An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure: Getting Ahead of the Enrollment Chase in Distance Education

February
2006
Pat James Hanz, Chair

It is long past the time to make sure that processes and policies that determine how Distance Education (DE) is conducted at your college are effective and well established. While such processes and policies should have been in place when colleges began using de, it is apparent that they often are not and the need for such quality assurances is ever-increasing. In the last two years we have seen a significant drop in enrollments in the California Community College system. Reasons for the decline range from unemployment being down to per unit fees being up, with just about everything imaginable in between. The variables that are causing the current decline are numerous and very difficult to sort out. What is clear is that students are enrolling in DE courses in large numbers. It is likely that gas prices and tight work schedules encourage more students to enroll in DE courses in times like these, but whatever the reason college administrators are beginning to see DE waitlists as the "golden ticket" to making their enrollment caps.

In recent encounters with faculty across the state, we have heard stories of administrators who recruit part-time faculty for DE courses without consultation with full-time discipline faculty. One story related by a fulltime faculty member, was about being assigned to teach only DE courses when she really wanted to be in the regular classroom. While it is true that administration has the right of assignment, and they carry the heavy burden of managing enrollment and seeing to it that base funding is adequate to meet the needs of growing energy and insurance bills, the faculty are accountable for ensuring that quality content is taught by qualified instructors who can ensure student success.

In the current economic environment, it is more important than ever that we all review the eleven items that are considered "academic and professional matters". It is past time for local senates to ensure that processes are defined regarding how courses become approved for distance education offering, and develop standards for how courses are presented and how faculty become ready to function in the rigorous world of successful online instruction.

There are many ways that faculty in a variety of colleges are maintaining oversight of standards for teaching and the offering of DE programs. At the Fall Plenary Session the ASCCC Technology Committee hosted a session titled, "Who's in Charge?" We asked participants to describe how DE programs were managed on their campuses. As would be expected, a wide variety of processes exist, and we were encouraged by the innovation many of our colleagues have exercised in setting up systems that work between senates and administrations to make distance education programs valuable for students and the college. ensuring quality requires attention to a variety of issues, that, when considered carefully, will ensure quality DE exists at your college. Attention to these matters will also give you a firm ground to stand on when confronted by administrative eagerness to solve low enrollment problems with increases in DE course offerings.

Curriculum Approval for Distance Education

Title 5 regulations require curriculum processes to include separate approval when courses are offered at a distance. those regulations also mandate that regular effective instructor/student contact must be ensured in those courses and clarify that "regular effective contact" is an academic and professional matter, and therefore a responsibility of the local academic senate. Almost all of the college representatives who participated in our session knew that a separate approval process must exist for DE courses (although the criteria for when a course becomes a distance education course was a little murky for some). This article is for anyone interested in securing quality DE programs at their school, regardless of how they define a DE course.

All of us agreed that quality starts with good curriculum approval processes that include inquiry regarding how contact between the instructor and student is going to take place in the course. methods of instruction are also asked to be described in detail, as are assurances that accessibility requirements are being met. Title 5 also allows for curriculum committees to recommend class size based on educational effectiveness. If your committee does not exercise this recommendation, perhaps it's time to start. DE courses that have 50 or more students enrolled in them may look like fte generators at first blush, but student success rates go down in these situations and regular effective contact becomes very difficult to maintain. consider including your faculty bargaining agent in discussions of class size and load issues for DE.

On the flip side, some people mentioned DE addenda processes consisting of check lists that became rubber stamps of approval for anything that anyone brought in. It is easy to become complacent when things are going well, that is, when we have plenty of funding and there is no desperation to increase fte. now is not the time to relax our standards regarding the separate approval process. If a faculty member initiating a DE course cannot make it clear to his or her colleagues just how that course can be translated for implementation at a distance, then it ought not to be offered that way! curriculum committee members must ask hard questions and demand thorough answers, student success depends on it. Guaranteeing curriculum integrity is particularly important for transfer classes.

Decision Making Committees Regarding Technology

In the breakout session we found another component of quality program building was the establishment of shared governance committees that addressed DE and educational technology issues expressly, made up of faculty, administrators, and staff who have experience in the area. Whether the committee that deals with DE and technology issues on your campus is a subcommittee of the curriculum committee or a stand alone group that makes decisions about educational technology in general, there should be some qualified group of individuals who recommend policy and standards for the whole college and/or district. Policies that regulate distance education programs at your college should be faculty driven.

Instructor Preparedness for Distance Education and Peer Observation

Title 5 regulations set the minimum qualifications for DE instructors at, simply that, our minimum qualifications for the discipline. The regulations are the minimum-senates can elect to set the bar higher. Readiness standards are being established in many colleges. (More information on this topic can be obtained at the 2006 Spring Plenary Session in April.) In addition, faculty can and should lobby for training resources to facilitate the use of good DE teaching methodologies.

When it comes to quality instruction, who on your campus knows how to conduct a peer observation of a DE course? This process, too, should be developed with the clear understanding that even though the objectives and content of the course remain the same, the methods of instruction are significantly changed and must be understood and evaluated correctly. Regular effective contact between the instructor and students must be considered and observed. Policies for tenure and evaluation are developed in consultation with the local bargaining agent and that consultation should extend to cover distance education as well.

Departmental or Discipline Specific Standards

Evaluation of DE courses is sticky business. Tenured faculty are only evaluated every three years and many colleges allow instructors to choose which courses are evaluated. getting into an online course is not as easy as walking through a doorway into a classroom. How can we be sure that instructors are even available to students at all? If the evaluation process doesn't get to everyone, the department or discipline leaders in a college generally do. Who makes sure the course outline of record is being followed, that new instructors get copies of them, and that they follow syllabus preparation guidelines? At many colleges it is the department chair that has that responsibility, and if your college has department chairs, you're in luck! Departments can and should begin to decide what de courses will be like in their own areas.

We are beginning to see the establishment of departmental guidelines for DE that take into consideration the particular methodologies that are important in specific situations. This idea is one that's time had definitely come!

Intellectual Property Rights

Don't wonder about why this topic is in a discussion about quality instruction. Jumping to the conclusion that recycled, purchased, and/or publisher produced courses may fill gaps and accommodate waiting students, doesn't take much of an effort! If you own your course or you have the right of first refusal when administration wants to offer extra sections, then you have some control of how courses are used and developed. Again, it's time to bring the bargaining agent into the picture to help ensure educational effectiveness!

Offer to Help

If your administration is eyeing DE as the means to increasing enrollment, offer to help. Suggest to administrators processes for how your programs can be improved and even increased effectively, if good quality processes are in place and followed. The majority of instructional administrators appreciate the organization and planning that we are so good at providing. Get ahead of the game and get your plans and policies in order! they will work for you and benefit students in the long run. DE provides students with access to education they otherwise may not have been able to get. It's not for everyone, but if done correctly can be a fantastic experience for student and instructor alike. Start planning for quality today.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.