UT SAN DIEGO. APRIL 1, 2013. Online education is anything but new to college campuses. Students have been able to take classes and even full courses entirely online for years.
But thanks in part to a push by Gov. Jerry Brown to have California’s public colleges and universities use technology to expand their reach and operate more efficiently, a slew of new initiatives are being launched. The governor earmarked millions of dollars in funding for online course expansion for all higher education sectors in his proposed state budget.
For its part, the 23-campus California State University system and its individual campuses, including San Diego State University and Cal State San Marcos, are pursuing several online paths to help students avoid enrollment bottlenecks and finish their degrees more quickly.
Part of the motivation is making sure precious state investments in education don’t go to waste. Thousands of students leave school every year without finishing degree programs because of overcrowded classes as well as changing life circumstances.
Even as online education continues to grow, those in the trenches say it is important to make sure quality doesn’t erode under the effort to make college more accessible and efficient. A recent bill introduced by state legislators would allow private companies to provide up to 50 of the highest demand classes to public college and university students for credit. It has prompted widespread concern among faculty leaders who are uncomfortable giving up oversight of online courses.
Warren Ashley, director of the center for mediated instruction and distance learning at Cal State University Dominguez Hills, said the best programs are those developed by faculty who want to put their courses online. He and others worry that the emphasis on cost savings might lead some public education programs to become a “Costco of education” that present information but fail to provide the interactive learning environment he called “an essential part of education.”
“You take one of this and one of those and one of those and by the time you are at the end of the aisle, you have a degree,” Ashley said. “It would be a degree — you can use it to get advanced in your career or get promoted. But you shouldn’t confuse it with an education.”
Lawmakers say the schools and faculty would play a key role in shaping the programs.
Here are three paths that CSU online education is taking:
Cal State Online
Online courses have mainly been a campus-by-campus effort but a more centralized approach from the CSU system is being pursued. Cal State Online initially will focus on helping students who have hit roadblocks in their studies complete their degrees. A half-dozen online degrees are expected to be offered under the program by the fall.
CSU is partnering with Pearson eCollege for the initiative, with the vendor providing marketing and technical support. While traditional tuition fees are subsidized by the state, Cal State Online programs are run under a self-support model, which means there is no state subsidy and students pay the full cost of instruction.
In January, about two dozen students enrolled in the first program, a bachelor’s in business administration out of Cal State Fullerton.
For that degree program, students enroll with at least 60 units of lower-division business courses completed and take one three-unit upper-division class every eight weeks. Most will need about three years to finish their bachelor’s degree — after paying for and completing the 60 units — at a cost of $500 per unit or $30,000, said Jenny Zhang, a Fullerton professor and director of the online degree completion program.
By comparison, CSU’s annual tuition and fees average about $6,612 per year, a CSU spokesman said. If a student were able to complete a bachelor’s degree in four years, and fees weren’t increased, that would cost about $26,500.
Offering the degree through Cal State Online expands the reach to a population beyond those students who live within driving distance of Fullerton.
Students enrolled in the program pay more than the regular tuition at CSU campuses but are guaranteed to get the classes they need. Zhang said they receive a higher level of personal service from Fullerton faculty and Pearson staff.
“I talked to them, our business advisor talked to them. We help them to register for classes,” Zhang said. “Because they are paying a higher rate, we do want them to be successful and provide them the best we can to help them.”
San Jose’s experiments
A more experimental model is being pursued at San Jose State University, which has partnered with Udacity, a Silicon Valley for-profit online education startup, to offer entry-level remedial math, algebra and statistics classes in massive open online courses for college credit. Those are considered “gatekeeper classes” and historically have high failure rates among students. Students pay a fee of $150 for the classes, although that was waived this semester after a foundation and donor came forward.
“We are trying to figure out if we can use the technology that is so pervasive in our lives to help students master these classes,” said Patricia Lopes Harris, a university spokeswoman. “The idea is if we can increase not just the pass rate but help students master the materials in these classes, they will be able to go on and get their degree in a timely manner.”
Gone is the traditional lecture. The Udacity approach calls for a series of short contextual video lessons followed by exercises to ensure the material is understood.
San Jose also is collaborating with edX, a nonprofit online platform founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, to offer an online class in basic circuits. This is the second semester the partnership has offered the class, which is a requirement for electrical engineering majors.
Typically only about 60 percent of the students pass the traditional class; the online version offered last fall had a 91 percent passing rate, with students completing more quizzes and participating in more group work.
“There is no money savings in (the efforts) but what we are hoping is that over time we will reduce the number of students who have to retake and retake and retake these classes in order to pass,” Harris said.
Individual CSU campuses
Even while a systemwide approach is being pursued through Cal State Online, professors are being encouraged to embrace digital education at their individual campuses. Cal State San Marcos recently held an online institute attended by 16 professors who plan to convert classes to online formats this summer. The university plans to launch its first online degree program, a master’s in education in literacy, in the summer.
San Diego State University is offering 139 online courses at least once in 2012-13, including 84 undergraduate and 55 graduate courses. SDSU also has five fully online graduate programs.
Stanley Maloy, SDSU’s dean of the College of Sciences, which has pushed a number of classes and programs online in recent years, said maintaining quality in the programs is crucial.
“The one thing that is key is to make sure the information is there. The student can ask questions and get answers to their questions in a very quick amount of time,” Maloy said. “Students in the class interact with other students. And they get all the content they would have got if they were in person.”
SDSU has opted to keep its programs in-house and not partner with outside companies, at least for now, said James P. Frazee, director of instructional technology services at San Diego State University.
“The bottom line is that we really feel like the faculty need to own these courses, not a team of instructional designers that may be 300 miles away from here. It is essential for us to have faculty in the driver’s seat,” Frazee said. “That’s how we can preserve the quality of those courses.”