Houston Community College Coleman Hallway

What’s Next for Community College Learning Environments?

As we enter a COVID-19 era environment, community colleges, like their 4-year institution cousins, are left to determine how best to deliver a successful learning experience amidst their assessment of the leap to online “virtual” learning necessitated by the pandemic. What did we learn from teaching online?

Of course, there are many community colleges that have successfully provided online content for decades — for some, it is their sole model for teaching and learning. However, pandemic conditions made virtual learning nearly ubiquitous. How did it go? Are the traditional in-person models still the gold standard for learning? How should the community college learning environment evolve from here?

Community colleges have a history of meeting the evolving needs of a diverse student population.

Community colleges have been successfully targeting the needs of their varied student populations since they embraced the open-access policies that created them over 100 years ago. In the 1930s, students who found four-year institutions lacked vocational training took to community colleges.

That same vocational training was in demand in the 1940s and 50s through military veterans and the G.I. Bill. And as the baby boomer generation went to school in the 1960s, community colleges became a source of education for primary and secondary teachers.

Throughout this rich history, community colleges have succeeded by embracing the needs of their student populations, especially as those populations have grown to be more diverse through the impact of their open-access admissions.

Many community colleges have developed formal relationships with 4-year institutions to eliminate the need for a re-admission process that had become a stumbling block to those who sought bachelor’s degrees. Military students can often take classes at community colleges where they are stationed, while high school students can take classes at community colleges online without leaving their schools.

These innovations, paired with workforce training programs and collaborations with businesses and public agencies, show that community colleges are invested in their students and the surrounding communities.

And now, the acceleration of virtual learning has created an expectation of student choice.

So how can community colleges meet the needs of today’s students in a post-COVID world? The answer to this question can be found, in part, by looking at the successes and challenges of virtual teaching and learning during the pandemic. It’s clear that there are pros and cons to both in-person and virtual learning.

In fact, in a recent survey of students who have spent the last year of their life taking classes virtually, they were generally split as to which learning environment they preferred. However, they resoundingly identified student choice (a student’s flexibility to determine for themselves whether to attend classes in-person or online) as a defining characteristic of their preferred learning environment.1 This result may be particularly important for community colleges.

By making students captains of their learning, community colleges can take the next step in defining the learning environments that best engage their diverse student populations by promoting learning options that support student choice. But what does a learning environment focused on student choice look like?

Bellevue University lab with students and instructor
Bellevue University's recent lab renovations incorporated technology to accommodate hybrid courses.

Hybrid learning environments, those that are both in-person and online, are among the more attractive options for community colleges seeking to support a student’s choice to attend virtually or in-person. In hybrid learning, students can choose whether to participate online or in person.

Classrooms can have traditional seating layouts or be organized in groups for active learning but, in all cases, they are technology-rich — providing cameras and displays that allow online students to share the in-person environment. There is no additional cost for space (indeed space needs may be reduced for this model), but the additional technology can be expensive.

Hybrid learning provides some attractive options for students, but should not be considered a panacea. Hybrid learning classes still require learners to “attend” at the same time (synchronously) as if they were in-person. Instructors are required to be two places at once during class time, constraining the time for student attention and support. Additionally, student interaction, particularly between online and in-person students during class, can create significant technology challenges, especially with audio.

What if we could expand student choice to create a truly customized learning experience? What would that learning environment look like?  It would certainly be student-paced, and with more flexible instructor support available. It would be partially or fully asynchronous (available on demand). And it would still provide the meaningful student interaction at the heart of student engagement and, ultimately, student success. In short, a tall order. Does this even exist?

A combination of hybrid and blending learning may offer students a highly customizable student experience. 

Perhaps an additional model that community colleges should look at is “blended learning,” which includes both online and in-person, synchronous and asynchronous components. Students prepare for limited in-person class time using online resources outside of class time.

The most common of these approaches, the “flipped classroom” approach, requires students to watch lectures online and reserves class time for a more active form of education such as project and problem-solving models. These models take advantage of the positive effects of active learning during in-person classes, by removing the time spent lecturing.

Space demands for blended learning are typically limited to creating the active learning environments essential to class time, often using just furniture to create the important group relationships, while modest technology demands are borne by students outside of class time on laptops (or even phones).

There are many successful examples of this approach. For decades so-called “executive” MBA programs have used a blended approach that allows online (or at least, asynchronous) learning for an abundance of the learning experience, while limiting in-person class time to weekends. Blended models can also be used in combination with hybrid models.

As it has in the recent past, technology will continue to provide for increased student options. Virtual reality (goggled or otherwise) is already offering expanded opportunities for bringing environments to students wherever they are, while artificial intelligence may ultimately provide the 24/7 student support that has traditionally relied on the hands-on input of the class instructor.

And social media and other communication tools are already replacing some of the student interaction that has historically been associated only with traditional campus experience. Even some early data suggests that virtual teaming is nearly as effective as in-person interaction in effectively fostering student engagement.

For now, though they don’t provide a fully-customizable student experience, hybrid and blended learning appear to be two of the best models for accommodating student choice. But moving forward, we can expect that these learning environment models will continue to evolve - at times drastically so – and this something that all institutions should continue to have front of mind.


  1. “Survey Reveals Positive Outlook on Online Instruction Post-Pandemic.” Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/04/27/survey-reveals-positive-….