(Photo courtesy of EdSource)

It’s been a rocky year for California’s first online community college since it first enrolled students.

But with a change in leadership, Calbright College is adjusting and learning from past mistakes by focusing on hiring more faculty, building a better relationship with the other 115 community colleges across the state and fixing the student experience.

“At Calbright, our team of faculty, staff and administrators are continuing our work and making critical adjustments around student experience,” Calbright President Ajita Menon said during a Board of Trustees meeting Monday (Nov. 16), as the board discussed the college’s strategic vision. “There’s been a continuous process since I started to really look at and analyze what was happening in the student experience.”

Menon, who was selected in July as Calbright’s president, said during the meeting they aren’t just analyzing what happens to students in the three program pathways but making changes along the way.

Many of the changes the college has made address some criticisms that surfaced earlier this year. The college nearly faced elimination by the state Legislature over the summer, but survived. However, the state did cut $5 million in ongoing funds, down from $20 million a year.

By the numbers

As of Oct. 31, the college had 468 students enrolled, with 19 students completing one or more programs for a total of 22 certificates.

The largest group of certificates — 11 of them — were awarded in informational technology, nine in cybersecurity and two in medical coding.

Two students completed both the information technology and cybersecurity programs. The college enrolled its first students on Oct. 1, 2019.

Calbright, which is free to students, is different from other public community colleges in that students can start and finish each program on their own time and at their own pace. The college offers competency-based education, which assesses students based on the skills they learned and not the amount of time spent in a class.

Entry-level course

One change Calbright officials made was to its entry-level course students were required to take before entering the classes for the three main programs. Calbright spokesman Taylor Huckaby, in an interview with EdSource, said the college was encouraged to change the entry-level course based on feedback they received from students and online consultants, saying the class took too long to complete and deterred them from achieving a certificate.

The entry-level course was designed to help students master math, reading and writing before focusing on their main programs in information technology, cybersecurity or medical coding. Now mastering those skills happens alongside the core courses, Huckaby said.

In January, the class will change again by including a job readiness component, he said. Students “will have many opportunities to attend webinars and ask-me-anything sessions with employers and industry experts to help them prepare for a job in their field of study,” said Huckaby.

Calbright was envisioned as a free, online job training alternative to pricey for-profit programs. After it was first proposed, state officials specifically identified approximately 8 million “stranded workers” between 26 and 34, who were seeking credentials and training.

And much of Calbright’s nearly 500-person student body falls within that target group. According to statistics from the college, nearly 65% of Calbright students have no degree, more than half are between 25 and 39 and just over half are men.

But how the college plans to connect these students with employers has changed over the past year. One thing college officials learned was that the approach to developing curriculum for specific jobs in specific industries doesn’t work “in a post-COVID” reality, Huckaby said.

Working directly with employers wasn’t happening quickly enough or on a large enough scale to benefit hundreds of students immediately, Huckaby said. Instead, the college aims to focus on building skills like digital literacy needed in retail and the gig economy sectors, which include companies that employ contract workers or freelancers like Instacart, Lyft, Uber and Etsy.

The college is meeting with workforce development boards in San Bernardino and increasing its outreach to the Inland Empire and Central Valley regions of the state to fix the gap connecting employers to potential employees, Huckaby said. (The college contracted with a marketing research firm, Sensis, to work with hiring managers and potential students to examine what regions needed the most help and could benefit from Calbright’s programs.)

Calbright is also reshaping its relationship with the other community colleges and wants to be viewed more as their partner.

The college, for example, was criticized for not employing full-time instructors. So far, they have hired eight and recognized the newly-created Calbright Faculty Association, which is connected to the California Faculty Association — the union representing college and university faculty across the state.

Much of the opposition to the college’s creation came from within the community college system and from its faculty union. Critics argued that Calbright duplicated what the other 115 colleges offered, and some said funding should be directed to online programming at those institutions.

But Menon has said she wants Calbright to be an innovation and research machine for the other colleges.

There is a difference between conventional online education, which the other community colleges have offered and continue to improve, and the online competency-based education (CBE) Calbright is building, Menon said Monday.

“We are aiming and working toward designing the best in class quality (competency-based education) work,” she said. “The training and focus on adult learners are all quite new and distinctive.”

Faculty and staff training

Calbright faculty and staff are undergoing training with the Competency-Based Education Network, a national consortium of colleges and states that are developing new learning models that could be shared with other community colleges across the state.

Despite these changes, Calbright officials know that it will take time and improvement before it can compete with many of the larger nonprofit and for-profit online institutions that offer competency-based education and certificates.

Board President Tom Epstein, who also serves as president of the board of California Community Colleges, said Monday that there have been some “unrealistic expectations” heaped onto the college. “Our critics don’t recognize this is a startup,” he said. “We were given a seven-year startup period for a reason.”

But the college recognizes, especially going into a tough budget year, that they can’t take risks, and they have to be clear about what value they offer to the state and the community college system, Huckaby said.

“We’re carefully moving forward with determination,” he said. “The better data we can give out to the rest of the system … the more valuable this system will be.”

Story originally published by EdSource.