Higher ed with remote reach

Colleges embrace diverse models to boost the success of remote dual enrollment classes

Most of the 2 million students participating in dual enrollment programs attend classes at their high schools or on higher ed campuses. Colleges in at least 35 states, however, offer students another option—online classes, according to research by the Education Commission of the States.

Access is a main aim. Distance learning provides opportunities to students in areas with a lack of local colleges or high school teachers qualified to instruct college classes, notes a 2015 report by ACT, a testing company that also promotes college and career readiness. But it’s not as easy as simply moving content online.

Remote learning must be tailored to high school students’ needs. “For most of these students, it’s their first time in college classes and their first experience with distance [education], which can be overwhelming,” says Adam Lowe, executive director for the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.

New accreditation standards for online learning

As options for distance education grow, more high school students are taking online classes and earning college credit without commuting to campuses.

Consider that:

  • 28 percent of public high schools offered the majority of their dual enrollment classes via distance education, according to a 2013 report from the National Center for Education Statistics—the latest data available.
  • The National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP) reports an uptick in online offerings, leading the nonprofit to expand the scope of its accreditation to include virtual classes.


As more colleges make dual-enrollment classes available online, new options are emerging for structuring classes, boosting student/teacher interaction and ensuring content rigor. Here are some successful approaches.

Making it feel like a classroom

Internet access is sparse in the rural communities served by Northland Pioneer College, and a teacher shortage makes it impossible to offer dual enrollment classes in local high schools. The vast, rural landscape also makes for difficult travel among the four campuses spread out across the northeast corner of Arizona.

To meet the demand for dual enrollment, Northland Pioneer College received a grant from Cisco to launch a virtual classroom in 2015.

College instructors lead classes as if students were seated in front of them, not receiving the lessons via livestream in their high school classrooms; students can engage in virtual interactions with each other via the high-tech screens, with each location appearing in a small box on a screen.

Voice-activated software zooms in on speakers and brings their image to the forefront.

More than 600 students participate each year. “The interaction with their faculty members and their peers in other locations provides a personal relationship for these students,” says PJ Way, associate vice president and CIO at the college’s Painted Desert Campus.

The setting has improved recruitment, interaction and retention—with more than 95 percent of students completing their classes. Grades in the dual enrollment program are higher than expected, too. In 2017, 92 percent of students earned an A.

“There were no dual enrollment opportunities for about two-thirds of our population that are currently enrolled,” Way says. “So it’s about opportunity—it’s about pairing people who have the drive, desire and engagement with caring faculty [and] technology that makes it personal.”

New accreditation standards for online learning (cont.)

As options for distance education grow, more high school students are taking online classes and earning college credit without commuting to campuses.

NACEP insight and action:

  • “Ninety percent of the standards will apply to all delivery models and instructors, but there are unique features and challenges of online classes,” says NACEP Executive Director Adam Lowe.
  • The alliance has been reviewing how to integrate best practices for dual enrollment established by organizations such as the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, Quality Matters and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.


Monitoring the process—continuously

More than 600 high school students take classes through Western Texas College—and Ralph Ramon, vice president and dean of student services, admits that confirming that online students understand the material and aren’t cheating on tests or assignments are challenges.

To ensure rigor, Western Texas staffs all dual enrollment classes with facilitators and proctors all exams. “We’re offering college credits and our reputation is on the line,” Ramon says.

At most colleges, dual enrollment students generally work on assignments and take tests in high school classrooms during school hours, while facilitators are onsite. Students taking tests outside the classroom are monitored by services such as ProctorU or SmarterProctoring.

Western Texas also tracks instructors. For instance, administrators look out for a disproportionate numbers of A’s being given in an individual course. Instructors are also encouraged to use the same syllabus for all sections of a class. “This kind of monitoring helps us maintain a consistent, rigorous learning environment,” Ramon says.

Thanks to the safeguards Western Texas officials put in place, the college has signed articulation agreements with multiple universities that accept up to 60 credit hours in transfer credits. “We want the dual enrollment program to be a stepping stone,” says Ramon. “When it’s done right, students can have their higher [education] future planned.”

New accreditation standards for online learning (cont.)

As options for distance education grow, more high school students are taking online classes and earning college credit without commuting to campuses.

Recommendations will likely include:

  • hosting orientations to help students understand how to navigate the technology and access resources
  • requiring instructor training in the delivery of online courses

Creating a relevant experience

When Post University started its dual enrollment program in 2013, all classes were offered online. Although the for-profit college expanded to offer classes in high schools and at the Waterbury, Connecticut, campus, 100 percent of dual enrollment students take at least one of their classes online.

Because the average age of Post’s online learners is 37, the university created a separate section for dual enrollment high school students.

“The rigor and content remain the same, but the online discussions are different,” says director of strategic partnerships Christina Agvent. “Creating discussions aimed at high school students will make the content feel more relevant but still meet the same learning outcomes.”

Faculty will often ask older students to relate class content to their professional experiences. The dual-enrollment students are asked about relevant experiences on sports teams, in classes or at part-time jobs.

Separating the dual enrollment section offers another advantage: Students feel more comfortable participating with peers in discussions, including in the real-time video and audio conferences the college launched last semester, Agvent says.

Not all dual enrollment classes are separated into their own section: High school students pursuing degrees will take some upper-level classes with adult learners. “We like to give them a strong foundation and boost their confidence before putting them in classes with adult students,” Agvent says.

Offering a hybrid approach

At the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College, the 220 current dual enrollment students can take classes online, or at the high school or college campus. A hybrid model is another option. Students benefit from the personal interactions with instructors, even on a limited basis, Provost Richard A. Sax says.

“You have to be incredibly focused to succeed in online classes and most high school students haven’t developed that skill,” Sax says. “When they spend time with their professors, their achievement levels skyrocket.”

Students in hybrid courses either meet for one week at the beginning and at the end of the semester, with online learning modules in between, or they meet once per week and supplement with virtual interactions.

Travel times to campus and a lack of high school teachers qualified to teach college curriculum make it impossible for all dual enrollment students to receive in-person instruction, Sax says. This makes online classes the most appropriate option for some learners.

Currently, 20 percent of the college’s dual enrollment students take classes completely online. But the hybrid model is keeping pace—another 20 percent of students spend at least part of the program in a classroom. Sax hopes the latter number continues climbing.

“Having interactions and being part of a discourse community is critically important to college success,” he says. “It’s so much more powerful than communicating electronically.”

 Jodi Helmer, a frequent contributor to UB, is a North Carolina-based writer.

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