California Dips Its Toes Into Online Education

Jeffrey Simons

By Jeffrey Simons

The higher education community is all abuzz about the news out of California Wednesday. As part of a trial program for the California State University System, San Jose State University is beginning to experiment with MOOCs. Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Tech Crunch each have their own take on the news, and we recommend you take a look at all three.

In short, SJSU will be creating a pilot program of 3 online introductory level MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) for their students that will award academic credit and will only cost $150. The pilot is small, with 100 students per course. The courses will be taught by their own professors, but will exist on the Udacity platform. Udacity will also provide mentoring and staff support.

The mentors are necessary because unlike the kind of online college courses that StraighterLine offers, MOOCs have dropout rates in the 90% range. Their job will be to help students stay in the game and complete the courses.

It seems that the program came about because California Governor Jerry Brown emailed Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun in June and said, “We need your help.”

This comes in conjunction with Governor Brown’s budget proposal last week to give $10 million to the University of California and California State University systems to expand online courses. (Under this budget, the California community college system will also receive $16.9 million.)

Now don’t get us wrong. We think this is a good thing. First of all, the courses are cheaper (offline equivalents at SJSU cost $450-$750), and any legitimate development that brings down the cost of college is a good thing in our eyes. And second, they are addressing head-on the problem that plagues MOOCs: the ridiculously high dropout rate.

But as they plan to spend millions of dollars to expand their online courses in a higher education system that is financially challenged, to put it gently, might there not be less-costly solutions that allow them to put that money to better use?

For instance, StraighterLine and our partner schools are already providing online learning courses that don’t need money spent to create them. And StraighterLine’s courses cost considerably less per course for a StraighterLine student, on average $49 per course, compared to SJSU’s $150.

And sure, the California higher education system is large, serving 527,241 students in the UC and CSU systems. But if you add up just three of our partner schools with huge distance learning capabilities: University of Phoenix, North America’s largest private university with over 380,000 undergrad and postgrad students, University of Maryland University College, the largest public university in the U.S. with over 92,000 students, and Northern Virginia Community College, the second largest community college in the U.S. with over 75,000 students, you get a total enrollment of over 547,000 students.

Surely there is enough capacity to allow California to test larger, more varied programs than just 3 courses for a total of 300 students, let alone to allow students to take those courses at reputable colleges and universities and transfer them for credit back to California? Would partnering with existing programs allow California to use that money to make affordable online learning available to more students, including the over 2.6 million students in the California Community College System?

Again, we applaud Governor Brown and the California higher education system for dipping its toes, however tentatively, into the waters of online education.

All we can say, though, is that the water is fine. Isn’t it time you jumped in with both feet?

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