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What Makes Teaching At Calbright Unique

This post is written by Calbright IT faculty member Michael Stewart.


As California’s first state-wide online community college, everything about Calbright College is meant to be innovative. 

We’re open to all adult Californians with a high school diploma or an equivalent. We don’t offer degrees: we offer pathways to industry valued certifications that help students access new careers and better jobs. There are no terms or semesters: students start when they want, stop when they want, and learn at their own pace. Most of our programs can be completed in less then a year, but it’s up to the students how fast they want to go. There’s no penalty for slowing down when your family needs you. 

As if that wasn’t innovative enough, all our programs and classes are offered debt-free. They are paid for by the State of California to help people who are economically stranded get the skills they need to prosper, and give companies looking to hire for good jobs a pool of applicants ready to succeed. 

But that’s what’s remarkable about how Calbright is designed. As head of the Calbright Academic Senate, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how remarkably different teaching here is. Let me give you an example:

Three months after Calbright’s IT support program launched, we realized that our students weren’t adequately understanding ethics in IT. That matters, not just because ethics are important in the marketplace but because - as IT support technicians - how we handle people’s data matters. So the faculty met and created an ethics component which was  immediately added to the program.  

If you’ve never worked at a college, you probably don’t know how unique that is. To be able to analyze your students’ progress in real time, match their learning to market conditions, and create programmatic fixes right away, is all but unheard of in higher education. That’s just not how it works. 

But that’s how Calbright works. That’s something we, as faculty here, can do for our students.

I’ve been teaching IT for eight years, but I’ve also run my own IT company for 20 years. IT changes quickly, so we are able to use the flexibility that Calbright offers to make sure nothing our students learn is obsolete. I tell them all the time: “everything you’re learning is completely up to date as of five minutes ago.” That’s the kind of education our students need, and that most of them could never get before.

Teaching at Calbright is a process of constant iteration. At faculty meetings we’re always looking at where our students are, what they’re struggling with, and realizing “hey, we could add this and make it a little better. We can offer this new thing to help them.” We never stop looking at what we deliver and how to improve it. When we conduct a student survey and ask students who are further along in the course “What areas need improvement? What was lacking? How did you enjoy it?” we can make immediate adjustments to improve the experience for students who are behind them.  

The fact that students take the courses at their own pace is another thing that makes teaching at Calbright truly unique. It means we have to be teaching every part of the course, all the time; but more importantly, it means that we can’t think of our students as a homogenous group, we have to think of them as individuals who are on their own journey through the course material. 

Many of the standard metrics for student success, like time to course completion, simply don’t apply with Calbright students. The whole point is to work around their lives, and to figure out what engages them with the material, how to make the time they spend in our online classrooms as effective as possible, and getting a sense of what the right rate of progress is for each individual student.

Counter-intuitively for an online college, this makes the experience of teaching at Calbright very personal and even high touch. It’s a lot more challenging, as an instructor, to teach an asynchronous class where you have students at different areas of the course. But for a student? It works out great because they don’t feel the pressure of having to keep up. If a student doesn’t read as fast as their peers, that’s okay - they don’t have to finish the chapter before Monday. If they already have some of the skills we teach, they can move through those sections very quickly just by demonstrating that knowledge. If there’s something they’re struggling with, we can take extra time to help them master it. What we as faculty are doing is meeting the students where they truly are in their lives, working around their schedules, and really creating a plan that works for them and not having them fit into our mold.

Teaching at Calbright is a very different experience, and I think that’s why I see a different level of commitment at Calbright from the faculty, the administration, and the staff. It’s a hard lift to start a new school, especially a new kind of school that has never been tried before.  In every department that I go through, I see that people are dedicated to this mission.  And I think this mission rings very true in the State of California right now: to meet people where they are and bring them hope. I see that hope every day when I talk to new students. To be able to sit at home, work at their own pace, and then sit for an industry standard certificate that might get them into a higher pay scale or a new job? Never mind the fact that it’s free?  

They didn’t think education could do that for them. It turns out we can.