Can Online Classes Solve California’s Education Crisis?

Can wait-listed California college and university students benefit from an online program for courses without a seat available, while maintaining quality standards of campus-based instruction? Continue reading “Can Online Classes Solve California’s Education Crisis?” »

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Over the last 20 years, the higher education landscape in the United States has changed by leaps and bounds to accommodate new technology, particularly Internet-based resources. Individual colleges and universities have adopted new technologies at varying rates, and it’s undeniable that technology has become an essential and irrevocable part of higher education. With decisions being made on institution, state, and federal levels, it can be difficult to know which schools are both making use of the best technological resources, while actually getting students through a full degree program.

I graduated from high school 15 years ago in 1998. When I was registering for classes for my first semester, my college was offering online registration for the first time. I had a printed class catalogue in hand and waited until midnight to hit refresh and madly punch in course codes to get the classes I wanted. I only got two classes I was trying for because the computer system said the course sections were full. But once I got to campus to begin the semester, the “full” classes were actually open because of a computer glitch. I had to switch around my schedule and exchange my textbooks. Unfortunately, for students at colleges in California, they can’t get into the classes they want…and it’s not because of a computer glitch.

Waiting in LineThe classes are not only full, but have lengthy waiting lists. It’s getting more difficult for students to graduate with a bachelor degree in four years, which brings the total cost of attending college even higher. While Universities are sorting out their financial resources, students are taking out more loans and left waiting for a better answer. There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about what needs to be done for California’s higher education crisis. But let’s look at some history first.

Over fifty years ago, the California Master Plan for Higher Education was established so higher education could be available to all residents, regardless of financial circumstances. Students have been given a state-sponsored means to complete their education tuition-free. Unfortunately, the current demand is overwhelming supply, with nearly half a million students on wait lists for courses at California community colleges. Because of these class enrollment delays, only about 20% of students at California colleges are able to get their bachelor degree in 4 years.

darrell steinbergDarrell Steinberg, the President pro Tempore of the California State Senate, has proposed  legislation to “reshape higher education, bringing our exemplary institutions into partnership with technology to break the bottleneck that’s preventing students from completing their coursework.” Senate Bill 520 would give students a statewide system of faculty-approved online colleges courses for credit. With online alternatives available on the most popular lower-division core classes, students will not need to postpone their graduation simply because a classroom seat was unavailable.

With Steinberg’s proposal, the Internet-based courses will not be a full substitute for instruction on campus. Approved courses may be developed by third-parties, but they must be reviewed and approved by a faculty panel from the academic senates of UC, CSU, and various community college systems. He stated “The only online courses that should be certified and offered for college credit are those where eligible students cannot get a seat on campus in a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. Neither should the courses be available if the college or campus is already offering an online alternative.”

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Quality control of the courses will be fundamentally important with this proposal, with a secure testing process, ensuring that there is little or no risk of cheating. Courses must allow students the ability to interact with university faculty, receive feedback, ask questions, and collaborate with other students. Offerings from MOOCs like Coursera and edX already offer online curricula for core subjects, and will likely be adapted for California colleges.

While this bill doesn’t help the long-term outlook of California’s higher education landscape, it could provide a short-term solution to help in the immediate future. Governor Jerry Brown has proposed increased funding for infrastructure of California colleges and universities, both for traditional courses and online education. Even with online courses, additional workforce will be required by schools to handle the increased staff workload, which funding could take some time to establish.

In Steinberg’s words,

This is a plan that is generating excitement and opportunity. This is also a plan that is creating controversy and trepidation, especially in the world of academia. Yet the online movement has already arrived in various forms. We have the choice of either helping to shape the evolution of online education, or standing by to watch and hope that it all turns out okay. If we do not get out in front of it…we run the great risk of diminished quality in higher education. For the sake of our students and workforce of our future, that is a risk none of us should be willing to take.”

What do you think? Can wait-listed California college and university students benefit from an online program for courses without a seat available? Can the same quality standards be established for online courses as traditional campus-based instruction?

  • Jen Cook

    I think online degrees are definitely part of the answer. Not only in California, but anywhere with a large population of college students. As long as technology advances, I see no reason online degrees don’t continue to grow.

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