those courses are in general education subjects, such as English, psychology and history, Edmonds says. Physics is the only science course offered online, and that’s because it’s hard to find enough physics teachers in rural Virginia.
Students who register for an online course can log in at home, at a computer lab in one of SVCC’s off-campus centers or at their high school, if they are dual-enrollment students.
The online courses are asynchronous, which means students can log in at any time. Instructors have “virtual hours,” allowing students to schedule videoconferences, as well as face-to-face meetings.
As SVCC has gained more experience with online learning, there’s been a greater emphasis on quality and standardization in how the classes are formatted, Edmonds says. That’s a response to student and faculty feedback, which indicated people were confused when one course looked different online from another.
SVCC is considering joining the Online Virginia Network, a program launched in 2017 by two state universities and the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) to offer degrees entirely online. Just five of the 23 community colleges in VCCS have joined the network so far: Northern Virginia (NOVA), Thomas Nelson, Tidewater, Reynolds and John Tyler community colleges.
Teacher training critical
Online learning, like the program at SVCC, is “hugely helpful” for students in rural areas, says Sheri Prupis, director of teaching and learning technologies at VCCS. Everyone in Virginia lives within 30 miles of a community college, Prupis notes, but that doesn’t mean you can drive to one in 30 minutes, as driving on mountain roads takes much longer. Also, many rural students work at jobs with irregular schedules, making it difficult to attend a traditional class.
To standardize and improve distance learning across the state, VCCS recently required its community colleges to switch from the Blackboard to the Canvas online learning management system. Having a single online platform is important, because some students take courses at more than one college, Prupis says.
Switching to Canvas required extensive training over the past year, as VCCC hosted sessions on methodologies, using videos and videoconferencing, creating engaging assessments and building relationships with students.
NOVA coordinates all the online courses in the state, so if a student’s home campus doesn’t offer accounting, for example, students can find the course through NOVA.
“That helps us fill in some of the holes,” Prupis says.
Canvas is mainly used for asynchronous learning. VCCS’s distance learning system integrates Canvas with Zoom, a platform geared for synchronous sessions that allows faculty to conduct videoconferences with several students. The students can be anywhere, but if they log in at the same time, they can all see the instructor’s PowerPoint or whiteboard presentation and can work in breakout groups.
Canvas has a mobile app, which is especially helpful for rural students in areas that lack broadband internet access but do have good cell service. According to Prupis, students can do about half of their classwork on a phone.
The most important issue, Prupis says, is not just using the technology; “It’s making sure you create appropriate and meaningful faculty and student relationships.”
Faculty members know how to teach in a face-to-face classroom but need training to ensure “students are invested in an online course and deep learning happens,” Prupis says. “They need to promote critical thinking and teach students how to apply concepts to new situations. That’s what we’re working on with faculty.”