Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Infographic: How to Humanize Your Online Class

Click here for the online version of the infographic.

I have a vivid memory from my experiences teaching as a full-time art history instructor at Sierra College that has left a lasting impression on me. It was around 2004 and I had been teaching online for about a year or so and I was seated with other faculty at the Sierra graduation ceremony. It was a hot Rocklin afternoon and the sun was in my eyes, but I was excited to experience the magical, inspirational event of graduation. As I sat listening to the names of students be called out as they walked across the stage and accepted their diplomas, I heard the name of one of my online students be announced. An strange, unfamiliar feeling came over me. Yes, I clapped and cheered, just as I was doing for other students (especially my own), but it was different. At that very moment, I realized that he and I would not be sharing a handshake or a hug, as I would do with my face-to-face students, after the ceremony. It dawned upon me that he would not be able to identify me as his instructor and nor him.

That moment awakened me to the gap that can exist between students and their instructors (and students-students) in online classes.  And, from that moment, I made an effort to reconcile this gap. I started by toying with Audacity to transform my text announcements into voice messages to my students.  That was a good change. But it wasn't until I started using VoiceThread and bought a Flip video camera to record an introductory video of myself that I had evidence of bridging this gap.

The evidence came on another warm afternoon when I pulled into the college parking lot. As I opened the door, I was greeted by a young man who exclaimed, "You are my online instructor!" It was a very cool moment and one that I cherish to this day. We had a brief conversation and I walked away with a smile.

Since then, I've tried lots of different strategies in my classes and, despite the fact that our world has become more connected through social technologies in recent years (that are easy to use and often free), I still have students who regularly share with me that my class is different -- because they feel like they know me and they feel like I care. This isn't to say that online instructors who use voice/video and interactive tools to design and facilitate their courses are the only instructors who care. But these strategies are key to my ability to be present in the experiences of my students. And they're key to my ability to share my inflection, my concern, and my enthusiasm for them -- nuances text cannot convey.

This week, a series of online conversations spurred by Laura Gibbs and Amy Collier surfaced that delved into the value of an active, authentic presence by an instructor in online classes. They made me recognize how important this conversation is and I hope these dialogues continue.

Meanwhile, my with my team at CSU Channel Islands, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to "humanize" an online class. I started using this term when I wrote my eBook about VoiceThread, but using VoiceThread is not the only way to humanize an online class.  Below, you will see a new infographic I put together in an attempt to concisely communicate what humanizing is to me.

These are principles we have infused into the Online Teaching Program at CI and they seem to be making an impact on how faculty relate to the idea of online classes.  It really does matter when faculty development for online teaching is provided in an online format. It is the only way to immerse faculty in an experiential learning experience and recognize just how meaningful online learning can be and how important it is to know your instructor as a human.  I work about 300-miles away from the faculty I support in these classes.  I believe their experiences would not be quite as impactful if I was in an office down the hall.

We've shared the infographic is shared with a CC-BY license, which provides permission for you to re-use the infographic without permission, as long as it is attributed (this item has a joint attribution to me and Teaching & Learning Innovations@CI).

Next week at ET4Online in Dallas, Jill Leafstedt, Kristi O'Neil, and I will be using the infographic to frame our workshop, How to Humanize Your Online Class. And next month, I'll be facilitating an online workshop for ELI on the same topic.  I hope to connect with some of you in these two venues!

I hope this is a resource that will be used by many.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Get the Sexism out of EdTech

To my fellow EdTech colleagues,

As you begin to formulate your next blog post or article, I'd like to make a suggestion.  The voices of women contribute valuable ideas to the future of teaching and learning innovations. As such, it is my hope that we can all work together to foster a culture in EdTech that encourages women to be active participants in this evolving space.  

Here are a few ideas.

What not to do.

  1. Don't correlate educational technology with the sale and exchange of women's bodies for sex.  If you aren't sure what I mean, please see Perry Samson's "Pimp your LMS" post on LinkedIn for an example.  The glorification of pimp culture undercuts the severity sex trafficking, which is a reality for millions of women around the world.  Hopefully, you can be a bit more creative than this and come up with a reference that doesn't alienate your female readers or make them never want to use your product (Echo360 in this case).
  2. Don't associate texting in class with male masturbation, as Stephen t. Ziliak did in today's issue of Inside Higher Ed:
"Texting off in class means just as it sounds. It begins when a texter-offer has the urge to text off or when he feels in his pants the vibration of incoming text or data, which might, in fact, have been delivered by a classmate seated close by to him. Even in courses strictly prohibiting texting during class, today’s texter-offer can hardly resist, and many give in to the temptation."
We've seen enough products be deemed "sexy" through the media and pop culture (guns and cars come to mind).  We don't need to sexify educational technology too.  It's not witty. It's offensive.

What to do:

  1. Focus on the issues.  
  2. Contribute thought-provoking conversations that foster inclusivity.
  3. Discuss and recognize the achievements of women that are often overshadowed by those of men. For an example, see this post by Michael Berman, "Who is Sharla P. Boehm?"
That is all. 


Michelle Pacansky-Brock

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Turning Infographics into Posters

Recently, I shared a post about an infographic I created using Piktochart.  The infographic is titled, "6 Tips for Recording Video" and I put it together really as an experiment with Piktochart.  Well, today I was on a video call with some of my colleagues at CSU Channel Islands and Michael Berman said, "Hey, Michelle, look what we made!"  He held up a giant poster of the infographic, which our Teaching and Learning Innovations team will display on the walls in the Faculty Innovations in Teaching (FIT) Studio on campus.

What a great idea! The quality looks pretty good too, which was surprising. I just had to share!

Here is the direct link to the graphic: 

Below is the embedded version.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Hangout on Air: Diversity in Groups, a Cross-Cultural Connected Learning Experience

I'd like to extend a warm invitation to you to view a Hangout on Air I will be moderating tomorrow -- I think you will love it! 

I will be facilitating a conversation with Jaimie Hoffman, Lecturer and Instructional Technologist at CSU Channel Islands in California, and Mario Perez, of Asia Pacific University in Beppu City, Oita, Japan.  Jaimie and Mario will be discussing an innovative teaching experiment they collaborated on together that brought together Jaimie's students in California with Mario's students in Japan to learn about diversity in groups.  Jaimie and Mario selected VoiceThread as the tool to facilitate the active learning experience for their students.

Jaimie has written a fabulous reflection about the project (including lessons learned) on the VoiceThread blog. Check it out!

Then join us tomorrow at 4pm Pacific/7pm Eastern for the Hangout on Air. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

6 Tips for Recording Video

Today, I've been experimenting with Piktochart, a super tool for creating infographics (for free).  Here is my first creation and the context for its creation.

I work with college faculty who are just getting started with teaching online or are looking for ways to revitalize their existing online class.  Video has changed dramatically in recent years, providing simple tools that enable video creation from webcams and mobile devices.  Locating a tool that aligns with your instructional goals is important.  However, there is a handful of "tips" I find myself sharing over and over again.  I attempted to capture them using Piktochart so I can share them in a more visual and engaging way.  Of course, I hope you will find them useful and share them as well! It is shared with a CC-BY graphic so feel free to re-use as you'd like.

Here is the direct link to the graphic:

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Online Teaching: A New Beginning

This post was first shared at CI Teaching & Learning Innovations blog.

I started teaching online in 2003 and as I grew into the role of an online instructor a lot of things began to change for me.  My teaching (both online and face-to-face) became more active, placing my students at the center, and my views about how people learn also began to change. Last spring, I accepted a position at CI that provides me with the opportunity to support faculty with their own journeys into online teaching.

Shortly after I started at CI, I facilitated our first Online Teaching Preparation Program, which has been completed by 17 in the first two offerings. The fully online classes that make up the program place faculty in the role of an online learner, providing an authentic experience to relate to the array of challenges and unique opportunities that their own students will encounter.  Additionally, faculty create and share reflections about their journey at different points in the program.  I enjoy reading these reflections immensely.

Stacey Anderson, a full-time Lecturer in English and First Year Composition Coordinator, shared a poignant reflection that, to me, captures so much of the transformative aspects that can be intertwined with “becoming” an online instructor.  Stacey has given me permission to share her reflections below. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

A New Beginning," by Stacey Anderson

“In the summer of 2012, my family and I made the first of what will be many visits to the Cook Islands. The population of the entire country is about 11,000 residents, comprised primarily of Maori natives and New Zealand transplants. It is a rustic and amazing place to lose and/or find yourself.
On the tiny island of Aitutaki (population 2000), our favorite spot to eat, shop and hang out was the Koru Café, owned by an energetic, adventurous couple who left their familiar lives in New Zealand to return to the culture of their ancestors.
The koru symbol was everywhere in the café, including the stylish business card that was attached to every purchase, and I asked the owner, Trina, what it meant. She said it symbolized “a new beginning,” which signified what starting up a new business in a small island country meant for her and her family. In that moment, I visualized everything they had risked, what they had left behind, and how they had to adapt, and would continue to do so, to embrace this new life – a life that discarded the creature comforts to which they had become accustomed but offered a whole new world of simpler pleasures, as well as challenges. I purchased the necklace pictured above for myself and the women in my family as a remembrance of what I had learned and experienced.
Throughout our trip last year, and in the time since, the koru has been a powerful symbol for me. The symbol itself is based on the “fiddleneck” frond of a fern before it has unfurled. A bit of internet research reveals that that its circular, cyclical shape “conveys the idea of perpetual movement” as well as “a return to the point of origin” – in other words, “a metaphor for the way in which life both changes and stays the same” (“Mountain Jade”).
The koru provides an apt metaphor of my transition into online teaching, exemplifying Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s call for us to “be true to” who we are “while embracing the full potential of” the “online learning landscape.” This is a process of continuous unfurling, reaching forward, growing, while always hearkening back to where I began, and what matters to me as an educator in any learning environment.
Teaching online is truly a “new beginning,” for me personally as well as on a larger scale. The transformation that these three classes have precipitated for me has been more profound than I ever would have anticipated. Like the owners of the Koru Café, I am embracing a new adventure that is filled with risks but also great rewards. Hard work lies ahead. But it is also meaningful work, work that is helping unfurl potential I didn’t know I had. I am so hopeful and optimistic that I can help my online students experience a similar transformation and embrace a “new beginning.”
I am immensely grateful to everyone who has participated in this extraordinary journey with me. This process has been unexpectedly cathartic, inspiring me to take risks in ways I never could have in a less trusting, supportive environment. I hope we can all continue to turn to one another as we strive to put what we learned into practice. I would happily share a cup of tea or glass of wine with any of you – either here stateside, or at the Koru Café. In the meanwhile, as they say in Maori, Kia Orana (‘be well’)!”

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Qualified Self

Last week, I had the pleasure to attend the NMC Black Swan Ball.  I had been looking forward to this event for months.  It's not often that I get invited to spend a few days at a 4-star resort to contemplate the impact of emerging technologies on higher education along with about 100 rock stars from around the world. Um, actually, this was the first time that's ever happened to me. :)

The New Media Consortium organized this retreat in support of the Horizon Report, an annual publication that identifies major technologies anticipated to impact formalized learning institutions. The first Horizon Report was published in 2004 and since then, the reports have taken a multidisciplinary approach by looking at the topic through the lens of higher education, K12, museums, and libraries in international contexts.  I think I read my first Horizon Report in 2007. After that, I'd look forward to each one like a big geek.

At the Black Swan Ball, we were tasked to contemplate a series of technologies or technological concepts and examine them in ways that stretched our thinking. Taking a page from Taleb's book, our goal was to challenge ourselves and move our conversations into unexpected contexts, seeking and exploring ideas through our multidisciplinary experiences the highly improbable, or black swan. This approach was initiated to try to move away from a centrist way of locating impactful technologies, which is really the outcome of bringing a series of people together to discuss "what we expect to happen" in edtech.  In other words, if we only discuss what we expect to happen, we are risking the discovery of something amazing.

One of the topics we discussed during the retreat was The Quantified Self.  This was a topic that resonated with me in some pretty unexpected ways.  Yes, I have a Jawbone Up that counts my steps and buzzes each time I am idle for 45 minutes. Yes, I have lived in horror of my scale -- the displayer of those damn numbers that mean so much (especially to a woman) in our society.  But I've also experienced a number of medical procedures in my life that have placed me front and center with quantified reflections of my experience as a human. And they leave me empty.

I have written here and here previously about a journey I had in 2006 with open heart surgery. After a routine echocardiogram on my heart (for a congenital heart disorder), I had learned that I had an aneurysm in my aorta.  Aneurysms in aortas are bad, let's just say that. In a whirlwind two week span, I had a series of tests, each more invasive than the last, and each one resulted in a quantified measurement of my aorta. I heard "4.2 cm" and then "4.8 cm" and then, finally, "5.2 cm."  During this time, I met with a surgeon who said, "We typically want to operate at 5.0 cm, because that's when risk of rupture is highest." Fun times.

Here's the thing though. When I was in the recovery room after the last procedure that discovered the 5.2 cm measurement, I was also shown an image of my aorta that was taken during the procedure. That blurry, black-and-white image changed everything for me.

I heard to the data. But I felt the image. When I had the opportunity to "see" the bulge in my aorta, I could simply relate to what was happening in a different, more connected way.  The way I felt about the surgery that was ahead of me changed.  I looked at it as something that I must do, as opposed to something I wanted to find a way out of. A sense of commitment came upon me that is difficult to explain. No, the fear did not go away, but I related to the journey ahead of me in a very different way.

Now, my background is in art history. I've taught visual classes for more than a decade. Yes, I have a bias about images and the importance of them in our lives. But sometimes it's really important to look back on our history.  Before we could write, we would draw and paint and sculpt. Images are in us. Images impact us as humans on an entirely different level than numeric data.

Images are powerful. Images tell stories. Images make us feel. Images are like qualitative data.

I am engaged in quantifying my experiences. But I will never let go of my qualified self and I hope you won't either.

(Credit for these reflections goes to my "Wolverine" superhero group members: Jason Rosenblum, Malcolm Brown, Terra Graves, Joan Lippincott, and David Thomas.  Check us out on Twitter @NMCWolverine.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The (Inspirational) Story of an Online Community College Student

By Environmental Illness Network, CC-BY-NC-ND
I believe student stories hold potential to dispel some of the myths that of shape the mental models that undermine change in higher education.  One of my own online community college students recently shared his story with me.  As I read it, I am reminded of so many others that have inspired me over the past 10+ years of community college teaching -- a student who was severely burned in an accident, several students with cancer, an online student awaiting an organ transplant, a student completing her college degree online to avoid being stalked by her ex-husband, a student with epilepsy who was fighting to complete her first college class, and countless online students who gave birth during the semester.

The student story I share below is now part of me. I will carry it with me and allow it to remind me why I love teaching at a community college and advocate wholeheartedly for their support.  As you read this story, I encourage you to reflect on your own perceptions about community colleges and online learning and discover if this story challenges or supports them.  Enjoy!

The following story is shared with permission from a former online student who will remain anonymous.
"I attended Brigham Young in Utah for 2 semesters as a freshman in college. In my family, attending BYU wasn't so much a matter of "if" but rather a matter of 'when.' My family is deeply rooted in the Mormon faith, so as a High School Senior who secretly didn't share the same faith, I was conflicted but I went to BYU anyway. After my freshman year of college, everything reached a boiling point when the pressure came to serve on a 2-year Mormon mission. I knew I couldn't preach something I didn't believe myself, so I used the opportunity to finally be truthful with my parents. I did not share their faith, I was leaving Brigham Young and I was gay. This marked the beginning of a bittersweet period in my life. On one hand, I was free to live a life of my own. On the other, I was left without financial or emotional support to continue my education. After about 6 months of dead end jobs and living on my own to support myself, I knew I had to make a change. 

As I researched schools to transfer to, I became distraught at the staggering cost of college, expenses I would have to come up with on my own. One day, a family friend told me about how she was attending a local community college and was able to afford it with financial aid and scholarships. I enrolled and began taking classes while working full time. When I arrived on the community college campus, I was ashamedly surprised. In High School, community college has a reputation as the place where "dropouts go" or "a dead-end". However, I saw something very different. I saw a handful of professors that were deeply passionate about their topics and teaching. I saw an opportunity to explore many different disciplines that interested me throughout the humanities and social sciences. I saw a diverse group of students from all walks of life working to overcome adversity and build their futures. I enrolled in the Honors Enrichment Program, and took classes that felt on par (and sometimes more rigorous) than the ones I took at a prestigious private university. Also, I made an important choice that made all the difference while in community college; I sought out leadership roles. Being engaged in student leadership, clubs and extracurricular activities weaves you into the fabric of an institution in ways not possible otherwise. (Sidenote: I'd like to see more opportunities like this for "distance learners". I'm curious how it could be made possible.) 

After 3 great semesters at the community college, I still had little idea of a major or career path. So I embarked on a 2 year adventure with AmeriCorps NCCC, a national service program that sends 18-24 year olds to serve their country building trails, reconstructing homes and doing disaster relief. The federal program awards a scholarship for every term of service (10 months), and is equivalent to a pell-grant (approx. $5,700). I decided to put online education to the test during my service. With a rigorous and demanding schedule, I was nervous I wouldn't be able to keep up. I was also worried that Online Learning just simply wasn't a suitable environment to learn. This is what I discovered: the online classroom has the potential to teach, inspire, and engage in ways I had previously deemed impossible. However, not all online classes are this way. I took two classes last semester, one from an ENGAGED professor and one from a DISENGAGED professor. One utilized new tech, creative assignments, and fostered a learning community while the other used outdated content and did little to nourish a community of student learning (One sign of this may be that I cannot remember even a single name of my peers in that class, whereas in my ENGAGED online class, I remember many names and personalities). 

After completing my service with AmeriCorps in late November, I have returned to Southern California to finish the courses I need for transfer. I am returning to the physical campus with a new understanding and faith in online learning. In many ways, being in online classes while traveling across the Southeastern United States kept me engaged in learning and familiar with the habit of studying and deadlines. All in all, I have been incredibly grateful for my time at the community college, whether on campus or online, because it has allowed me to create an affordable liberal arts education for myself that feels much less like a "dead end" and more like the beginning of something pretty awesome."

Monday, January 5, 2015

Improving Faculty Attitudes about Online Teaching

Online Learning: More Faculty Are Engaged ... And Skeptical

The New Media Consortium has identified the "evolution of online learning" as a key trend that will accelerate adoption of ed tech in higher education for the next one to two years. Meanwhile, a recent study by Inside Higher Ed shows that while the number of higher ed faculty teaching online is increasing, many remain skeptical about whether online learning is effective.  Improving faculty attitudes about online teaching is important to students and the future.

In general, attitudes are mindsets that inform a person's behavior. Attitudes are complex and are theorized to be comprised of three components: feelings, thoughts or beliefs, as well as actions.  Our attitudes influence our choices and guide our behavior. An online instructor with a poor attitude toward online learning is less likely to be dedicated to creating an engaging, student-centered learning experience. 

Given the correlation between attitudes and behavior, we should be pondering the impact that skeptical faculty have on the future of high quality online learning.  Institutions should be making an effort to explore ways to improve faculty attitudes about online teaching and learning. To change a person's attitude, one must be engaged at both a cognitive and emotional level.  For example, if you wish to convince me that I need to exercise every day, you'll need to provide me with information, as well as engage me emotionally by making connections between this new behavior and the things that are important to me.  Just telling me to exercise because it is good for me will not be enough to sustain a change in my attitude.

Supporting the Emotional Aspects of Becoming an Online Instructor

The work of Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt discusses a need to cultivate a "phased approach" to faculty development to support the shifting needs of faculty as they move through the stages of Visitor (one who is contemplating teaching online) to Novice, Apprentice, Insider, and Master.  The four core facets of the online faculty development experience, according to Palloff and Pratt, include: personal, pedagogy, content, and technology.

What's intriguing is how faculty prioritize these four facets differently as they move from the visitor to the master phase. 

Copyright: Rena Palloff, 2014

Of particular interest is how the need for support with the "personal" element of online teaching becomes a top priority at the novice phase, while it moves to last at the other four phases.  Palloff and Pratt note that the types of personal support needed by faculty at the novice phase include reassurance and help overcoming "any fears about online teaching" (Palloff & Pratt, 2011, p. 25).  Novice online instructors need support with improving their confidence about their ability to transition from the face-to-face to online environment.  They need to experience how to foster a presence online. New online faculty frequently need to understand how to convey a sense of who they are online -- without being physically present with their students.  Many desire to learn how to convey their sense of enthusiasm for their discipline through an online course. Others need to explore their teaching style and develop an online teaching philosophy, as well as improve their confidence in their ability to use technology.

How to Humanize Your Online Course

In my role as Instructional Technologist for Online and Blended Learning at CSU Channel Islands, I have had the opportunity to develop and facilitate an Online Teaching Preparation Program for new and experience online instructors.  The program was launched in the Spring of 2014 and is comprised of three fully online 2-week courses.  Faculty may take all three courses to complete the program or select to take courses a la carte.  The outcomes of the courses are aligned with the CSU Quality in Online Learning & Teaching (QOLT) framework and are anchored in fostering of student engagement, human presence, student-student and faculty-student interactions, and  At CSU Channel Islands, our program begins with the class, "How to Humanize Your Online Course" and is followed by "How to Design Your Online Course" and "Designing Engaging Online Activities."

Courses two and three reflect typical courses you will likely find integrated into most online faculty preparation-type programs.  The Humanizing course, however, is unique.  It is designed to provide the type of personal support Palloff and Pratt identify as a priority to novice online instructors. In the 2-week class, faculty engage faculty in a meaningful, experimental, and supportive experience that involves investigating and reflecting on research about the role of social presence in improving online student learning.  Through the course, faculty participate in asynchronous VoiceThread conversations (in voice or video), share content they have created with a tool of their choice from the Tool Buffet, and create a humanized online course action plan in which they reflect on the particular behaviors and strategies they will utilize to improve instructor presence.  The course is supported with a Google+ Community (where faculty share a course introduction video and their humanized course action plans in written or video format) and ends with an optional Google+ Hangout.

Changing Faculty Attitudes through Immersive Faculty Development

As the facilitator of the courses, I realize the critical impact I have on each faculty member's attitude about online teaching. The course design is critical, but being an active, supportive, flexible, and empathetic facilitator is essential.  As online learners themselves, faculty experience the challenges of figuring out how to navigate an online course, how to use new technologies, identify elements of a course that support their needs as a learner, and feel the value of an instructor who provides flexibility with due dates when a crisis surfaces.

Perhaps the thing that is most unique about the Online Teaching Preparation Program at CSU Channel Islands is the fact that I work remotely.  Not only do faculty in the program learn to teach online through the lens of an online student, but most of them have not met me face-to-face at the start of the program. This is important because they can reflect on how technology can be effective at establishing a relationship at a distance.

We have just wrapped up the first year of the program.  The presentation shared below showcases some of the data we captured through anonymous faculty evaluations at the end of each course. As I reflect on this data, I am excited to see evidence of improved attitudes about online teaching from novice instructors. One faculty shared that the Humanizing course is "a must take course for faculty ... who think online learning is nothing more than a glorified correspondence school." Another noted, "I am heartened by the approach of starting first with humanizing the online experience. It helped alleviate my major fears about teaching online, by being able to get right to what worries me the most and see that there are tools and strategies and people who care about the topic. I see the possibilities so much better now."

What do you think? Is it important to immerse higher education faculty in an online experience to experience cognitively and emotionally how effective online learning can be? What strategies are taken at your institution to achieve this goal?


Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (2011). The Excellent Online Instructor: Strategies for Professional Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Palloff, R. M. (2014) Promoting Excellence Online: How to Develop Excellent Online Instructors. Inside Higher Ed webinar. Retrieved from:

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Realities of the College Transfer Experience

photograph of trees lining a pathway
This post reflects on his struggles and the ways convoluted higher ed processes can derail students trying to earn a degree. It also provides some general information about the public higher education system in California and tips for transferring. I hope this information will be helpful to many.

The Many Values of Community Colleges

The public higher education system in California is immense. And the complexities involved with moving between institutions are too.  In CA, there are 112 community colleges (CCCs) that serve more than 2 million students. On the four-year side, the California State University (CSU) system includes 23 campuses and the University of California (UC) has 10 institutions.

The CCC system enrolls 24% of the nation's CC students. I'm an advocate and supporter of community colleges. In the 1960s, my father left his impoverished family of fifteen siblings on the east coast and became a resident of California to enroll at Porterville Community College, which was then free to CA residents. He then transferred to San Jose State University (part of the CSU system) and completed his Master's degree and then moved to Iowa State to complete his Ph.D.  The opportunity provided to my father through California community college and the CA Master Plan for Higher Education improved his and my economic and social status. It also produced a healthy stream of educated workers in California, creating a fertile soil for transforming CA into a nexus of innovation. 

While CCCs are no longer free, they are still an incredible financial value. They provide the same lower division coursework that 4-year institutions provide and usually do so in a smaller class environment with instructors whose primary responsibility is to teach, as opposed to research. I plan to have my two boys attend a community college after high school. They are fully aware of this and they understand why.  My boys will spend two years at a CC to explore and figure out what they love to do (assuming they don't figure it out before then). They will transfer to a 4-year institution and complete their undergraduate degree there.  I have also taught in the CCC system, as both a full-time and part-time faculty, for twelve years.

Our family plan will, of course, save my husband and I thousands of dollars too.  Student loan debt in the U.S. has now topped $1 trillion.  If a student completes a 4-year degree within 4 years in the CA public higher education system and the first two years of transferable, lower-division coursework is completed at a community college, the savings is roughly $10,000 if the student transfers and graduates from a CSU and more than $20,000 if the student moves on to a UC. 

That plan seems simple and worth it in many ways, doesn't it? And many families/students follow it with success. Each year, according to the Community College League of California, roughly 60,000 students transfer from a community college in California to a CSU or UC. And 28% of UC graduates and 55% of CSU grads started their higher education journey at a CCC.

The Student Experience

As we consider this data and the critical role community colleges play in the college completion process, let's also consider the student experience. My nephew is in the midst of transferring from a CCC to a CSU. He, and most college students, do not view their higher ed experience through a bird's eye view of institutional organizations.  I know I didn't when I was in college. It took me a long time before I even understood how CCCs, CSUs, and UCs were different and had the potential to function as an interconnected system.  Nonetheless, my nephew has learned that navigating the transfer process is no simple feat.  He completed some of his course work at one community college in CA and then moved to a nearby city and began attending a separate community college, where he completed his lower division coursework.  Both colleges are "feeder schools" for the 4-year institution to which he is transferring.  A counselor at the second college provided him with  list of courses he needed to complete to be ready to transfer.  He completed all of the courses on the list.  However, one of the courses, a math class, was completed at the first community college.  He learned late in the game that the university only accepts that math course from the second community college and not the first.  As a community college instructor, this did not surprise me.  But I certainly saw it through a new lens -- and realized how this convoluted system messes with students' lives and finances.

What did surprise me was the plan his counselor suggested he follow to remedy the problem.  The counselor suggested he enroll in an out-of-state university and complete the math course online. The online course from the out-of-state institution would articulate to his university of choice and he could then officially transfer.

He accepted the counselor's suggestion, as it would not require him to travel hours to the nearest community college at which the math class is offered (with full articulation).  He could also pick up additional hours at work, while completing his class online.  So, now he is paying out-of-state tuition to complete a single online math class to enable him to transfer from a California Community College to a California State University.

This situation reveals how online classes can improve a student's chances for succeeding with their educational goals.  It also reveals the tremendous need for CA's CCCs to continue to be leaders in the online learning space, but also to create fully online lower division pathways for students with the ability to enroll easily in these classes, as opposed to needing to register at each individual college.  This plan is in motion and our students in California, as well as our state, will benefit from it greatly.

Next, I asked my nephew how the online class has been (as the semester was coming to a close).  "Rough," he replied.  He shared that math is difficult for him and he has feels that he learns best in a face-to-face setting.  I asked him if the instructor was present in the online class.  He said, "No. In fact, when I emailed her for help, she gave me a phone number for a support center." I asked him if he experienced interaction with his online peers in the class.  He said, "No.  I just read the book and completed assignments in a Pearson website."

That's unacceptable and demonstrates that, while he is completing the required course to be able to transfer, his learning is suffering due to a poor quality learning experience. How will this impact his success in his future math classes? How does this impact his confidence as a human and as a student? How does this reflect on the general attitudes about online learning? All of these questions, and more, are critical to the future of higher education and often get lost.

Transfer Tips

Research shows that 1 in 10 students who transfer from a CC lose credits because they are not transferable. This extends the duration of the degree, as the courses must be repeated, and wastes time and money (albeit, these courses may provide value in other ways!). If you know a student planning to transfer from a community college to a 4-year institution, here are some resources to help improve the experience.
  • If the institutions are located in CA, become acquainted with It provides up-to-date information about which courses at your CC transfer to the your 4-year institution of choice. also provides a comprehensive set of resources to guide students from high school through the completion of a 4-year degree.
  • Create a mobile toolkit. More and more startups are forming around the goal of improving the student transfer process.  Transfer Bootcamp (founded by a former community college student) is designed to improve a student's organization and awareness of the transfer process.  ImFirst is an app designed to support, guide and celebrate first generation college students through graduation.
  • Become familiar the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) program if you live in a western state (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, N. Dakota, Oregon, S. Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming). This program provides residents of these states an opportunity to apply for a significantly reduced out-of-state tuition rate.
  • Use the tools the counselors use. The site, CCC Transfer, is developed and used by counselors throughout the CCC system to assist students with the transfer process. It is packed with great resources!
Please share your own tips and experiences about transferring from a community college to a 4-year university in a comment.