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Evolve Conference Analysis: Move Past Status Quo and Focus on Student Success

Apr 15, 2014

The Evolve Conference sponsored by the Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation brought together students, faculty, administrators and policy-makers to discuss what is required for online education to help students succeed, with two particular areas of emphasis:

  • How to help minority and low-income students complete their degrees in California; and
  • Online education is only going to grow, so we need to focus on how to implement successfully.

As described in the introductory post, the conference format was unique in its inclusion of students in every panel – both for their presentations and for their reactions and questions on the other panels.

There were two assumptions underlying all of the discussions:

  • The status quo of minority academic achievement is unacceptable; and
  • Just making online courses available to student is not enough – a holistic approach include support structures is needed.

Minority Academic Achievement

Both of the opening presentations, from California State Senator Holly Mitchell and 20 Million Minds CEO Dean Florez, highlighted some of the key challenges that we face.

Mitchell: And so when we acknowledge that reality, it’s clear that poor black and brown students in California need all the resources, all the help, that we can do to support them. From our perspective, I don’t really care what it takes for our kids to be able to grow up literate and employable. I believe as a legislator I have a responsibility to do what it takes. If the best way to do that is partnering with for-profit, non-profits, MOOCs, UC, Community College . . . whoever is ready to step up, stand up, and make sure that we have opportunities for students to have success, then I am your partner.

Florez: . . . We have about 2.4 million students, the largest system in the nation, here in our Community College System. 50% of African-Americans and Latinos will test three levels below in developmental math. Think about that. Even before you get to a college [credit]-bearing course, half of half will test into a path that – and here’s the stat to remember – only 6% of them will complete and finally get to that college [credit]-bearing math course within three years. . .

So the message to the policy-makers is simply to invest more wisely. Look and listen to students for what works if we’re going to push online [education]. More importantly for the policy-makers here today from UC, CSU, the Community Colleges,  If it really doesn’t work for the students as they listen to it, it probably isn’t going to work in the practical world.

While many other states have similar issues, the numbers for California paint a stark picture. This is not a niche issue for higher education; rather, it is central to the state’s economic health and the well-being of a significant proportion of its residents. The Campaign for College Opportunity provides the following estimates:

The Public Policy Institute of California projects that by 2025, the state will be one million baccalaureate degrees short of meeting the economic productivity demands of our economy. And that’s not even the whole story. Jobs that require more than a high school education but less than a four year degree—“middle skill” jobs—will represent 43% of all job openings between 2006 and 2016 according to a recent California Edge Campaign report. The 2020 Vision Report by the Commission on the Future of the Community College League of California is calling for an increase in certificate and associate degree completions by one million by 2020.

For every dollar California invests to get more students in and through college, it will receive a net return of three dollars. That means an additional one million graduates will generate $5.3 billion in return on investment to the state. California leaders have a critical opportunity this year to make history and move our state and college students forward in the right direction.

Michele Sequeiros from the Campaign gave further context to this economic need and a summary of the current state of minority achievement.

In the Campaign’s report from November:

The good news is that this report confirms the incredible willingness and desire among Latino youth to go to college. Enrollment is high and growing.

But too few Latino college students are earning a certificate or college degree. We are falling into a pattern of improved college access, without success.

Campaign graphic

Need More Than Just Availability of Online Courses

Related to this need, online education can play an important role in helping students succeed, but as Debbie Cochrane from the Institute for College Access and Success called out, it is important to first identify the problems to be solved – recognizing that online education should not be viewed as a panacea or applicable for all problems.

Cochrane: . . . I think the biggest recommendation that I would be very thoughtful about what solution you’re trying to come up with. What is the problem that you want to solve? Is it enabling more students to go to college so that we can increase the number of people enrolled; is it providing some key, targeted courses to ease some of the bottlenecks in our public institutions; is it delivering education in a more cost-effective way; is it reaching 21st century students in a way they’re more accustomed to?

Too frequently online education and technology is positioned as a smoking gun for each and every one of them, and that’s not appropriate. . .

One of the students, Nancy Aparicio, described how some online classes helped but some got in her way.

Aparicio: . . . I had to obtain a part-time job, and that was where I was introduced to online classes. Unfortunately, some were fantastic and let me do what I had to do to get by financially, but there were some classes that did hinder me in the sense that they caused more stress, or they didn’t allow me to have the one-on-one opportunity that I would have had if I had an instructor with a classroom full of peers.

Aside from that, I do believe that online classes allowed me to graduate in 5 years instead of 5.5 years.

Next up – a look at the benefits seen in online education, particular in terms of flexibility.


The above post–pertaining to developments in the education technology space of mutual interest to the Michelson Twenty Million Minds Foundation, Inc. and MindWires Consulting–represent the opinions and views of the designated authors, Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein, who maintain editorial independence.