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US: Public universities expand web education offerings

Budget cutbacks to state universities appear to be speeding ongoing efforts to increase online education as resources shrink and timely access to prerequisite classes becomes more difficult.

Whether taking online course material from the comfort of home, or as an enhancement to a traditional class, online learning allows students to take courses that may be harder to find or get into, because of faculty reductions and reduced course availability. Educators are increasingly looking to online courses as a way to handle more students with less funding.

The development of hybrid online courses, in collaboration with faculty in recent years, has helped more students move past “bottleneck courses” – classes in which there aren’t enough faculty to handle large numbers of students, Cal Poly Pomona President Michael Ortiz said. Students need the courses to move forward on degree work, but often find them hard to get into, or scheduled just a few times a year.

“Bottleneck courses keep students from moving into their next level of coursework,” Ortiz said. “One of the things we’ve probably benefitted from this crisis is looking at ways to deliver courses to individuals on a broader scale that utilizes technology, as opposed to face to face, and creating more web-based online hybrid courses.”

Faculty at Cal Poly Pomona has been using online material in conjunction with traditional curriculum for more than a decade. It was in spring 2011, however, that university officials established standardized terms for the different modes of online education offered to students.

These include the more predominant hybrid online courses, in which students, for the most part, take coursework online but occasionally drop in to a traditional classroom for work and evaluation. There are also fully online courses in which students don’t have to set foot on campus. Last fall, Cal Poly Pomona had 264 courses with an online component of instruction, with the majority being hybrid, and 44 courses available fully online.

“Because we have space issues, we have resource issues, all of those issues can be solved by doing more online,” said Shariq Ahmed, the director of the eLearning department at Cal Poly Pomona, which is responsible for the application of online learning in collaboration with faculty at the university. “Hybrid is really big and it’s more preferred. People still want a face-to-face component.”

Albert Karnig, president of Cal State San Bernardino, said computer-based course offerings at his university have been accelerated because of cutbacks in order to help serve more students.

“We’ve employed more online delivery systems,” he said. “There is the potential to be able to serve more students. It allows a larger set of students to have their education undertaken in an asynchronous way so that a student can take an online course at 3 a.m. in the morning.”

To that end, the California State University system plans to launch a system-wide delivery of online degree programs. Through what is called the CSU Online Initiative, CSU officials hope to improve college access and degree attainment; and help meet a growing statewide workforce demand of more than 1 million college graduates by 2025.

Envisioned is a major expansion of online learning options, whereby some students in the coming decades may have the option to never have to set foot on a campus to earn a degree from a Cal State. Cal State San Bernardino is among campuses that will begin testing fully online pilot programs in spring 2013, including degrees for social work, said Ruth Claire Black, executive director of the initiative for the CSU.

Black said revenue for the enterprise from tuition would be self-sustaining and would not be transferred into general funds. There would also not be any public subsidies toward the program, so tuition rates, which have yet to be finalized, would be higher than regular tuition.

The aim is to provide students access to a Cal State University education nationally and internationally. CSU hopes to introduce a full roster of new fully online program offerings to compete with existing for-profit online education companies in the fall of 2013. “The goal is to serve 1,000 students in year one, 3,000 students in year two, and over 250,000 students in the next decade,” Black said.

Each of the system’s 23 universities have collectively indicated “buy-in” to the program with a pledge of $50,000 – collectively totaling more than $1 million.

“There’s obviously a movement that technology keeps advancing and we do want to be in the online space,” said Michael Uhlenkamp, spokesman for California State University. “We had budget cuts in the billions in the last four years, and unfortunately, this doesn’t help us provide access to people who are not necessarily able to attend the campus, whether it’s because of where they’re located or their schedule doesn’t permit them.”

The CSU is in the process of selecting an online learning company vendor to work with faculty on online curriculum that can be shared across campuses and reach more students. Academic programs will remain controlled by originating campuses, Black said.

While CSU officials hope to expand online learning, the California Faculty Association has voiced strong opposition to the initiative in a recent report titled “For-Profit Higher Education & the CSU: A Cautionary Tale.” Union concerns include the potential cost to taxpayers, students and their families and diminished curriculum quality because of less interaction between students and faculty, according to the report.

“Faculty do want to maintain some say over the curriculum, and what we value in the classrooms is student-to-faculty interaction, which can be modulated online, but it’s not exactly the model that is sometimes envisioned with online education, where you can teach 100,000 students,” said Gwen Urey, CFA President at Cal Poly Pomona.

Urey also raised concerns about increased workload for faculty in assessing larger numbers of students, and fewer faculties input into curriculum material. CSU officials say the choice to teach online is voluntary. Uhlenkamp also disagreed with the notion that faculty will have little say in the new online curriculum.

“I think, in general, unfortunately, when you’re talking about individuals from the CFA whenever there’s a proposal to change there is hesitation,” Uhlenkamp said. “We are not forcing anyone to adopt this. This is a voluntary coalition of the willing. We have faculty buy-in and members of the Academic Senate both participating in the discussion and helping shape the initiative.”

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