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Was Online Learning A COVID Blip? What LA Community Colleges Learned From 3 Years Of Pandemic Zoom

A student with a black backpack and baseball hat reads a book outside at a picnic table.
Brando Munoz, studying aircraft maintenance at West Los Angeles College, said the on-campus "ambiance" helps him study.
(Jackie Orchard
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Three years ago, community colleges switched to emergency online learning to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic — and so far the system has stuck around.

Was Online Learning A COVID Blip? What LA Community Colleges Learned From Three Years Of Pandemic Zoom

Before the nine-member Los Angeles Community College District went fully remote in March 2020, about 1 in every 5 students already had online classes.

“We're returning to that more normal, in-person environment, but we're not quite there yet,” said Francisco Rodriguez, LACCD’s chancellor. “We're about 50% online or hybrid and 50% in-person and working our way toward an environment that will be more in-person.”

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According to pre-pandemic studies, students in online community college programs did worse than students taking in-person classes. Some researchers have chalked this up to the composition of online classes, where students tended to be studying part-time with jobs and families. As one researcher told Hechinger Report, “We would expect a part-time student with other obligations to perform less well.”

That … describes a lot of community college students — students who are resuming their academic journeys, often later in life than a traditional four-year university student, while balancing jobs and families.

LACCD has many unique needs, serving more student parents and working students than most districts, which widens the appeal to offer online education to meet their schedules. But with many students reporting they just don’t learn as well online, Rodriguez says the future holds a balance.

“The percentage of it, the propensity of it, and types of programs that will be afforded through online education will vary,” he said. “And we're still working through that.”

He estimates LACCD will end up with about one third of classes being held online — more than pre-pandemic, but less than now.

That balance is echoed by other community college leaders, too. Recent research led by Cassandra M.D. Hart, an associate professor of education policy at UC Davis, found that the pandemic "totally opened the floodgates" for online learning at community colleges. Yet leaders interviewed for that study also said sustaining online learning requires both money and time for ongoing faculty training, technology support, and course restructuring.

"We can certainly use more resources so that we can provide the kinds of academic learning and service environments that our students deserve," Rodriguez said.

Part-time worker, part-time student

The reality is that online learning can be more difficult, but some students said they still need the flexibility it offers.

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Raul Avendaño studies English as a Second Language and bookkeeping at East Los Angeles College while also working at McDonald’s. He said he had a well-established job in Mexico but moved here for love.

“I came here and I got married,” Avendaño said. “And I'm starting all over again. I'm trying to achieve my profession that I had in Mexico, I was a bookkeeper, an accountant and a human resources specialist. And I tried to do all of that here, but I know that I need to go to college.”

Avendaño said without his QuickBooks class being online, he wouldn’t be able to work as much as he needs to.

“They help me with the hours because most of the [in-person] classes [are] during the morning,” Avendaño said. “So most of the online classes are in [the] middle of the day or night and that can help I think, not just me, but most of the people that work. I think it's very helpful.”

How can I learn if I can’t ask questions?

Alejandra Estrada, a student at East Los Angeles College, had to drop her asynchronous online course, “Chicanos in Film.” An asynchronous course is a non-live class — you watch when you have time. Estrada said she just couldn’t motivate herself to learn the material without being able to ask the professor questions in real time.

Cal State Long Beach scholar Sharla Berry, who studies online learning, told LAist last year that being intentional about student engagement is a key part of online learning. "Sometimes students might struggle with things where there is less of a personal connection, so we have to be more mindful," she said.

A student in a hoodie and glasses smiles in the sunshine.
Alejandra Estrada of East Los Angeles College says she prefers learning in-person, where she can ask questions in real time.
(Jackie Orchard

“I just personally don't retain [information] well when I'm just supposed to, on my own, read all this stuff that I'm not used to, without any professional support,” Estrada said. “They know more than I do. Versus like, I'm kind of teaching myself. I was supposed to make my own judgments on what I'm studying versus one-on-one help from a teacher.”

Estrada is studying multimedia and has two semesters left. She plans to take her remaining courses in-person if she can.

“I think in person is better,” she said. “I feel like I'm much more of a visual learner and I'm going to be more of a sponge than me on my own doing it by myself.”

You can't learn a trade fully online

Brando Munoz, an aircraft maintenance student at West Los Angeles College, agrees. He said his microbiology course was online, and he struggled. His class was via Zoom, synchronous, but he struggled to connect with other students. He likes in-person communication better.

“I feel like if I'm in the comfort of my house, I get distracted pretty easily,” Munoz says. “So I prefer to come on campus.”

Munoz said that with trade programs like his, you simply can’t do it all online. The hands-on aspect is vital. Studying at a picnic table outside, near the WLAC Student Center, he said there’s something about being on campus.

“I think it's just the ambience,” Munoz said. “You see students walking around, studying and whatnot. I feel like it kind of encourages you to do better.”

A yellow banner reads "We're so glad you're back" on a bridge at West Los Angeles College.
On a recent Monday afternoon, West Los Angeles College is quiet, with few students in the common areas.
(Jackie Orchard

'Online' isn't just about courses

Chancellor Rodriguez said the beauty of community colleges is that they are the most affordable and most accessible form of higher education.

“And we prepare you for 21st-century work,” he said.

And he added one thing they learned from going virtual during the pandemic? Online services are essential, pandemic or not.

“Student support services, counseling, financial aid services, other kinds of supports for the convenience of students,” he said. “Seventy percent of our students are part time — this flexibility of having online professional services does meet the needs for many.”

In order to keep community colleges accessible, online options are here to stay.

“We serve more first-generation students than any other system,” Rodriguez said. “Our district in particular, in the Los Angeles region, we enroll more student veterans, more former foster care, more undocumented students, more students who are formerly incarcerated or justice involved, more students of color. I do believe that it will be a common feature for all community colleges to have robust online programs to complement the in-person instruction.”

What questions do you have about local community colleges?
Community colleges act as a gateway for first-generation students and adults seeking a second start. LAist reporter Jackie Orchard wants students — and those who support them — to have the information they need to thrive in the California Community College system.

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