Calbright College: There’s A Reason So Few Survive The Essentials Course

Poor course design in particular

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The California legislature – both the Assembly and the Senate – has reached an agreement to defund Calbright College as part of the FY2021 budget cycle, as covered by Ashley Smith at EdSource.

A Legislative Analyst’s report on the May budget revision estimated that eliminating Calbright would save about $137 million, including $20 million in operating costs for next year and taking back $117 million in unspent funds. The study called for Calbright’s abolishment and noted it, “has a very high cost per student, is currently unaccredited and largely duplicates programs at other colleges.”

The only two groups beyond the college itself that I have heard calling for Calbright to be kept alive are the Community College Chancellor’s Office 1 and the Governor’s Office [emphasis added].

However, officials from the community college chancellor’s office and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said they stand by the college. Calbright has enrolled 523 people, with 61 of them completing the entry-level course and participating in one of the college’s three programs, as of May 1, according to Calbright’s data.

That description above highlights an aspect of the Calbright story that has not received much attention, although it is quite relevant. Fewer than 12% of students who are enrolled make it through the entry-level Essentials course.

There’s a reason why this success rate is so low – the course is poorly-designed and one of the most demotivating examples I have seen in higher education. I am one of those unsuccessful students.

Depending on your point of view, this situation could be interpreted as demonstrating that Calbright College’s approach suffered from hubris and did not seek input from community college faculty, or it could be interpreted as showing that the enrollment (and cost-per-student) have been artificially harmed by poor design that theoretically is fixable. Either way, I do not believe that Calbright can succeed without major changes.


Calbright is following a competency-based education (CBE) program that is not credit-bearing, and the college is not planned to be accredited until at least Year 3. Ashley Smith described the target student population in this January post:

The college was seen as a bold initiative championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown to serve so-called stranded workers — older workers who need additional skills to advance in their careers without having to go back to college to get a degree. Brown envisioned the college as serving adult and underemployed populations of students who are working part-time or stuck in positions that don’t pay a living wage. The California Community College system identifies those students between the ages of 25 and 34. Despite that focus, any student can enroll in the college.

As part of the curriculum, students have to take the College and Career Essential Skills course before moving on to one of the three programs. My goal, for what it’s worth, was to get into the Cybersecurity program based on our evolving work in research on student learning outcomes. From the Calbright curriculum page on the Essentials Course:

This competency-based noncredit course is designed to prepare adult learners to develop essential skills necessary for college and career success through contextualized academic preparation. In the area of college success, learners will focus on the reading, writing, and math skills needed to be successful within an academic and professional environment. The course will focus on improving critical reading and writing as well as a conceptual understanding of basic math skills. In the area of career success, students will develop awareness and competency of the 21st Century employability skills identified by employers as essential to career success through self-directed learning modules, self-exploration, and practiced-based exercises.

Rather than use the statewide implementation of Canvas as its LMS, as the rest of the community colleges do, Calbright College chose to work with Strut Learning and their Cognify platform. Strut Learning used to be Sagence Learning, which used to be Flat World. I wrote about the origins of the platform in this e-Literate post.

Strut Learning, however, provides more than a platform. Strut Learning provides courseware that combines content and platform into a unified package. Strut Learning as a company has been paid to develop many of the Calbright College courses on top of the Cognify platform. I do not know who made the course design decisions that I describe below.

The Essentials Course

The Essentials course is self-paced – an online collection of content and assessments and assignments. I believe the only interaction with any advisors or instructors comes when they use rubrics to assess the non-multiple-choice assignments. At that time the instructors often offer to discuss the feedback via chat or Zoom. Well, there was also an automated email sent out two months into the program based on my lack of progress.

You are enrolled in a flexible paced course and this email is just a reminder that the Calbright instructional team is here to support you.

We noticed that you have not recorded an academic activity in the last 14 days (two weeks) in Competency 1: 21st Century Skills. Completing a knowledge check (or quiz), discussion question or milestone activity is the easiest way to demonstrate an academic activity. If you are working outside of the Strut learning platform on an assignment, please disregard this email.

Confusing Navigation

One problem is that the course has fairly confusing navigation. The course is broken into three Competencies, and when I log into the first one, I get this basic screen. The Overview gives a confusing description, but what am I supposed to do next? Take an assessment, browse activities?

Use the Competency menu buttons to navigate through the different parts of your competency. Clicking the different buttons will reveal different competency content.

The answer seems to be to go to Activities next, where the first of three Competencies has been broken down into a series of nine Objectives that use a locking mechanism to prevent me from even seeing future Objectives until I finish my previous set of activities.

I’ll have to zoom out to show you the many components (activities, tasks, topics?) under just one Objective.

Once in a specific section, if I want to go back to the full activity list, I have to know to click the unlabeled left arrow button at the top left of the screen (just under the Calbright logo), while browsing previous and next activities are handled by text hyperlinks in the top center and top right sections.

Disjoint Learning Activities

For the Developing Emotional Intelligence section, I am asked to do the following:

In this Learning Activity, you will dive deeply into emotional intelligence and have an opportunity to reflect on your own experience in understanding your emotions and that of others. The course summary explains what you will be learning.

After completing the LinkedIn Learning course, download the LinkedIn Learning Certificate for this course and save it to your files. You will be uploading all LinkedIn Learning Certificates completed in the 21st-Century Employability Skills Objective in Milestone Activity: LinkedIn Learning Certificates.

I am now completely outside of the Calbright system, working in LinkedIn Learning, and the only connection is for me, the student, to obtain and then upload the certificate as a file back in Strut Learning platform. And the LinkedIn Learning integration does not even help me find the “Developing Your Emotional Intelligence” lesson (they’ve now changed language from a course to a lesson?). I am just in the generic LinkedIn Learning home page.

In fact, this appears to be the common design of the course / lesson / activity / topic. For any activity that goes beyond reading text or completing auto-graded multiple choice assessments, the student does not even work in the Calbright platform. They work separately and then upload or link their results.

As another example, I was asked to create a CV in one activity. The Calbright platform linked to a rubric, with a separate link to a MS Word document that contained the actual instructions for completing the assignment. That assignment required me, amazingly enough, to then jump into a Google Drive document.

If you are patient enough to scan that entire document, you’ll notice that at no point are you given guidance on what to fill out. The instructions go from Step 1 (review rubrics) to Step 2 (in your response).

Why in 2020 do I not have access to a in-line document that allows instructor markup? Or even an Microsoft 365 or Google Drive integration that provides a document template?

Pedantic Over Mastery

From my experience, the Essentials course presents an overwhelming pedantic design. I am supposed to understand competencies, objectives, topics, lessons, courses, activities, rubrics, and assessments, to name a few. Why? And why do I have to go through so much minutiae of employability concepts just to be allowed to get into the cybersecurity program?

The course is overly extensive without much real value. To give you a sense of how extensive, consider that the following gif shows me scrolling through the menu of activities for one of the three competencies in the Essentials course.

I understand the need to assess basic skills and guide students in employability skills, but this throw everything in you can think of method is not the right approach.

Missing Much of the Point of CBE

Despite all of this forced usage of the various CBE terminology, the course itself does not follow competency principles. The core idea behind CBE and its application to workforce development is that learners should focus on what they need to learn, with the ability to test out or demonstrate competencies in areas where they already have the skills. Prior Learning Assessments. But in the Calbright Essentials course, almost all objectives are locked, only to be released if prior objectives have been met. And learners are blocked from even taking the assessments until they click through the learning activities themselves. This appears to be a course design problem rather than a learning platform limitation, for what it’s worth.

End Result

The end result is a mess that serves as an obstacle course, preventing learners from getting to the academic program that they need. The content is overly extensive, disjoint, frustrating, and presented in a way that is utterly confusing to navigate.

Keep in mind that I am not the target learner. Calbright College is supposed to serve “underemployed populations of students who are working part-time or stuck in positions that don’t pay a living wage”, not market analysts with deep knowledge of CBE and learning platforms. Ask almost any community college instructor, and they will tell you the importance of providing support and guidance for students, making sure that you don’t put confusing barriers in their way. It is not surprising to me that fewer than 12% of students make it through this course and start their actual program of study. 2

There is a real risk when ed reformers take an approach of we know better than educators, actively avoiding participation from those with experience rather than including them in the change process. I understand the desire to not be constrained by past practices, but hubris can be fatal. Based on my experience with Calbright College, it cannot succeed, even if fully funded, unless there is a redesign of the learning experience.

If Calbright College is defunded, then I hope we can learn from the experience. If Calbright survives this budget cycle, then I hope they change their assumptions and focus on a redesign that has a chance of succeeding with the target student population.

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