Give online courses the old college try

Online courses could open worthwhile classes at California's public colleges to thousands more students, or they could undermine the reputation of our widely admired public higher-education system. As the state embarks on its first foray into offering such courses for credit on a large scale, it's intriguing to think about virtual classrooms and the opportunities they present. Online courses could make a fine education possible even for students who cannot travel to a campus easily or attend class at a specific time. They could allow a professor to reach many more students with each lecture.

But if a class that's usually composed of 50 students expands to 500 or 5,000, how will they all have a chance to participate, to ask questions and answer them? What if they need help or advice? Who will read hundreds or thousands of student papers for each course, or grade their tests? If the number of students in a class is to drastically increase, there will need to be more teaching assistants or other instructional aides to deal with all the aspects of education that don't take place in the classroom itself. The courses might save money, but done right, there still will be considerable expenses.

Faculty at the state's institutions of higher education have valid concerns about the possibility that online courses would eventually mean staff reductions and loss of both academic rigor and support for students. But although traditional academic buildings, ivy-covered or otherwise, will probably always be with us, the rising demand for degrees and certificates means that the schools can't be hidebound — or brick-and-mortar-bound — about the college education of the future. And there's no way to judge the usefulness of online courses, or figure out the best way to provide them, without trying.

Fortunately, legislation that would allow state universities to provide up to 50 such courses would get things off on the right footing by ensuring quality in several ways. A panel of faculty chosen by the respective academic senates of the three higher-education systems — University of California, California State University and the community colleges — would pick the courses that could best be taught in an online format. It would then design the courses and determine how much staffing and expense each would entail. Finally, it would decide who should teach and oversee each course. The possibilities include commercial online-education companies, but again, it would be professors from the public universities who would decide who would do the job best.

Just as important, there is $37 million in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget to develop and operate the courses, and the panel doesn't have to commit to all 50, just those it deems worthwhile and adequately funded. All the offerings are supposed to be introductory-level courses, required of many if not most students, that are in such high demand that thousands of students are shut out. The courses could be taken for credit at any of the three systems; the credits would be transferable among the three.

The bill, SB 520, also would require follow-up studies to determine whether the courses delivered the intended educational results. This is particularly important because of the limitations that online learning tends to place on the instructor. Whether online proctoring is used to keep cheating to a minimum, or whether students must take their exams on campus, there's a natural pressure to give fewer quizzes and tests. If that means students aren't as well prepared for more advanced classes, the experiment fails.

The bill's author, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), says the purpose of these courses isn't to save money but to increase access. In fact, it is about saving money while increasing access. That isn't a bad thing; all colleges, not just public ones, have to think about ways to ways to rein in costs. The fear is that although this bill would set good standards for online courses, it also would open the door to cheaper, lower-quality offerings, to reductions in teaching staff and to college degrees that don't mean as much as they used to. As this new effort unfolds, educators need to be vigilant about all of those risks. But the state can't let fears keep it from trying; the trick is to do so while rigorously protecting educational quality.

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