Noncredit Distance Education: Demystifying the Myth

Cheryl Aschenbach, ASCCC Executive Committee

Noncredit education is gaining recognition in the California Community College System as more colleges understand laws and regulations around the development and use of noncredit curriculum. Equalized funding for career development and college preparation (CDCP) noncredit courses means more colleges can choose to offer noncredit curriculum in situations where it is best for students or for a program without sacrificing apportionment funding.

The choice between offering what is best for students or a program and offering what is most cost advantageous for a college is one reason that very little noncredit distance education (DE) exists in the California Community College System. According to the CCC Chancellor’s Office Datamart, only 112 noncredit DE FTES were earned system-wide in 2016-2017, in contrast to 158,294 credit DE FTES. While distance education comprised 14% of all credit FTES earned over this period, far less than 1% of all noncredit FTES earned were in distance education. Further, noncredit interactive distance education, or internet-based DE, was less than 0.001% of all system-wide FTES, further proof that noncredit distance education is severely underutilized.

Most administrators and faculty involved with noncredit instruction believe that noncredit distance education is not cost advantageous and cannot be considered for instructional delivery. This belief stops conversations about noncredit DE quickly because it is deemed too expensive, especially when compared with CDCP noncredit taught live in person and with credit distance education.  However, this common belief may be more reflective of a long-perpetuated myth than of reality.

One must first consider whether distance education by law and by regulation is allowed to include noncredit instruction. Code of Federal Regulations Title 34, Education §602 defines distance education as “education that uses one or more of the technologies listed … to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously.” In the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges’ Guide to Evaluating and Improving Institutions from May 2017, distance education is defined “for the purpose of accreditation review as a formal interaction which uses one or more technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and which support regular and substantive interaction between the student and the instructor.” Neither of these definitions includes any mention of limiting distance education to credit instruction only.

If one is still hesitant to consider the potential for noncredit distance education courses in the absence of any limitations on DE as credit-only, the Program and Course Approval Handbook (PCAH) provides the permissive justification one might need: “Both credit and noncredit courses may be offered through distance education” (53). The PCAH further notes that “noncredit courses may be offered via distance education” (113) pursuant to Title 5 sections 55200-55205 and 58003.1(f)(2). Based on federal regulations, Title 5, and PCAH guidance regarding distance education, any and all sections of distance education are subject to the same expectations for regular and substantive contact between an instructor and students and the same requirement for separate approval of distance education sections through local curriculum approval processes; this standard applies to both credit and noncredit, as both may clearly be offered through distance education.

Apportionment for noncredit courses is based on total hours of student attendance rather than census. As noted in the CCC Chancellor’s Office 2008 Distance Education guidelines, “Contact hours of enrollment in noncredit courses, except for noncredit courses using the Alternative attendance accounting procedure described in subdivision (f)(2) of section 58003.1, shall be based upon the count of students present at each course meeting” (16). The Distance Education Guidelines explain, consistent with Title 5 §58003.1(f)(2), that “For purposes of determining weekly student contact hours, the procedure consists of adding together the total hours of instruction or programming, plus any additional ‘regular effective contact’ as described in section 55204, plus any outside-of-class work noted in the course outline of record and approved by the curriculum committee, and then dividing that sum by 54.” The calculation requires three elements, two of which are not usually defined for noncredit and which are then overlooked when estimating potential FTES generation in a noncredit DE course: regular effective contact and outside-of-class work.

As Dr. LeBaron Woodyard, Dean of Educational Programs and Professional Development at the CCC Chancellor’s Office, explained at the 2018 Curriculum Institute, faculty and administrators need to look more closely at the factors used to calculate apportionment for noncredit distance education courses using the required calculation for independent study (Student Attendance Accounting Manual, p. 3.13). While noncredit may not seem to have values for two of the three elements, and capturing positive attendance in an online class may seem impossible, the independent study attendance calculation used for noncredit distance education provides solutions.

Chapter 3 of the Student Attendance Accounting Manual provides information and examples for computing weekly student contact hours (WSCH) and FTES for a noncredit distance education course. This formula involves two steps: computing the WSCH and then computing FTES. The WSCH factor is calculated using the following three elements:

a)    “The total number of hours of instruction or programming to be received by students in the class.”  This number should be the total hours noted on most existing noncredit course outlines.

b)    “The number of hours expected for any outside-of-class work (as noted in the approved class outline).” These hours are not usually included on a noncredit course outline because of the commonly held belief that homework cannot be assigned in a noncredit course, but this belief is inaccurate. The key is that this information must be captured on a course outline of record and often is not for noncredit courses. A college could choose to note this information, though, particularly on DE addendums for noncredit courses.

c)     “Any instructor contact as defined by Title 5 §55376(b).” This element includes regular effective or regular and substantive contact and may include meetings with students, face-to-face course orientations, proctored assignments with an instructor rather than a proctor, and more, as long as these hours are defined and totals noted on the course outline or a DE addendum.

Looking at these three elements and considering that two often are computed using values of zero (0) because they are not included on a course outline or are not considered valid for noncredit, one can start to see how the results can look more advantageous, and the possibilities are worth calculating a little further.

Once total hours are calculated, they are divided by 54 to produce the WSCH factor. The number 54 is used because it equates to a unit of credit similar to that used in credit DE. Once the WSCH factor is computed, the FTES must be computed. At this point, one must again think differently about noncredit DE than face-to-face noncredit, especially since FTES for noncredit courses are usually calculated using positive hours. For noncredit DE, FTES are calculated by capturing enrollment at first and second census. First census is counted at 20%, or 1/5 of the class, and second census is counted at 60%, or 3/5, of the class. To calculate FTES at first census, one needs to multiply the WSCH factor as outlined above by the number of students enrolled at the 20% point of a class and then by a standard calculation factor of 17.5. This formula results in the total student contact hours at first census. The calculation must be done again using the number of students enrolled at second census. The student contact hours from first and second census should then be averaged and divided by 525 to determine the total number of FTES for the course.

Taking into consideration the different calculation for FTES used for noncredit DE versus regular noncredit courses and then considering the additional elements of outside study and contact with an instructor as factors in the total number of hours equation, noncredit distance education begins to look more inviting financially. For those interested in examples of the calculation, they are provided on page 3.13 of the Student Attendance Accounting Manual[1]. Dr. Woodyard will also be explaining the calculation at a future Noncredit First Friday Webinar, a joint effort of the CCC Chancellor’s Office, Association of Community and Continuing Education, and ASCCC.


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