California’s Governor Wants a Fully Online Community College

Many critics of the plan consider it to be redundant and short-sighted


Tania Acosta / Staff Photographer

Student looks through the pages of a good-old book.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a spending proposal of $120 million to open the first fully online public community college in California by fall 2019 as part of the 2018-19 budget plan that he revealed.

While the reactions to this announcement have been varied across the state, they were almost unanimous at Glendale Community College, with faculty, representatives, and students reacting with concern towards this proposal.

The plan is aimed toward working adults with high school diplomas with some or none post-secondary education. The governor argued that providing this resource would allow potential students to attend community college in order to enhance their marketability. Yet many community colleges already offer hybrid and online coursework.

In a June interview, vice president of instructional services, Dr. Michael Ritterbrown said that the college’s president, Dr. David Viar, has met with Anthony Portantino, a state assemblyman and GCC’s representative in the California State Senate, to discuss this issue.

Ritterbrown expressed concern about the plan over it’s “duplicating” nature. “It was not a good idea and it’s redundant,” he said. The vice-president called into question the “2.5 million stranded workers” and the online college’s ability to reach and cater to their demographic.

Ritterbrown pointed out that this specific target audience has little to no higher education and will struggle in an online environment due to the lack of guidance.

The overarching consensus has been that the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office plan to implement a 2019 all-online college despite truly taking faculty concerns into account. In other words, it is a top-down edict.

Glendale Community College Journalism Instructor & Advisor of El Vaquero, school newspaper Rory Cohen also mentioned her concerns in regards to the issue. “I am very concerned with the decision made up in Sacramento,” said Cohen, referring to the proposal of $120 million in spending for the online community college. She added that it was done “without much, or any, input from faculty.” Cohen described coursework that is already online here at Glendale College. “I believe online education has a place, but I think we already have made huge strides at the faculty level to provide online and hybrid coursework where feasible.”

Online instruction is evolving, but it takes time. “Students typically do not succeed in online classes as much as in-person classes,” Ritterbrown suggested, adding that online enrollment has skyrocketed with the pedagogy of online teaching and methodology constantly improving.

It’s worth noting, however, that online learning has been shown to be less effective than traditional learning. A 2015 University of California, Davis study of 217,000 state community college students found that those who took online courses between 2008 and 2012 had lower grades and course completion rates than those who took the same courses in person.

Cohen, for instance, suggested that she prefers “hybrid learning,” a mix of both online classes and shorter face-to-face meetings once or twice a week. She mentioned that it is a better solution instead of purely online learning, as “video chat” may not be a replacement for everyone. “For many people, being near a person and getting to know them, where you can shake their hand, has huge value,” she said. “Some coursework that is put all online can work, but let’s not think of it as a solution for everyone.”

There was already infrastructure and online learning initiatives in community colleges across the state, multiple individuals contacted for this piece said. Some did not want to go on the record. Rather than supplement these programs with the $120 million, some argue, the governor chose a problematic path in building a new program from the ground-up.

Furthermore, with Gavin Newsom expected to win in the gubernatorial race, and his ideology being similar to Brown’s, some worry that the fully online college will go ahead without any debate. There is also a growing fear among faculty that this proposal could be a kiss of death and a potential job-killer since the decision was so sudden and did not give instructors who may not be technologically aligned with online education any time to prepare.

Making sure coursework put online is comparable to in-person coursework is not an endeavor that can be taken on in just a year.

Online classes and this specific California proposal seem to be a subset of a larger issue in automation, whether self-driving cars or self-checkout, millions of jobs are at risk of being lost to machines or computer programs. However, while some jobs can be outsourced or cut, instructors deal in a very subjective relationship with their students that an online platform may not always replicate, some argued in interviews.

Pushing forward a proposal like this “has been tried in 36 states and never worked,” said Ritterbrown. “It has never been demonstrated to increase student success, ever,” he said, arguing that it is based on assumptions. “The takeaway for me is that we need to make sound investment in education at the community college level,” he said.