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Features

February 20, 2013

Future of education

Online instruction destined to increase in California colleges

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown and California university officials say it’s inevitable.

Targeting a tech-savvy generation, they are paving the way for more students to pass courses and obtain degrees without ever going to class.

Given budget constraints, they say boosting online programs is the only way to accommodate more students without expanding campuses and making higher education even more expensive.

“There’s not a luxury of sitting in the present trajectory, unless you don’t mind paying ever-increasing tuition,” Brown told the University of California regents last month.

Distance learning has been around for decades, typically as a means of offering extension and enrichment courses, but the new wave goes far beyond recorded classroom lectures. Online courses can incorporate face-to-face interaction via Skype, as well as chat rooms, blogs, discussion forums, electronic tutoring, instructional games and push-button audio or video.

Students can use online classes to tackle studies at any hour, from any location. Colleges can use them to unclog bottlenecks that keep students from obtaining vital courses they need to obtain degrees on a timely basis.

But the landscape is dotted with obstacles, including course development costs and concerns about academic rigor, faculty acceptance and adequate student assistance.

Teacher representatives at all three levels of California colleges and universities say they do not necessarily oppose online instruction. If it must be done, they say, care should be taken to maintain faculty control over content, preserve teaching jobs and ensure that students have an adequate opportunity to obtain individual assistance.

“All of it is worth experimenting with. Nobody opposes it. We don’t think it’s a bad thing,” said Lillian Taiz, a professor and president of the California Faculty Association, which represents California State University faculty. “But I think we have to be realistic about what we’re doing, and at the very least, we have to do no harm.”

Behind the scenes, online education is a massive industry, with private firms offering a range of high-tech products, from computer software to flash cards and safeguards against student cheating.

“I’ve seen people where you can see the dollar signs in their eyes — they just want to write a program and have you write a check and think they’ve solved the problem,” said Joan Buchanan, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee. “We have tremendous potential with all of this. We just need to make sure that we maintain the integrity of the system.”

Cautiously, California colleges have been increasing the number of credit-bearing courses that are presented entirely or partially online.

Nearly one in four California community college students is expected to take at least one online course this year. Almost half the state’s 112 community colleges offer degrees and certificates that can be obtained without ever attending a campus class. Even so, enrollment bottlenecks at community colleges meant nearly a half-million students were on course waiting lists last year.

CSU and UC also are making strides.

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