In the fast-moving world of online learning, the Foothill-DeAnza Community College District has been tapped to help pave the way for an "education ecosystem" that aims to integrate all 112 of California's community colleges.
The initiative is part of Gov. Jerry Brown's push to expand online education as a way to boost access, degree completion and transfer to four-year universities for hundreds of thousands of students, including many turned away from community colleges during recession-era budget cuts.
Under the envisioned system, a student will be able to accrue credit through online courses at any number of different colleges. Regardless of the source of a class, the student's record will be kept in a single file, avoiding the need to petition for transfer credit.
A statewide portal for the classes will be operational by June 2015, with participation by individual community colleges specified as voluntary, according to a district statement.
Many students already take online classes from multiple community colleges but this will "move the bureaucracy to the back room," said Joe Moreau, Foothill-DeAnza's vice-chancellor for technology.
If a Foothill student is augmenting with a few online courses from College of San Mateo, "in the past we haven't made it very easy for them to transfer those courses back to Foothill" or to prove they're taking enough units to qualify for things like financial aid, Moreau said.
"This will make the records student-centric rather than institution-centric and will automate and simplify the process of transfer, qualification for financial aid and things of that sort."
Foothill-De Anza was California's first community college district to offer courses online, and now offers 20 fully online degrees, including AA degrees in economics, history, music technology and psychology and certificates in accounting and graphic and interactive design.
Statewide, more than a quarter of the current 2.4 million community college students are enrolled in at least one online course, and the numbers are growing. More than half of all community colleges offer at least one degree or certificate that can be completed entirely online.
Foothill-De Anza Chancellor Linda Thor, hired in 2009, previously headed Rio Salado College in Tempe, Ariz., an online-learning pioneer where half of the 60,000 students at that time were distance learners.
The new initiative, Thor said, "is a cutting-edge vision for California. I believe it will transform online learning for millions of community college students.
"It represents a unique moment of opportunity in California history to make good on the (state) Master Plan (for Higher Education's) promise of universal access to public higher education while also improving student success," Thor said.
Support for students in areas such as online tutoring is a significant part of the initiative, Moreau said.
His first order of business, he said, will be to convene "stakeholders, especially faculty from throughout the state, to work with us to design programs that have the most significant impact on student success and retention.
"We need to know from people in the field what we've got that works great, what could work better and what's totally missing," Moreau said. "Then we need to specify solutions that are needed so we can go to our commercial and nonprofit partners to figure out what we can realistically introduce given the state of technology and our budget."
Foothill has consulted with the Stanford Graduate School of Education on problems related to student retention and success online, and aims to expand that partnership, Moreau said.
The work is funded by a $16.9 million grant shared by Foothill-De Anza and Butte-Glenn Community College District. The amount was proposed by Brown for increasing community-college online education and competitively awarded through the California Community College Chancellor's Office.