Post-pandemic, will community college students keep choosing online instruction?

Credit: Louis Freedberg

Laney College’s central courtyard is mostly deserted, even as colleges reopen for in-person classes, with many students opting for online classes.

In contrast to almost every other educational institution in California, where almost all students are now fully personal again, California’s community colleges offer a dramatic — and worrying — contrast.

In addition to a drop in registrations the majority of the students In many, if not most, of the state’s community colleges that have decided to return to school, they prefer to learn remotely, or at least in a hybrid format.

For these students, who are typically older, working, and often parents — or even grandparents — distance learning is the only way they can be in college. Extensive research shows that for many of them, the lack of face-to-face interaction reduces the likelihood of success.

At three colleges I recently attended in the Oakland area, all part of the Peralta Community College District, students’ changing tastes were evident. They were practically deserted.

At Laney College in Oakland, a large banner in the courtyard read “Laney Students: The Heart and Soul of the Campus” alongside glowing photos of student activities, many of which are now suspended.

The benches under the banner were empty. It was difficult to find a student anywhere in the places you would normally meet them, apart from the occasional student taking laboratory courses or others who required face-to-face tuition.

On a recent Monday, high in the Oakland hills in front of the state-of-the-art Barbara Lee Science and Allied Health building, Merritt College’s main parking lot was almost empty.

The library, which is only open Tuesdays through Thursdays, has been locked with a large retractable security screen, an unnerving sight on any college campus.

Merritt College President David Johnson said his college expects 50% of courses to be taught in person and 50% remotely this semester — a big jump from the fall when most courses were still online, as they were throughout the college system.

But it didn’t work out like that. Merritt faculty was ready to come back, but many more students were signing up for online courses, forcing the college to adapt to their preferences. According to Johnson, about two-thirds of courses will be offered remotely this semester. In the fall, college leaders hope at least half of the classes will be offered in person, but it’s not yet clear if that will happen.

“In terms of success, I think it’s better for students to be on campus, but if they don’t come, the question is what comes next,” said Tom Renbarger, physics professor and president of the Academic Senate colleges.

What’s happening is that students who in the past had no choice but to come to campus have received a full dose of distance learning — and are now eagerly embracing it as their preferred option.

Distance learning is now the choice of a growing number of community college students, who tend to be older, working, and often parents — or even grandparents.

That’s definitely the case for Leesa Hogan, a Merritt sophomore trying to get a degree in child development and then transferring to the California State University campus. She is one of two student members of the Board of the district of Peralta.

She is 44 years old and is actually a grandmother who has a full-time job in the Oakland School District Attendance Office. For them, participating in distance learning is the only way to be at university. “If I hadn’t had the opportunity to take classes at home, I wouldn’t have been able to attend at all,” she said.

Like Hogan, Noa Meister, a 22-year-old sophomore at Berkeley City College, part of the four-college district of Peralta, has embraced online classes. Convenience trumps everything else, she said.

“It’s really nice to have personal autonomy over my schedule,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to take a break when I want and not be in one place at a certain time and be stuck there all day.”

Meister, who lives in a student co-operative next to the UC Berkeley campus, says there’s no compelling reason to go to City College’s campus, which is housed in a building in downtown Berkeley. Before the pandemic, she said, “There was always something going on, with clubs, events and college days.” Now, she said, “it’s definitely deserted.”

She goes to the library from time to time. But when she went there recently, “I was the first person there,” she said. “And I was one of three students when I left.”

But how she and other students who choose the online option will fare in the end remains to be seen. “Online coursework generally results in poorer student performance than in-person coursework,” a recent Review of the Brookings Institution closed.

A Pre-pandemic study at California Community Colleges showed that students who took online courses were less likely to complete them or get lower grades than students who took the exact same courses in person.

It is probably better that the students are independent of the type of teaching in college. However, students studying remotely need great discipline to continue their studies. They may not have a quiet place to study, a reliable internet connection, or the personal connections that bind them firmly to a campus culture.

46-year-old Sheressa Jackson has re-enrolled with Merritt, this time for distance learning. However, she acknowledges that online classes aren’t for everyone. “It’s an adjustment,” said Jackson, who is from Oakland and now lives in the Central Valley — and works full-time. “I’ve done it in person, I’ve done it online, and online takes more effort. You need to set those blocks of time, especially when you’re working. You must be organized. You have to be a self-starter.”

The big question is whether this major shift to distance learning, accelerated by a strong job market that is providing more students with full-time and higher-paying jobs, is sustainable.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of the 116 community college system, believes it is. “I don’t see our students ever going back to the one-size-fits-all approach that they’re used to at our colleges,” he said.

The answer can’t just be offering more online instruction, says Jennifer Shanoski, a chemistry professor at Merritt and full-time president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers, which represents nearly 1,000 faculty members.

In order to keep students engaged, online instruction needs to be complemented by in-person services, she says. This could include assigning students a mentor to check in with them weekly, offering online or drop-in counseling and tutoring services, and more comprehensive childcare.

Some universities are already moving in this direction. But, Oakley said, “that’s going to really force us to accelerate those innovations,” especially when it comes to offering hybrid instruction at varying scales. “The trends we see are not going to suddenly reverse.”

How well community colleges, the foundation of California’s famed higher education system, respond will have far-reaching implications for millions of students – and for the future of the state.

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Louis Freedberg, former CEO of EdSource, is a veteran California education reporter and analyst.

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