California Gets $10 Million More to Streamline Online Education

For a university that has struggled with its budget for the past several years, an extra $10 million is nice problem to have. Thanks to California’s Governor Jerry Brown, California State University is to get more than $125 million in additional funding in the next budget with $10 million of that earmarked for online education initiatives aimed at helping more students graduate on time.

Getting students through college faster would help not only the students – who would save money on tuition and become less hamstrung with student loan debt – but also for schools who would be in a better position to admit more potential students. Having enough slots for all applicants is a huge issue for CSU, where 26,000 potential students were turned away just last year for lack of space.

The $10 million will be awarded to the CSU if the allocation remains in the budget when the spending plan is finally passed later this year. Exactly how Brown wants the $10 million spent is a little unclear, according to Mike Ward, dean of the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management at Chico State University. At the CSU board of trustees meeting earlier this month, Brown was asked how he thought the money should be used. He responded it should go to make more online courses available to more students. The CSU already has many online courses. At Chico State, such courses are offered by various academic departments. Online degree programs are administered by the Center for Regional and Continuing Education.

In total, 104 totally online courses were offered at Chico State, where everything from lectures to homework to exams is done entirely over the internet, with no in-person meetings of any kind ever required. In addition to bachelor’s-level courses, Chico also offers online-only graduate courses in nursing and agricultural education.

But the $10 million in question will probably not go to expanding these existing programs. Instead the money will be applied towards converting so-called “bottle-neck” courses – required for graduation but not having enough slots every semester to accommodate everyone – in order to convert them into online classes and allow more students to take them in a timely fashion.

Many believe that expansion of online learning could prove to be a solution to many of the problems that plague California’s public higher education system. In an editorial for UT San Diego, John Eger writes that up to now universities haven’t taken advantage of technology in a way that would allow them to streamline their course offerings and save money. For example, CSU adopting a unified online education platform would allow all schools in the system to take advantage of the offered courses without having to design and pay for classes that cover the same materials and information on their own campuses.

In the California State University (CSU) system and other state systems there must be similar opportunities to lower the costs and increase efficiency and availability. And, for curriculum too. Each university, for example, has an undergraduate program full of courses that everyone should take in their first two years; and subsequently, courses that are duplicated – depending on the major – in each of the 17 universities that are part of the CSU system.

Although the promise of online education seems infinite, the approach has its critics. Robert Powell & William Jacob, also writing for UT San Diego, explain that adopting blended and online courses too enthusiastically could be risky for instructional quality and might disadvantage students.

We will also be realistic. Online courses supplement but do not replace face-to-face courses. Online courses are neither cheap nor easy to create. Nor are they static. They must be continuously evaluated and improved and updated when needed. The UC Academic Senate will collaborate with the UC administration in a multifaceted and thorough evaluation process. We have appointed a panel of experts to assess UC’s systemwide online efforts on an ongoing basis. We must not be satisfied to simply have online courses; we must have courses that are at least as effective and up-to-date as our regular offerings and that provide our students the same intellectual engagement.