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Commentary: The Time Is Right to Back Online College

As the coronavirus social isolation net tightens, college professors and students face an unprecedented challenge. How do they continue teaching and learning when school buildings have closed?

Once seen as a less desirable alternative if the “real thing” wasn’t convenient, online education is now the only option. Both the public and private sectors have been trying to make it work — with mixed results — for more than a decade.  

Nevertheless, this crisis creates an opportunity for disruptive innovation. The future of learning itself may be determined by the results of this experiment. One expert called the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a “black swan moment” for higher education.  

While some institutions have succeeded with online instruction, none has offered such a wide scope of classes to a population this large so quickly. College administrators and faculty are becoming students themselves as they learn how to use online education systems on the fly.

California must seize this opportunity to become a pioneer in the field for reasons beyond the COVID-19 emergency. This commentary focuses on community colleges, but applies to the state’s universities as well.

Californians strongly support public higher education, but the recent defeat of Proposition 13, the school bond measure, indicates that voters are becoming more skeptical of investing in brick-and-mortar facilities. 

Most of California’s community college students are low-income. Many have difficulty affording tuition, housing, transportation, parking and child care associated with attending school. Their work obligations frequently interfere with in-person classes.

Online courses that enable students to receive instruction and participate in class discussions at a variety of times fit much better into their busy, complicated lives. Moreover, as the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates, enhancing online education is essential to ensuring continuity of education when disaster strikes. 

That said, online instruction is not a panacea. 

Contact with faculty, counselors and fellow students is a critical part of the learning experience. Online education must ensure that personal interaction is built into the curriculum and support services. Some courses require in-person training, such as science labs, nursing, dental hygiene and auto mechanics.

Too many students lack reliable broadband and computer access. Students with disabilities face additional barriers. To ensure equity, those issues must be addressed in an online education environment. 

California Community Colleges launched an online education initiative in 2014. Half of the state’s 114 traditional colleges participate in the California Virtual Campus, where students can enroll in a wide variety of courses. Recent state budgets wisely allocated significant new funding to the project to better meet the expanding demand for online classes. 

As a result, more classes are being offered, and more professors are learning to teach in an online environment. Students from colleges across the state can apply the credits toward a degree at their home institution.

Nonetheless, the system is not sufficiently mature enough to handle the current demand for online courses. Even before the coronavirus crisis, for-profit colleges and out-of-state nonprofits aggressively entered California’s online education market, with higher costs and less accountability than state public institutions. 

In 2018, the California Legislature funded the launch of a completely online college designed to provide job skills for working adults unable to attend a brick-and-mortar institution. The startup college, called Calbright, began accepting students last October. 

With its unique mandate, Calbright is testing curriculum, course delivery and support service models that can be shared with other California community colleges and universities. It could be a valuable asset in the development of a comprehensive online education system for the state.

California Community Colleges are working urgently to meet the current challenge. They are building the online education plane while it flies.

Colleges will learn much from this experience. With sufficient support from the state and foundations, they can improve online options for students in normal circumstances and assure continuity of instruction when a crisis strikes again.  

Investing now in an innovative online education strategy can transform the black swan into a soaring California Condor.

This commentary first appeared in CalMatters. Tom Epstein is president of the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges and president of the Board of Trustees of Calbright College. He can be reached at

CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.