DataPoints: Shifting to online education

The COVID-19 pandemic has required community colleges to shift from in-person instruction to online and virtual instruction for most classes. Colleges were forced to make this transition in just a few days. It is too early to have reliable data on how many classes and how much instruction has successfully transitioned to online and virtual modalities, however community colleges have long been engaged in online and virtual education.

While community colleges have long been offering courses via distance education, we wanted to investigate the extent of online delivery prior to the present crisis as a benchmark to assess the level of work needed to move most instruction online. It is important to note that the goal of 100 percent online education is not possible, as many career and technical education (CTE) programs require hands-on practice and cannot be transitioned to completely online or virtual experiences.

These data are based on an analysis of the most recently available data from the U.S. Department of Education to determine how pervasive distance education was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nationally, 14 percent of pubic community college students were studying exclusively online in fall 2018. Only one state (North Dakota) had more than half of its fall 2018 students enrolled exclusively in distance education, and another two states (Vermont and Alaska) had more than 25 percent studying exclusively through distance education.

At the institutional level, only 13 colleges had half or more of their students studying exclusively online, while 13 percent had one-quarter or more of their students exclusively online. 

However, over one-third (34.9 percent) of public community college students were studying through distance education in fall 2018. Two states (Alaska and North Dakota) had more than 70 percent of their fall 2018 enrollment taking at least one course through distance education. Another 17 states had more the 40 percent of their students taking at least one distance education course.

Five states (Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island) had fewer than one-fourth of their students taking at least one distance education course. The colleges in these states will experience greater challenges in shifting their enrollment to online/remote delivery.

For more information, contact Kent Phillippe.

About the Author

Kent Phillippe
Kent Phillippe is vice president for research and student success at the American Association of Community Colleges.
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