A $500,000 state grant to increase online access and innovation in online learning has been perfectly timed to strengthen Hartnell College’s ability to serve students amid COVID-19 — and its benefits will endure long after the pandemic subsides.

That support has funded specialized training for 31 full- and part-time faculty and an investment of additional faculty hours to quadruple the number of Hartnell courses receiving the California Community College system’s highest rating for online instruction.

Hartnell was awarded the money in 2019 through the California Virtual Campus-Online Education Initiative (CVC-OEI), a collaborative effort to ensure that significantly more students are able to complete their educational goals by increasing access to, and success in, high-quality online courses.

The CVC-OEI manages a statewide consortium of 57 colleges whose online courses are available regardless of where students live. Hartnell became a member college at the consortium’s founding in 2014.

The statewide initiative seeks to make online college courses more widely available, to close the gap between student success in online courses compared to their face-to-face counterparts, and to reduce or eliminate reliance on costly textbooks.

Helping in adaptation to COVID-19

Carol HobsonBecause of COVID-19, all Hartnell classes have been taught online since mid-March, with the exception of specific hands-on skills training required for students in the programs of Nursing, Respiratory Care, and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). But the grant program’s benefits go well beyond COVID. It aims to better meet the needs of non-traditional students who increasingly expect to be able to pursue a college degree from home while juggling demands such as work and childcare.

“It’s both very timely and a sign of the times,” said Mostafa Ghous, dean of academic affairs for South County Education Services, who oversaw administration of the grant. “This is amazing, tremendous work in a short period of time.”

Hartnell, which calls its new effort “Ready, Set, Go,” is using the support to help faculty develop and deliver online courses in which students can thrive and prepare for high-demand careers. The grant program, originally scheduled to conclude in June 2020, was extended six months to offset the disruptive impact of COVID-19.

“One of our goals is to help faculty with best practices in designing a quality online course, and then to encourage them to showcase their work with their peers,” said Carol Hobson, Hartnell’s Distance Education Coordinator, who is managing the grant.

Although Hartnell applied for and received the grant well before the coronavirus hit, Interim Superintendent/President Dr. Raúl Rodríguez said the move to all-online courses because of the pandemic demonstrated its value for students.

“The effort made possible by this grant has strengthened the college’s ability to move to fully online instruction much more quickly,” Dr. Rodríguez said.

Standards guide course improvement

Under Hobson’s direction as lead reviewer, other Hartnell faculty on a Peer Online Course Review (POCR) team have shared the benefits of their own intensive training and helped colleagues fine-tune their courses. The team’s current members are Lindsey Bertomen, Administration of Justice; Christina Esparza-Luna, Economics; Tammy Boates, Early Childhood Education; and Nancy Wheat, Biology.

Courses are evaluated against a set of standards, known as a rubric, established by the CVC-OEI. These include providing clear connections between course content and learning objectives, thoughtful navigation and pacing of course material, strategic use of multimedia learning tools, ease of communication between students and online instructors, and promotion of online support tools, such as a free 24-hour online tutoring service by NetTutor.

“Faculty who have been trained in quality online course design can transfer those skills to their face-to-face and hybrid courses as well,” Hobson said. “The learning management system can be used to enhance any course and can ease students into the online experience.”

In June, 20 instructors participated in a two-week, instructional design and faculty-led Distance Education Academy, gaining a deeper understanding of how students learn online and how to provide course content to help them be successful.

Working with the POCR team since last fall, 11 instructors are designing or redesigning 20 online courses within the Career Technical Education programs of Administration of Justice, Business Administration, Construction Management and Architecture, Early Childhood Education, Addiction Studies and Emergency Medical Technician.

The plan, and the expectation, is that those courses will be designated as high-quality by the CVC-OEI. That seal of approval will give them a higher ranking in search results when students use the California Virtual Campus Exchange (cvc.edu) to locate a course they want.

Training has long-range benefits

Prior to the grant, just six of Hartnell’s 225 total online courses had gone through the process to earn the highest badge of quality. An additional 20 courses would bring the college closer to a CVC-OEI target of having 20% of its online courses earn the highest distinction.

Hartnell has so far offered relatively few online classes compared with many other California community colleges. Before COVID-19, only about 11 percent of its students were studying online, compared with an average of nearly 29 percent across all 115 California Community Colleges.

Currently, Hartnell offers a fully online Associate Degree for Transfer in Administration of Justice, as well as Certificates of Achievement in Administration of Justice and Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling.

Although the grant was targeted to career-technical programs, Hobson said it has established a model for faculty training and course improvement that can be extended to other academic programs and allow Hartnell to expand all online degree offerings.

“This is all about serving our students,” said Hartnell Governing Board President Aurelio Salazar Jr. “Whether they choose to learn online or face-to-face, we are providing them the resources and support they need to succeed.”