Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Offsite and Online

This interview with Christine Chairsell, the Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs at Portland Community College (OR), piqued my curiosity.  It’s about the relationship between off-campus instructional sites or centers, and online education.  

In other settings, I’ve seen online enrollments chip away at evening and weekend programs.  The working adults who poured into evening programs in the 90’s have largely moved online, where the convenience of not having to drive to and from campus after work makes a real difference.  Given that offsite locations are often justified in terms of physical distance, and that online education is often called “distance” education because it defeats the barrier of physical distance, I’d expect to see online instruction chip away at the underpinnings of offsite locations.

But generally, that doesn’t seem to be happening.  

Some of that seems to stem from programs in which physical presence matters.  In a CNA training course, for instance, students use mannikins to learn how to move patients, take blood pressure, and the like; it’s hard to duplicate that kind of experience online.  Culinary programs require actual kitchen experience.  As Chairsell notes, you don’t want a mechanic who has never lifted a wrench.  For many vocational programs, online instruction is still of only limited relevance.

But the staying power of onsite instruction isn’t limited to facility-specific programs.  And that’s where I’d like to supplement Chairsell’s thoughts, and get some thoughts from my wise and worldly readers.

In many cases, community colleges set up sites specifically to reach students who otherwise might not have an easily (or realistically) available option.  Many of those students are first-generation, and most of them work significant numbers of hours per week for pay.  We know from the literature that one of the strongest predictors of success for first-generation students is the presence or absence of a personal relationship with someone at the college.  Small sites lend themselves to that in a way that online instruction generally doesn’t.

The students may not know the literature, but they know that personal relationships matter.  Having people staffing those centers who are genuinely welcoming and supportive makes a difference.

Chairsell refers to hybrid instruction as an increasingly popular option, and I agree.  But I wonder if centers could take it to the next level.  Susanna Williams and I did a think piece last March trying to envision what that might look like: the short version is that centers provide human connection and social support even while students do online work.  

Wise and worldly readers, what kind of relationships have you seen between online instruction and offsite locations?  Can they support each other?

I haven't noticed any change in our offsite programs. Having taught an offsite class for non-degree students, I don't think most of the students I encountered wanted the online format, and I honestly think there would have been a lower success rate (stats on completion rates in online vs. in-person classes would support that).

Yes, online classes are convenient...but convenience is only a small part of the educational experience. I may get some negative reactions for saying this, but as a faculty member of the natural sciences, I don't see online education being of equal value to a traditional in-person class. How can you study a hands-on discipline without touching the equipment? While my department offers a few hybrid courses where the lab component is in-person and the lecture component is online, I am still skeptical since good science lectures involve demos, props, and analyzing preconceptions about the world by being forced by make predictions WITHOUT looking up what will happen.
In my experience the growth in popularity of online education has definitely impacted classroom enrollment - most significantly at smaller, offsite or regional campuses and especially for programs that are "easily" completed in an online format.

With that said, as students are navigating the plethora of online education options, some institutions are recognizing the appeal and benefit that a physical campus location can have for online learners. It can provide access to support resources (e.g., tutoring, financial aid, student activities) and a tangible tie to the institution that can provide comfort and assurance for the student. As a result, institutions that have offsite locations and who embrace online learning can potentially stand out from the ever growing crowd of online learning purveyors.
For 8 years I ran a basketful of satellite campuses for a state non-trad public university. Maryland seems small but with traffic what looks like 30 miles can be 2+hours away. We had continual gains in enrollment. Students came one night a week for 8 weeks. So an accelerated format to appeal to the adult learner. The rest of the coursework was online. We did undergrad and grad this way. Very popular for those who didn't want an entirely online experience. Also for the post 9/11 vets. We offered classes and a full range of student support services and computer labs and lounges. Pretty successful in my book.
I see this topic as a variation on "all politics are local". For example, Portland CC serves a large city (both in geography and population) plus the four counties that adjoin its home county. It has 4 campuses and 8 centers according to its web site, but their map suggests they mostly serve the sprawling metro area. (None appear to be centered in the rural counties.) More importantly, they offer "resident" fees to everyone in Oregon AND all adjacent states. Their distance learning market includes kids who live anywhere in California and Nevada who might be thinking about going to one of the Oregon universities, in addition to kids and adults in rural counties.

My college also has the same fees for anyone living in our state, but we are not the largest CC or the largest city in the state. We have a single campus with small facilities centered in adjoining rural counties in our district. Those centers offer some classes, including adult ed, but also have tutoring and facilities that serve distance learning students. Network access in rural areas is not good, and some classes cannot be taken on your phone.

Our night enrollment is down a lot for classes that students perceive as content delivery without much need for f2f learning. (You can see that in our parking lots, where there is no longer a traffic jam at 5:30.) Much easier to just drive home. It is up or stable for classes that we do not offer on line or only in hybrid form, and not down quite so much for classes where students perceive that they need more personal attention than is possible on line. (I am thinking, in particular, of students who fail college algebra on line.)

We don't even try to do labs on line, but I can see how it could work based on the kinds of exercises we have them do on line for prelab preparation (learning to read a ruler -- seriously -- and a graduated cylinder or analyze sample data). One thing I think they would miss out on is the teamwork needed in most of our labs and the real-time presentation of their results to other groups in the lab.
The question of online vs. satellite campus strikes me as another example of how colleges don't serve a monolithic audience. Particularly at community colleges, students come with a broad variety of history and goals. A satellite center works for some students, online for another, depending on those two factors (as well as their current schedule).

In our case, we see two big groups of "online" students. One group is taking a program structured with online theory classes, and on-site practicums. Those tend to be working students seeking a formal or higher credential, and it's been a huge success for those students. The other group is taking face-to-face and online together, often in a 2/3 to 1/3 mix, in a variety of programs.

The satellite campus students are a different audience entirely: often place bound, or basic skills students, first-gen students, often lower SES... much like the audience you describe above.

To your question: the satellite-center-for-online model is one I've seen being built out by schools in developing countries. Often it's infrastructure-driven: connectivity and stable power are limited to certain places, and students simply don't have computers and connections at home. Security is also a factor, both for the facility and for students, so one well-equipped/secure lab beats out a laptop program. I haven't seen a tremendous amount of research on effectiveness, or even sustainability of the model.

I would readily suggest that the type of staff/faculty on the site would be critical. Are they an instructor in the program, or perhaps in a basic skill like writing or math? Or are they a security guard/front desk person primarily tasked with keeping the lights on. Another factor may be the eventual connection to the main campus, and to a pathway to a full degree. That may particular to our context, but I know it's something we struggle with.

It seems like a model that, properly structured, could be quite successful at both creating and maintaining that personal relationship and providing access (technical and otherwise) to a wider audience. But I think the discussion starts (as maybe all should) on what students in a particular area need in terms of instruction and support services.

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