Academic Exchange Quarterly  Fall 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 3

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Growth of Online Education in a Community College

Katherine M. Conway, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY

Alyse Hachey, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY

Claire Wladis, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY


Conway, Ph.D. is a Professor of Business; Hachey, Ph.D.  is a Professor of Teacher Education and Wladis is a Professor of Math. All three faculty members teach in the online environment and have served on the college’s Distance Learning Taskforce.


This case study examines the evolution of online education at a large urban community college. It outlines issues related to course development, administration, student and faculty support.  Online course enrollment, student and faculty perceptions and organizational issues were evaluated a decade after online education was introduced at the college.  At both the inception of online education and in order to expand successfully, external funding was crucial for program success.




In the Fall of 2009, there were over 19 million enrollments in online learning programs in almost 3,000 colleges and universities throughout the United States;  this is expected to grow as technology evolves and the demand for higher education continues (Allen & Seaman, 2010; Parsad & Lewis, 2008).   Online learning is offered through many mediums including the internet, email, video and teleconferencing (Distance Education, Guidelines for Good Practice, 2000).  It is also offered through a variety of purveyors including degree and non-degree granting institutions, traditional not-for-profits as well as proprietary corporations, and runs the gamut from corporate training modules to complete baccalaureate, master and doctoral degrees (Eaton, 2002).  


Online learning is particularly prevalent at community colleges, where almost half of all E-learning programs are offered and  which have the highest participation rate (97%) of all higher education institutions in offering courses online (Parsad & Lewis, 2008; Ruth, Sammons, & Poulin, 2007).  The rapid growth of online learning has raised a number of issues including accreditation, faculty workload, student support services and course ownership.   Faced with the growth in demand for online courses, community colleges must determine the necessary organizational structure needed to provide a quality educational experience and address the issues outlined above. 


A number of organizations have created best practice guidelines outlining criteria for teaching and learning effectiveness, faculty and student satisfaction, cost effectiveness and access (Distance Education, Guidelines for Good Practice, 2000; Moore & Lorenzo, 2002; Phipps & Merisotis, 1999) but there is a dearth of literature on the optimal organizational structure for offering online courses within the existing community college setting.  A better understanding of the organizational structure for online programs currently existing within colleges is important if colleges are going to maintain quality and successfully plan for the future.  Space planning, hiring of both faculty and support staff; evaluation and assessment, and course development all need to be addressed as part of a long term strategy. 


This case study reflects on the lessons learned at one community college after almost a decade of offering online courses, and the issues the college faced as it sought to expand its online program.


Institutional Background

The community college profiled in this study is large, with more than 23,500 students enrolled in credit bearing courses leading to the associates’ degree.  The college is part of a multi-campus University and many of its students transfer to senior colleges within the system.  The diverse student body emanates from over 150 countries of origin, and students are likely to speak English as a Second Language.   Three quarters of all entering students need remediation in reading, writing or math.  Located in a congested metropolitan area, the college suffers from a lack of adequate physical space; classes are offered in a main building as well as in several satellite locations and in temporary classrooms outside the main building.  Courses are held seven days a week from 8 am until 10 pm, as well as offered online. The full time faculty numbers more than 400 and most have a doctorate in their field; there are also over 700 adjunct faculty members.


The Evolution of Online Learning at the College

In the spring of 2001, the college piloted six courses online using Blackboard Course Management software.  Faculty were trained and supported via a grant from the Sloan Foundation, and initially faculty were given the choice of taking release time or receiving a payment of $3000 for course development. As additional faculty received training, the number of online courses offered grew to more than 80 across a dozen disciplines and culminated in the offering of a fully online associate degree in liberal arts by 2008.    Over 80% of the online courses are offered on an asynchronous basis, in keeping with national norms.  The largest numbers of the college’s online courses are offered in the social sciences.


Despite annual growth in online course offerings at the college of 10% a year, by 2009, 87% of all courses offered still had no online component. Additionally, the annual growth rate of 10% was considerably lower than national trends which show online courses growing at a rate of 30%.  Approximately 4% of students at the college enrolled in online courses, a number that was also significantly below national norms, as almost 30% of all students take at least one online course nationally (Allen & Seaman, 2010).


One notable area of success for the college was attrition in online courses, which is below national norms.  Attrition in online courses at the College has consistently been in the 20-26% range, compared to the national 30-40% rate (Tyler-Smith, 2006). The lower attrition rate is attributed to the several prerequisites for online students, including a minimum grade point average requirement.


By 2009, the college sought to increase online course offerings and enrollments, motivated in part by enrollment demands exceeding the college’s physical space.  The desire to increase online offerings is typical of higher education today; almost two-thirds of chief academic officers surveyed said that online learning was a critical part of their institution’s long term strategy (Allen & Seaman, 2010).  The administration projected that if current enrollment patterns and new online course offerings continued at the college’s historical rate, the college would have a shortfall of 25 online courses in the coming five years, a number that would grow exponentially if the college had online enrollment penetration matching the national norms.


In an effort to identify barriers to online course growth, the college convened a task force in early 2009 to evaluate its online program and to make suggestions for the future.  The task force was comprised of faculty, students and administrative staff.


Organizational Structure

The coordination of the existing online courses was overseen by a faculty member, the Distance Learning Coordinator (the Coordinator), who was granted partial release time.  The Coordinator reported to the Dean of Instruction and Curriculum (the Dean), who in turn reported to the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs (SVP), who has oversight of all academic offerings .  The Coordinator acted as a liaison between the administration and the faculty.  Several other areas important to the online environment, namely ETutoring services, the Office of Instructional Technology and the Office of Advisement and Transfer, also reported to the Dean.    The Office of Instructional Technology assisted with course design and training; had responsibility for monitoring enrollments in online courses; worked with faculty to contact students who failed to log on at the start of the semester; and distributed and collected student evaluations. ETutoring services and the Office of Advisement and Transfer made no distinction in the services they offered for online versus traditional students.  The College Computer Center, which was also a necessary component in the successful offering of online courses, reported directly to the SVP, and was responsible for student access (issuing student emails and passwords) and the network infrastructure. 


Barriers to Growth


In an effort to evaluate the current status of its online offerings, the task force reviewed the current literature on online education, spoke with administrators of online programs at peer institutions, used data from the Office of Institutional Research on enrollment and attrition in online courses, and surveyed and held focus groups with both faculty and students.  The following issues were identified as inhibiting the growth of online education at the college: 


Faculty Workload

In a series of faculty focus groups, the dominant theme among faculty teaching online was the burden of large class size in the online environment.  The college had an enrollment cap of 30 students in online courses.  A review of the literature suggests that an optimal online class size varies between 15-20 students (Colwell & Jenks, 2004) and numerous studies have suggested that faculty spend more time on course preparation in the online environment (McKenzie, Mims, Bennett & Waugh, 2000).  Faculty workload was also impacted by the additional requirement that faculty monitor student attendance in the online environment and contact staff in the Office of Instructional Technology to report students who failed to log on.


Course Design and Development

Faculty appreciated the Blackboard training provided but felt that it was insufficient, a theme common in the literature (McKenzie, et al., 2000).  Faculty who were currently teaching online wanted assistance in order to keep their courses up to date technologically, but saw themselves primarily as content experts not course design experts.  Additionally, all of the training was offered in a traditional classroom setting, and faculty felt that online modules could be used as well.


Perceived Scrutiny of Online Courses

Despite withdrawal rates below the national norms for online courses, withdrawal in the online environment is higher than in traditional face to face classes at the college.  On average, withdrawal in online courses is 7.5 percentage points higher than in traditional courses offered at the college.  The administration had in a limited number of cases prevented the offering of a course if past semester withdrawal rates were deemed “too high”. 


Faculty expressed concern about course evaluations which were considered as part of the annual review process for both tenure and promotion, but which were not designed for an online environment.  Students, who were emailed evaluations, had low response rates, which when combined with higher than normal withdrawal rates in online courses, often resulted in lower overall course ratings for faculty teaching the same course in an online environment versus a traditional classroom.  Additionally, there was no peer observation mechanism in place for an online course, and observations were another crucial part of the process for tenure and review.

Lastly, faculty were critical of the online course approval process, which required peer reviews and a presentation to the SVP of Academic Affairs, procedures that did not exist for traditional classroom courses.


Student Dissatisfaction

In a fall 2008 survey of students enrolled in online courses at the college, a quarter of the students said they did not intend to take an online course but that it was the only option available to meet their scheduling needs.  This lack of commitment to an online course could contribute to attrition, particularly when students subsequently learn of the significant demands on their time that an online course requires.  Two-thirds of the students surveyed said that the online course was much more work than they expected and more than half of the students said the course required a bigger time commitment than they expected.   Each semester the college also surveyed students who withdrew from online courses.  Both first-time online students and repeat online students most often cited personal problems (39%) as the reason for their withdrawal from an online course. 


Technical Problems/Support

Both students and faculty alike cited technical issues as a problem.  The year before the taskforce was convened Blackboard was unavailable for almost three weeks at the start of the fall semester.   A lack of centralized administrative oversight of the college’s computing operations led to significant downtime and slow rates of response to help desk queries.  Additionally, the decentralized nature of the college’s various computer related functions often confused both students and faculty as to where and how to request and receive technical support.


Enrollment Restrictions

Students wishing to enroll in an online course had to have a minimum 2.0 grade point average, could not be first semester freshmen and could not take more than two online courses in a semester.  An online tutorial, assessing readiness to enroll in an online course, was recommended but not required.


Faculty Restrictions

Faculty members who wanted to develop an online course were required, regardless of their technological background or prior experience at other institutions, to attend weekly training classes on Fridays throughout the prior semester.  Faculty members who taught an online course but who experienced withdrawal rates above 35% for two consecutive semesters were required to undergo additional training.  Withdrawal rates were negatively impacted by students who enrolled in the online class, never logged on, and subsequently withdrew.  Adjunct faculty members were not allowed to teach in the online environment. 



To address some of the issues raised by faculty, staff and students, the task force compiled a list of recommendations to improve online learning at the college of which the foremost was more cohesive management.  The college determined that additional funding would be necessary for staffing in order to implement many of the task force recommendations and a decision was made to apply for grant funding.  The college submitted a proposal to U.S. Department of Education and was awarded a Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program - Title V grant of $575,000 per annum for a 5-year period.  The college agreed to provide $355,000 annually in personnel support, as part of the grant.


After being awarded the grant, the first step was to hire a full-time Director of E-Learning, who in turn was authorized to hire instructional course designers to provide faculty with additional support.  The college also reconfigured space to create a centralized E-Learning office suite where technical support and instructional designers, as well as the Director of ELearning, are located.  This move sent a clear message to the college community that E-Learning was valued and would continue to be important in the future.  Additional hires included a Help Desk Supervisor and two E-Advisors, to assist students with virtual academic support. .


Money was also set aside to support faculty research in online education.  A competitive E-Learning grant was created by the new E-Learning Director with the assistance of an ad hoc committee.  In the first year, seven faculty members applied for the grants and four were awarded.  The grants provide for a summer stipend of $4000, and the awardees’ agreed to submit a research article on E-Learning, as well as to mentor a less experienced faculty member.  Prior to establishing the E-Learning grant program, at least one faculty study on student grade point averages and the correlation to online success was conducted as an outgrowth of the task force initiative.


In addition to online course design support, faculty workload was addressed by implementing a new cap on class size of 25 students (down from 30). To mitigate concerns about assessment of faculty performance, a faculty led group designed a new faculty evaluation form specifically for the online environment. The course approval process for faculty was also streamlined.  The E-Learning Director, working with a faculty focus group, implemented the use of a Quality Matters rubric.


A Faculty Advisory Network was convened, with administratively appointed experienced online faculty serving as E-learning liaisons for their departments. Additionally, working closely with the college’s Teaching and Learning Center, a faculty interest group was created, Teaching with Technology, which meets throughout the year and offers a series of webinars to faculty and provides a forum for faculty to share best practices.

Lastly, the college also migrated to the University server (previously it ran its own), which resulted in fewer problems with Blackboard availability.



A key component of both the startup and the expansion of the online program at this community college was grant funding, which initially provided support for training and later enabled the college to expand during an economic downturn.  The college administration, by seeking input from all members of the college constituency, showed a willingness to rethink processes and its organizational structure.


In particular, the addition of an E-Learning Director and a centralized E-learning office has revitalized the online education efforts at the college.  The college has successfully applied for and won several smaller grants and the number of new online courses, both hybrid and asynchronous has increased by more than 60% in the past year.



Allen, I.E. & Seaman, J. (2010).  Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010. Babson Survey Research Group. Sloan Consortium.


Colwell, J.L. & Jenks, C.F. (2004). The upper limit: the issues for faculty in setting class size in online courses.

Distance Learning Task Force Report. (2009). April 21, 2009. Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. New York.

Distance Education, Guidelines for Good Practice, 2000. (Report No. 36-0693). American Federation of Teachers, Washington, D.C.

Eaton, J. (2002). Maintaining the delicate balance: Distance learning, higher education accreditation, and the politics of self-regulation. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Lorenzo, G. & Moore, J. (2002) The Sloan Consortium Report to the Nation: Five Pillars of Quality Online Education.  Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium


McKenzie, B.K., Mims, N., Bennett, E. & Waugh, M. (2000).  Needs, concerns and practices of online instructors.  Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume III, Number III, Winter 2000.


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Tyler-Smith, K. (2006).  Early attrition among first time E-learners: a review of factors that contribute to drop-out, withdrawal and non-completion rates of adult learners undertaking E-learning programs. Journal of Online Learning and Technology, June.