Think Outside the Classroom

Can online courses save California universities?

Back Article Aug 1, 2013 By Michelle Locke



At first glimpse, online classes sound like a revolutionary cure for numerous problems plaguing California universities. They allow scores of students to enroll in college for a nominal fee and gain access to top-notch professors from elite schools.

The state public university system could certainly use the help. Years of budget cuts have resulted in qualified students being denied admission. Students admitted into the University of California and state college systems have trouble accessing all the classes they need, and those who do make it into the right classes encounter long waits and overcrowding. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of freshmen are showing up in need of remedial courses, an expense that can cut a college career short before an individual even begins working toward a major. 

A bright spot has appeared in the form of “massive open online courses” that claim to provide an elite college experience to anyone with Internet access. These new types of digital courses, known as MOOCs, are free or nearly free and provided by off-campus vendors.

But some college professors are worried that the online courses — especially the mass variety that enable students to sign up by the thousands — diminish the quality of education by eliminating traditional interaction between professors and students. There are also concerns that MOOCs have extremely low completion rates; a commonly quoted figure is 10 percent.

Online courses aren’t a new phenomenon. Individual campuses have been offering them for some time, usually taught by their own faculty. The classes are accredited and contain the same enrollment requirements as in-person offerings. Some classes are taught entirely online, while others involve students meeting occasionally or frequently with human educators.

The newer online courses, the MOOCs, have no enrollment barriers. Information is delivered in short, digestible chunks with frequent quizzes and reviews. Major MOOC providers include Coursera and Udacity, both for-profit companies, and edX, a nonprofit consortium between Harvard, MIT and other top schools.

In response to concerns that nine in 10 people never finish the courses, vendors argue that the completion figure is a moving target since some students may still be working on completion and others may have been professionals who dropped in for just a few sessions as a refresher. And the new courses have been evolving. Some offer proctored exams, usually for a small fee, and others are working on gaining accreditation.

Two big selling points of going digital are cost and convenience. Students fit classes into their schedule rather than scheduling their lives around classes, and campuses see savings on personnel and space. 

A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that, with the number of course selections at state community colleges down by as much as 20 percent since 2008, enrollment rates have hit their lowest point in two decades. The California State University system turned away 20,000 eligible students in 2012 due to funding cuts and about the same number this year. The University of California has also seen cutbacks due to decreased funding.

In addition to the high dropout rates, critics of online courses cite the potential for underperformance. Dean Murakami, a psychology professor at American River College in Sacramento, who is also president of the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers, wants online classes limited to around 45 students, the same size as regular community college classes.  In the bigger courses, students who are well prepared academically and well-motivated may do fine, he says, but students who aren’t as prepared will “get left in the dust.”

Another big concern from faculty is that outsourcing classes will lead to a product that on-campus faculty cannot influence and will reduce professor-student interaction. Students would also encounter fewer of the diverse viewpoints that flourish during lively class discussions.

This spring, the philosophy department at San Jose State refused to use materials from an edX social justice course that used materials from an eminent Harvard professor. Campus officials said the department hadn’t been under any mandate to use the materials. 

In a letter to the course’s instructor, Harvard professor Michael Sandel, the San Jose professors said they worried that online courses created by elite universities and given to financially stressed campuses would diminish education into “a bunch of video-taped lectures” and transform the local professor into a “glorified teaching assistant.”

Other professors see the MOOCs as an opportunity.

John Owens, an electrical and computer engineering associate professor at UC Davis, recently designed and taught a computing course in partnership with Udacity. Massive online classes have the potential to revolutionize higher education, he says.

In order to address the concerns, Owens suggests applying a data-driven method to discerning the benefits of online options, although he acknowledges the process would be slow. “If we had the luxury of time, I would say, ‘Hey, we should be doing experiments here. We should be trying online only courses.

We should be trying hybrid courses. We should be trying different vendors,’ he says.

“My honest advice after doing this is that you shouldn’t be in a hurry to make those decisions. There’s going to be a lot of things that shake out in the next few years.”

San Jose State (SJSU) has been in the vanguard of the new online courses, including a closely watched pilot program with Udacity that teaches elementary statistics online. About 11,000 people signed up to take the course as a MOOC, and 82 students enrolled through SJSU to take the course for credit.

Ronald Rogers is an SJSU professor who worked on the pilot program. He says student engagement is the big challenge, so faculty tried never to lecture for more than a minute without asking for interaction. As the course neared its end, Rogers found that the majority of the class performed well. But students who struggled under the online system seemed to be further behind than in-class students who experienced trouble. “Part of that, I think, is when you begin to struggle and you begin not to understand things, it’s easier to fade away in an online situation,” he says.

The next step will be finding ways to identify and help students as soon as they start to falter and to boost support, perhaps by adding the services of students assistants who would be available to help students online in the same way they do in regular classes.  The plan is to offer the course for $150 to up to 1,000 SJSU students.

In addition to the pilot program with Udacity, the California State University administration is looking at several options, including Cal State Online, a program allowing returning students to finish degrees online. “We’ve got a lot of different irons in the fire right now,” says Mike Uhlenkamp, spokesman for the chancellor’s office. “There’s not really one paradigm that has taken the lead. We are of the mindset that we’re going to have to try a variety of different things, and there will be failures. But when we identify the successes, then we’re going to try to scale those across the system.”  

Editor’s note: Editor’s note: As this magazine was going to press, San Jose State University announced it was suspending it’s collaboration with Udacity after finding that more than half of participating students failed to pass the online courses.

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