What Is The Role Of Community In Online Learning Environment

Top experts share their understanding on the role of community in online learning environment.

When the Colorado legislature reauthorized a statewide program to provide free in-home online courses to qualified low-income adults last year, it worked as intended: that more people with limited educational opportunities could take advantage of such courses, given the option to do so without sacrificing their family’s budget.

New York did a nice thing, too: its lawmakers, spurred by too many college grads whose degrees were worthless or filled with student loan debt, enacted an ambitious plan to make college less of a financial burden on college-bound students. Perhaps, with the words “community college” in the title, the legislation’s backers hoped to create an accelerated path to an associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year school.

Both goals are laudable, but as community colleges have caught on nationwide in the last decade or so, we’ve seen a significant disconnect between demands for their services and the quality of their offerings. The unfortunate reality is that many students have a tough time sticking with a single community college. By the end of a second and final year of class, many sit on the scrap heap of learning and comparison shopping.

Though gains in training initiatives are fairly modest, we’re starting to see the beginnings of a nationwide push toward building on and institutionalizing community colleges as institutions of the future, and not merely as places where young people who have tried the traditional path have made early mistakes. We need more college students who enjoy making college a habit and who want to invest in their educations, their futures, and themselves.

Students will stay in community college because it feels like the only way they can move forward. Increasingly, however, community colleges are finding ways to transform what they do in ways that tap the full potential of their students and their communities. The best of them are assembling their resources at arm’s length, forming alliances with other colleges and nonprofits, investing in programs that expand opportunity, and encouraging creativity and collaboration.

At the University of Kentucky, for example, a public college with growing reputation for excellence in liberal arts, the student government has worked with local churches and nonprofits to build a strong community partnership and to create a long-term link between the university and its participants. University officials also sought ways to create more engagement and service learning opportunities for students who would help citizens in need, including offering community-specific degrees. This included a promise to integrate assistance for low-income students into the undergraduate community college plan.

The result: the University of Kentucky School of Culinary Arts opened this fall in Lexington, central Kentucky, to include students from several partner colleges and local employers.

In New York City, the City University of New York University (CUNY) Center for the Advancement of International Studies (CAIS) is similarly forging links to other institutions and organizations. One example is an “open certificate” program offering service learning opportunities in Senegal, India, India-U.S. universities, city government agencies, and non-profit organizations. Another is a partnership with Manhattan Community College to expand degrees in urban entrepreneurship.

CUNY experts believe there is significant potential for such partnerships to develop, and this spring, the system will launch a new unit–the Center for International Education, International Engagement, and Policy Development–to support and refine them. While community colleges exist outside of the purview of the federal government, like public universities across the country, they nonetheless participate in the modern education system. Future models of inclusion will no doubt draw on the best of this system and turn what’s good, expanding opportunities to students like John and Gina Goldsmith, whose family backgrounds threatened their ability to make college a habit, into a nationwide model.

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