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San Jose State program to offer entry-level subjects online

San Jose State launched a program Tuesday that will offer low-cost, online classes in entry-level subjects that are often in high demand for students seeking to transfer or obtain a degree.

The university will partner with Udacity, a Silicon Valley online education group, to create for-credit courses. If successful, the program could expand access to tens of thousands of underserved students, including those in high school and community college, wait-listed San Jose State students and nontraditional students such as veterans and adults with jobs and families.

The program was announced at a news conference attended by Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been pressuring the state's public universities to more aggressively pursue online education as a way to curtail costs and serve more students. He is scheduled to attend the University of California regents' meeting in San Francisco this week and a meeting of the California State University trustees next week in Long Beach to push his agenda.

Brown's 2013-14 budget proposal released last week included about $17 million for community colleges and $10 million each for UC and Cal State to increase online classes.

"We all know that only 16% of students at Cal State get out in four years, and the longer you stay the more you spend," Brown said. "So this is a big, huge problem, with student debt approaching a trillion dollars. Online is a part of that solution."

The new venture will initially offer three so-called gateway courses — remedial math, college-level algebra and elementary statistics — that most students must complete to progress. Currently, about 50% of Cal State students arrive needing remedial math, English or both, and those roadblocks can extend the length of time students are in school.

Each class will cost $150 with no state or federal support. By comparison, a typical course offered through extended education can cost from $750 to $1,000. The courses should transfer to most other public and private institutions, officials said.

The courses will be developed by San Jose State faculty and presented on Udacity's online platform with interactive videos and quizzes. Despite the growing popularity of online education, there has been scant research of its effectiveness as a teaching tool. And some faculty have expressed concern about who will control content.

Massive open online courses offered by top universities attract tens of thousands of students for a single course. But their proliferation has led to misgivings that the students most in need of low-cost or free online classes are also the ones who need support they can't easily get via the Internet.

About 90% of students who enroll in these online courses drop out, a failure noted by Udacity co-founder and Chief Executive Sebastian Thrun. He said he doesn't think such open courses are a "viable model for education."

Thrun, a Stanford computer science researcher, said he believes it's vital to "bring along the people who need some extra attention, some extra help and make the professor an essential element of that experience. We believe we have a formula … that is actually sustainable financially at the levels that we will be charging for these classes."

At San Jose State, courses will initially be limited to 100 students. One of the highlights of the program is a grant from the National Science Foundation to evaluate student outcomes.

Despite some concerns, the program has potential, said California Faculty Assn. President Lillian Taiz.

"You can't do this stuff and not stop to ask questions about whether it works," said Taiz, a Cal State L.A. history professor. "One of the pluses of this program seems to be they are intending to really assess the success of it."

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