Clark College will be bringing back in-person learning this fall term after more than a year of remote operations during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, not everyone will be heading back to a physical campus this September: The college is also now offering a wide range of fully online degree programs.
Actually, for years students have been able to earn an associate degree from the public community college by taking only online classes— they just had to figure out how to do it more or less on their own. Now, however, the college has created easily identifiable pathways to earn the following degrees online:
• Associate in Arts transfer degree, with eight emphasis options in Communication Studies, English, Geography, History, Psychology, Sociology, Spanish and Business Administration
• Associate in Arts transfer degree with a concentration in Women’s Studies
• Associate in Applied Science in Business Administration
• Associate in Applied Technology in Health Information Management
• Associate in Applied Technology in Network Technologies
• Associate in Applied Technology in CISCO Technologies
“Before Covid, while we didn’t officially have online degree programs lined up for students, it was still possible to get your degree by taking fully online classes,” said Dr. Kathy Chatfield, who leads the college’s eLearning department. “It was just harder to figure out because it wasn’t all nicely laid out in a package like it is now.”
Chatfield added that when the college moved to remote learning during the pandemic, it sped up a process the college had already initiated to create fully online degree pathways. After all, the demand had been there for a while.
“Online classes are typically the first classes to fill and have a waitlist,” she said. “About four years ago, a research report indicated the institutions that were really experiencing growth were not building online courses individually but were creating entirely online degrees. That’s the point when we said, ‘Let’s look at this more holistically.’”
Fortunately, Clark College is well-placed to provide online education to students. Chatfield, who has been with the college since 1995, said the college’s eLearning Department started around 2005. She said eLearning classes had been popular long before Covid, largely due to the flexibility they provide. Many online classes are what’s called “asynchronous,” meaning they don’t have set class times that students have to adjust their schedules to attend. This allows students to fit education around other parts of their lives, like family care or job schedules.
Clark College’s online education offers many other benefits. It can be a great fit for students with learning differences, or who might feel intimidated speaking up in a physical classroom.
Online students are still Clark College students. They earn the same degree, with the same amount of credits, as they would in on-campus classes—meaning they can qualify for jobs and transfer to university just as well as any other graduate from the college. They are taught by the same high-quality faculty who teach in the college’s on-campus programs.
Additionally, online students have access to the same services that other students at Clark College have, including free tutoring, library loans, and career guidance.
Chatfield estimates that 30- to-40 percent of Clark College students were taking some sort of online class prior to Covid.
“That’s a very high percentage for an institution that’s not a fully online institution,” she said. “The students represented
everybody. They were Running Start students. They were young moms, students right out of high school, full- and part-time employees, retired people. It included people from many different backgrounds. That’s what a community college is: Community college is for the entire community.”
Dr. Brenda Walstead, Dean of Business and Health Sciences, said that the move to remote learning during Covid has led to a greater student demand for online class options—even once campus is re-opened.
“What being forced to learn online has done is make that modality more comfortable for both faculty and students,” she said.
The move to remote learning also turned some formerly skeptical faculty into fans of the format, Chatfield said. “Covid was a gamechanger for everybody,” she said. “Faculty who weren’t going to teach online before are now doing it, and students who hadn’t considered taking online classes are liking it. The pandemic really changed our mindsets on so many things.”
One major source of skepticism among faculty was how to ensure students were learning everything they needed to while not in the classroom. That’s something Chatfield and her department were already working on before Covid. The department provides ongoing professional development for faculty in online teaching, including training in the standards used by Quality Matters, a global nonprofit organization leading quality assurance in online and digital education.
Walstead credited the college’s smooth transition to online learning in 2020 to the work that Chatfield and the eLearning Department has done the last few years, along with a supportive faculty team who jumped in to help each other make the switch.
“The faculty rose to the occasion,” Walstead said. “Teaching online is a whole different skill set. Things like getting students engaged and giving feedback–you have to do it differently when it’s all online. Kathy and her team have offered great professional development for faculty to get more comfortable teaching online.”
Walstead said feedback from students over the last year has shown they feel that online learning is improving at Clark as both they and the faculty get more experience with that style of learning.
Chatfield expects that to continue to get even better as more programs offer online options for their degrees. Ideally, she wants it to get to a point where a student on the other side of the country can get a degree at Clark. In the meantime, eLearning continues to expand: By spring 2022, the college should be offering its first fully online bachelor’s degree, in cybersecurity.