The headquarters of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) in Versailles, Kentucky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is a summary of an interview I conducted with Dr. Jay Box and Dr. Sandy Cook of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. Dr. Box and Dr. Cook helped create and run one of the leading online higher education programs in the US.
Your statewide system is a pioneer in statewide online higher education. Could you just give us a short history behind it?
In the spring of 2006, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System decided to investigate if there was a different way to deliver online education, primarily to attract new audiences to the colleges. The system was having success with its traditional, semester-based, KCTCS Online: Learn By Term offering, but we were missing an audience.
The result of the study was we proposed developing a new online program delivery system, eventually labeled KCTCS Online: Learn on Demand, in the summer of 2007. It took a few months to select the programs of study, and we focused on general education courses (Writing, Communications, Languages, Math Science, History) which are the foundational courses for all associate and bachelors level degrees, and two technical associate degree programs (business administration and information technology). Originally about 60 semester credit hours of courses were identified for development.
We put an RFP out to the different campuses in our system based on a template we developed. We’d hoped to begin delivery in the Fall of 2008, but a longer-than-expected development phase forced a delay in our delivery timeline. We piloted the first programs in Spring 2009, going fully live in Summer 2009.
We now have about 75 courses, including 20 general education courses and labs. You can get an Associate in Science or an Associate in Art degree, for example. We also have built out three technical programs: business administration, information technology, and nursing; plus we are now offering College Readiness Writing, Math, and Reading (developmental education modules).
education online (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)
Our courses are modular; modules lasting three to five weeks. With certain exceptions, students can start any time, and completion is competency based, so they are not restricted to the traditional semester start dates or full semester courses. When students demonstrate competence in a module, they can then take the next one until they complete all the modules for a particular course.
How do you choose a program that you intend to put online?
We primarily look at the types of programs that lead to graduates that are needed in the workforce in Kentucky. For example, we knew that nursing was needed, so we spent time developing our online nursing program. Programs like that take more time because you have to build in clinical experience and licensure.
We also knew that there was a demand for effective college readiness or developmental courses.
This summer we intend to start rolling out a program in integrated engineering technology for industrial maintenance. We are working with other states and manufacturing companies in designing and creating the curriculum.
What is driven by the individual campuses and what by the centralized administration?
The initial RFPs were based on statewide research to support business and industry. As we move to the next phase, individual colleges are submitting proposals based on the needs in their areas.
How have the results been in terms of reducing costs or increasing the number of students served by the total system?
Enrollments have increased dramatically. This spring 2012 enrollment is triple that of last spring. We feel we have met a need for students who need to begin other than when traditional semesters begin, who can’t necessarily make a class at a certain time, and who might not be able to complete an entire semester course but could complete a module.
Our student satisfaction surveys show that individuals increasingly like the shorter courses. The can see their way to completing a five week course. Other students prefer the longer period of time, so we offer most of our courses in both a modular and full course format.
Students can start any day of the week in their classes, so this created a need to expand student services. A student might need to be able to talk to someone at any time on any day, so we needed to address 24 x 7 x 365 services. We’ve found that we could both expand our services and save money by contracting this out; we provide a consistent support for all students in all courses throughout the state.
What types of materials are typically developed for a course?
We partner with the publishers and other digital content providers.
We want to provide highly interactive and engaging content. Also, because our courses are modular and start-anytime, the content had to be there every day. The publishers had to break down their digital assets to align with KCTCS course competencies and keep their content available in the Learning Management System (LMS) at all times.
We’ve found Pearson and Cengage in particular have given our instructional design people particularly good content.
One example of systematic course design is in college readiness. We wanted to provide an environment where students could progress at an accelerated rate. A College Readiness Virtual Advisor helps students get ready for diagnostics. We identify what students know and give them credit for what they already know, and then only enroll them in what they don’t know. We’re seeing some good success with students getting ready to do college-level work.
What is the process for proposing, designing, creating, and then running an online course?
We have a central support group for instructional design and reviewing all modules.
In the first few years we had grant money to seed development. Those first courses have now paid back the development costs, and we are reinvesting those funds for new courses, so development is a sustainable operation.
Our course builders do not have to build content. They work with the publishers and other sources. In other words they primarily have to find it and then align it in a competency based fashion. Our rule of thumb is that it costs roughly $2,000 per credit hour to develop a course.
What differences in student outcomes do you observe in online, hybrid, and face to face courses?
Online students do pretty much the same as the other delivery methods. With Learn on Demand, we had an 85% completion rate of the modules last Fall, this is our target and it was the first time we hit the target.
The withdrawal rate is higher for online students. Probably the two major reasons for withdrawals are the students may not be ready for an online learning environment and its rigor, and that sometimes life just happens. We are constantly tweaking the courses to continuously improve, and we have spent more time preparing students for an online learning environment through development of a student support orientation course.
Also we use an early warning system to see if students are not keeping up with their work so we can offer support, hopefully before the student gets too far behind or it is too late. We’ve found that it’s important to get the students engaged early, so we have challenged our facilitators and lead instructors to be proactive with students and engage right away.
Are there any types of courses that you think lend themselves more to one teaching mode or another?
With the right instructor and the right team of course leaders putting the content together, we’ve been able to put courses of all types online with success.
With lab based programs, such as nursing, we may have to start students in cohorts to be able to address scheduling labs, because sometimes we will have to schedule labs in different parts of the states.
We don’t have many “dirty hands” type of technical programs online because of their heavy lab requirement.
There has been a great deal of news about massive online courses, what are your thoughts about these?
We have been following this quite a bit. I don’t see it being a market for us at this point of time, though.
This is a wonderful development, but it doesn’t fit our mission or our charter. We are primarily community based, and because we are a state system, we work as a state partnership to meet the needs of our state. We do have some students outside of Kentucky, but that’s not our focus.
We deliver education that is foundational; the first two years of a bachelors program, or programs that allow people to join the workforce in a year or two.
Many of the large online courses are to share and promote the expertise of a particular faculty member.
We are keeping an eye on badging initiatives, looking to see how they might fit in.
How do you see the role of the university, or especially cc and tc changing over the next 5 years?
We spend a lot of time discussing this.
Community Colleges have been evolving, and continue to evolve, over many decades from what used to be called Junior Colleges or Vocational Schools to very comprehensive institutions meeting the needs of all people.
But with cuts in federal and state funding for Higher Education, resulting in students paying more of their own way, we have to look at what we can afford to continue to offer. We may have to eliminate programs that are no longer in high demand or do not provide high earnings for graduates.
We are putting our efforts into programs for students who can move on to four year colleges and on programs to help students get jobs in high demand tech areas.
We have to use technology. There is no doubt that adding more staff is not going to be feasible, so we have to find ways to help our current staff be more efficient. We have to help our students use technology so that they can take control over their own learning and be prepared for the workplace which is so infused with technology.
From a delivery side, we have to think toward mobile; come up with delivery methods that move toward mobile and prepare our faculty to teach in that environment.
I do believe that where we are heading in is more partnerships, partnerships with other institutions, with publishers, LMS companies, and potential employers. Education is too important think that one school in one state has the magic bullet. We need to tap into all these other organization to develop the resources that are going to work for all of us.
We face a huge challenge as a nation. Technology will play a huge role. Our challenge is to prepare both our faculty and our students to use technology to raise their level of competency so we can provide industry and society with graduate that have the skill sets they need.