Professor Steven Stepanek

Cal State Northridge computer science professor Steven Stepanek was appointed to the California State University Board of Trustees. (Cal State Northridge / October 31, 2013)

Gov. Jerry Brown has made it no secret that he wants California colleges to ramp up online education as a way to increase access and reduce costs.

He emphasized the point recently when he named a Cal State Northridge computer science professor to the system’s Board of Trustees.

Steven Stepanek, 62, was appointed last week to represent faculty on the 25-member board, replacing Humboldt State theater professor Bernadette Cheyne, whose term ended in May. 

Stepanek had been chairman of the Department of Computer Science and faculty president on the Northridge campus.

The Cal State Academic Senate nominates candidates.

Brown made no public statement on why he chose Stepanek, but his spokesman Evan Westrup said that "professional experience is a factor in every appointment we make.”

“We appoint the most qualified, experienced and committed individuals and Mr. Stepanek’s background certainly makes him uniquely qualified to serve the university, the students and the state,” Westrup said.

Stepanek said he was interviewed by Brown ahead of the appointment.

While the governor didn't say specifically that Stepanek's computer science expertise was the reason he was selected, Stepanek said: "We talked about current issues involved with higher education in California and there was a certain focus in terms of the proper role of technology.”

Brown has said that Cal State, the University of California and community colleges must adopt online classes and other innovations to serve more students – and as a way to deal with the reality of constrained state funding for the forseeable future.

Even though some faculty and others dispute the cost savings, many public universities are partnering with commercial providers such as Udacity and Coursera to offer fully online courses for credit to thousands of students.

The mixed results of a San Jose State collaboration with online vendor Udacity offering entry-level courses, though, led many to urge a step back, which the university has done.  

Stepanek’s 40 years of experience straddling the old and new world order is likely to provide a nuanced perspective.    

“We need to look at what sort of learning experience students get out of online courses,” Stepanek said. “In reality, it’s still a young modality in which to teach and it needs a lot of experimentation…. At San Jose State parts of that experiment did not work out quite as planned but even that helps us on our side with developing the right learning experience.”

At Northridge, for example, an experiment this fall to provide nearly 2,000 students with personal tablet devices is being looked at nationally as a way to curb costs and provide a more interesting and enriching classroom experience for students, Stepanek said.

In a partnership with Apple, students volunteered to buy iPads (a payment plan is available for students who need assistance) to access digital e-books and other learning materials – and potentially save hundreds of dollars on traditional textbooks.

Courses in seven majors, including biology, engineering, public health and journalism, are being offered.

“We’re not saying this is going to increase enrollment, but if we’re making education more interesting for students and they’re able to do better, that means reducing the number of repeat classes and opening up access,” Stepanek said.

Stepanek’s appointment is for two years and is full-time. He’ll participate in his first meeting as a trustee when the board meets next week in Long Beach.

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