SAN GABRIEL VALLEY TRIBUNE. FEBRUARY 19, 2013. For millions of students around the country like Cal State Long Beach student Dan Deguzman, the appeal of online classes is growing.
"It's great because I can stay at home and I don't have to commute to school every day and spend money on gas," said Deguzman, a mechanical engineering major who is considering taking an online class next fall. "I think a lot of students would like to have that option."
U.S. colleges and universities in recent years have been beefing up their online offerings in an effort to improve graduation rates, alleviate overcrowded classrooms and reach a generation of tech-savvy students.
In the fall 2011 semester, more than
6.7 million students nationally took an online course, for an increase of 570,000 students from the previous year, according to a study by the Babson Survey Research Group.
Today, 32 percent of college students are enrolled in at least one course online.
State officials are taking note. In Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed California budget released last month, he slated $10 million each for the Cal State University and University of California systems to expand their online offerings.
The 23-campus CSU system is moving in that direction with the launch of Cal State Online, which offers two bachelor's degrees and four master's degrees that can be earned online via three campuses: Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Dominguez Hills and Cal State Monterey Bay.
The effort kicked off last month with a bachelor of arts in business administration pilot program at Fullerton. The full Cal State Online program will launch this fall.
The Fullerton program started small with about 25 students per course, said program director Jenny Zhang, adding that the program will grow in the fall. Zhang said Fullerton received about 140 applications this year and more than 500 for fall 2013.
"So far I think our students are very happy with the program," she said. "Almost all of our students are working full time, and it's hard for them to come to campus, so this is a good solution."
But as the demand grows, online learning also faces challenges, including costs for program development and concerns over quality and academic rigor.
"The vast majority of our faculty is not opposed to online education, but we want to make sure it's the quality education that you'd find in a regular classroom," said Teri Yamada, a professor of Asian Studies at Cal State Long Beach and member of the Cal State Online Taskforce, a group of faculty and other CSU officials who oversee the development of online programs. "The ideal online class would be small, under 35 students. Because to teach a quality online course, you have to establish a relationship with the student."
At $500 per unit, the cost of Fullerton's online classes is steeper than the regular $372 per unit for out-of-state students, but Zhang said funds generated from the program will be reinvested into improving the online experience.
University officials hope to eventually expand Cal State Online to offer degrees for tens of thousands of students across the world.
Cal State Long Beach President F. King Alexander said online courses can alleviate some of the overcrowding on campuses while at the same time enrolling more working students, international students and those serving in the armed forces overseas.
His campus last year was the most in-demand in the CSU system with more than 80,000 undergraduate applicants for fall 2013. The university plans to admit less than 20 percent of those students.
"We're about 10 years behind where we should be in online education," Alexander said. "But now we have an opportunity to increase our enrollment and give the university a much broader reach around the world."
San Jose State is already working toward a global approach with its launch last month of a series of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The pilot project, called San Jose State University Plus, is offering entry level mathematics, elementary statistics and college algebra at $150 per course, a fraction of the cost of other online programs.
The program, which is starting out with 100 students enrolled in each of the three courses, will be analyzed for dropout rates and overall student performance.
If the project works, it could pave the way for the CSU to eventually offer low-cost credit courses to hundreds of thousands of students worldwide.
Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council for Education, said the rising popularity of MOOCs is shining a spotlight on the demand for new technology in education.
"In general, online education is growing, and I think it's becoming more sophisticated in terms of technology and in terms of the student experience," she said.
However, the jury is still out on whether MOOCs are a sustainable method in online learning. Sandeen said her Washington, D.C.-based group, which represents 1,800 degree-granting institutions, is conducting studies on the effectiveness of online courses. The Council for Education just this month recommended degree credit for five courses, including two - pre-calculus and algebra - at the University of California, Irvine. Many institutions use the association's recommendations to determine whether to grant credit for courses.
"When all is said and done, when we compare in-class and online learning, what we're seeing is that outcomes for student learning are the same," Sandeen said.
While some students enjoy online courses, others say they prefer the traditional classroom setting.
Ahn Tran, a 23-year-old art major at Cal State Long Beach, said her online course this semester is too demanding.
"It's a lot of work because you have to check the info every day and really keep up with it," she said. "Maybe it's great for students who are superorganized, but it's not for me."