Distance Education Provides Additional Tool for Advancing Master Plan’s Goals. Fifty years ago, California adopted the Master Plan for Higher Education, a framework document designed to promote universal access for students and cost–effective coordination among the state’s colleges and universities. At the time, postsecondary education generally required students to travel to a campus for in–person classes with an instructor. Today, many students have another option: using technology (primarily the internet) to access instruction wherever they are. The California Community Colleges (CCC) are the largest provider of distance education among the state’s public higher education segments, with the California State University (CSU) also offering a considerable amount of instruction using this delivery method. (Currently, the University of California [UC] system’s use of the medium is limited, though UC is planning a pilot project that could eventually result in a much more extensive distance–education program.)
Distance education can offer a number of potential benefits to students, faculty, and the state—advantages consistent with the core principles of access and efficiency contained in the Master Plan. For example, distance education can:
- Make undergraduate and graduate coursework more accessible to students who otherwise might not be able to enroll due to restrictive personal or professional obligations.
- Provide opportunities for students attending one campus to find and get credit for courses at other campuses (thereby potentially speeding their graduation).
- Allow campuses to increase instruction and enrollment without a commensurate need for additional physical infrastructure (such as classrooms and parking structures).
- Make possible statewide collaborations, including “virtual” academic departments that are taught by faculty from more than one campus.
Recent research suggests that, on average, postsecondary students who complete distance–education courses learn at least as much as those taking the same courses solely via in–person instruction. Yet, research also reveals a gap in retention rates between students in distance education and face–to–face classes, and many faculty (particularly in the state’s research universities) remain skeptical of the value and legitimacy of the delivery method.
LAO Recommendations. While distance education is not—and is not intended to be—suitable for everyone (students as well as faculty), we find that it offers an important alternative means of providing instruction that can complement existing formats and expand options for the state’s students and segments. In order to take fuller advantage of this potential, we believe that the Legislature should guide a clearer statewide vision that specifies data which the segments should collect and report on distance–education students, and which clarifies expectations concerning intercampus collaborations and other partnerships. To that end, we make a number of recommendations. These include:
- Adopting a standard definition of distance education for UC, CSU, and CCC, and requiring the segments to report periodically on student enrollment and performance in distance–education coursework.
- Establishing competitive statewide grants to develop a repository of online curricula that would be made available to faculty throughout the state.
- Requiring that reviews of proposals for new academic programs evaluate whether shared distance–education programs would be a better alternative.
- Directing the Chancellor’s Offices of CSU and CCC to study the feasibility of developing online degree–completion programs for persons who started college but never obtained a degree.
- Creating a task force to pursue a public–private partnership with Western Governors University, a Utah–based nonprofit online university of which California is already a member.
Taken together, we believe that these recommendations would help the state make use of distance education in a more effective and coordinated way, thereby enhancing residents’ access to a high–quality and cost–efficient higher education.
The full report is at http://www.lao.ca.gov/reports/2010/edu/distance_ed/distance_ed_102510.pdf
A video summary is at: