Governor Jerry Brown says online college courses could help solve one of the problems facing the state’s education system: overcrowded classrooms. The governor is fostering partnerships between online learning programs and higher education, including a newly inked deal between San Jose State University and the startup Udacity. Can low-cost online classes help keep education affordable? Can online classes maintain the quality of a university lecture?

Mo Qayoumi, president of San Jose State University
Sebastian Thrun, Google VP and fellow, part-time research professor at Stanford University and founder of Udacity, a company focused on bringing university-level education to the public
Michael Meranze, professor of history at UCLA and co-editor of the education blog Remaking the University, with UCSB professor Christopher Newfield
Jonathan Stein, University of California student regent

  • Guest

    I am a graduate student at SJSU.

    Online learning is and will continue to become a critical part of higher education. The campus model, like the tenure track system, is broken and impractical. According to research from Excelsior College, only 20% of college students now experience the once traditional four consecutive, dedicated years of college living on campus in a dormitory. The other 80% are turning to hybrid experiences combining community college, online courses and part-time university course work as they can afford it and as it is available.

    Honestly, I think this is for the better: university classroom based education has become so expensive that it is a poor value. Knowledge is increasingly digitized and one needs to be quite comfortable and facile with computer-based research to leverage online archives. Online courses are less expensive and don’t reinforce the unfair and unhelpful tenure track system.

    • Charles Templeplate

      What? How does “computer-based research to leverage online archives” relate to remedial math? Knowledge isn’t digitized. Information is. And there’s a hell of a lot of disinformation being digitized, too.
      Perhaps on online remedial logic class could help you make cogent arguments. Your tenure track attack is what we call a “red herring.”

      • Guest

        “Red herring is an English-language idiom that commonly refers to a type of logical fallacy in which a clue is intentionally or unintentionally misleading or distracting from the actual issue.” I think the tenure track system IS the real issue and I said so. Your suggesting that nothing but data can be communicated digitally is the red herring. Outside of the math department, knowledge is routinely shared in digital format. We call them journals.

        If one is interested in an electronic course in logic I recommend “Language Prooof and Logic” by CSLI Publications, a software based course affiliated with Stanford University. I have it sitting here on my desk.

    • Please explain how the TT system is “unfair”? I don’t understand what you mean.

      • Guest

        The tenure track system has traditionally been held up as offering “academic freedom” and “encouraging research” which is touted as the “reason for being” of the higher education system. In reality, it is a class system which awards the majority of departmental attention and resources on the tenured few which has numerous downsides.

        Different people will undoubtedly list different failures, but for me the major culprits are: drastically limiting/denying the possibility for advancement for adjunct faculty; expecting tenured professors to balance the unrealistic expectations of their both teaching well and researching extensively; and creating a tenured class in the first place, which rather than promoting the free and fair exchange of ideas, encourages a trickle-down, politically charged atmosphere in many departments where resources are scarce and the market is fixed.

        The overall result is that this discourages graduate students from becoming teachers. This is ultimately the biggest problem because a university should make teaching its top priority. Instead, universities seem to make protecting a cadre of tenure tracked faculty the top priority. This breeds envy and resentment which poisons what is supposed to be an atmosphere of exploration and discovery.

        For another perspective:

  • disqus_GjPiRx1atE

    I’m a CSU Biology TA and spend a LOT of time teaching my students remedial math. There is absolutely no way these kids can stay motivated enough to figure out the concepts they have problems with without face-to-face interaction with an educator. Math needs to be taught in various ways until the student “gets” it. Online classes are another way for students to practice their googling skills to answer web-based quizzes/exams without actually understanding concepts. Unfortunately, that is their default mode of “learning” when they get out of high school. Remedial classes are specifically where where online courses will fail them.

    • Guest

      Online learning IS NOT about search engines.

      • disqus_GjPiRx1atE

        you have obviously spent very little time with actual students

        • Guest

          You obviously make assumptions which aren’t true. I’m a graduate student at SJSU.

    • Ming-I Lin

      There’s no doubt the quality of education is going down. And 100% increase in UC over 5 year in tuition. (It costs a kid a brand new BMW as tuition and cost of living.)

      Top UC even has foreign student teach English. Sight!!!

      1 Spend the money in education and job training instead in prison.

      2. Online training should involve professor and education expert

      3. Online education should ensure the quality. Use as help not as main staple of education.

      4. Online training is excellent for skills.

      5. Use online training to compensate where big class size. Monitor close by professor.

      Unfortunately, there’s so much error in free information. It need s intensive professional guidance from expert and professor involved.

  • sara

    why are the systems already in place not being used? these students have been graduated from the high schools with out acquiring these skills. how about not passing these students ? or using the community college system to get them these remedial skills? if they aren’t ready for college why are we using resources that there are plenty of demands for already?

  • apple real

    Back in 2001 during my Freshman year at SFSU, I had to take mostly remedial courses. I was discouraged to continue onto my sophomore year. By taking some online courses thru CCSF, I am now able to return to SFSU as a Junior. Without online courses being offered, I would never have been able to return to college.

    • Guest

      I also find most on campus faculty are generally technologically inept and sometimes arrogantly flaunt this fact as a way of dismissing what they correctly perceive as a threat to their jobs.

  • Michael McKeever

    I am an instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College and am
    working on integrating MOOCs into my computer networking and security programs. The classes I will add, for credit, counting
    towards certificates and a major, are the introductory standard classes. This will allow me to spend more time and
    resources in person with my students.
    Like everyone else in this space I am experimenting and will see what
    works best for my students. I assigned my
    students to take a MOOC this semester to 1. Experience the environment and 2. Give
    me feedback about the class and its efficacy in the program.

  • FayNissenbaum

    I am surprised it’s the freshman & sophomore students you want to teach online. Freshman year of college is fraught with growing pains and very high stress leading to failure/drop out. Should the online classes be for seasoned juniors and seniors?
    On the other hand, online courses *could* use the best teachers possible – interesting, compelling teachers – but does UC actually analyze who is best? Or will UC just put online, the dull and boring tenured faculty who do nothing to improve their techniques? This devil is in the details. For example, Kahn Academy on you tube is free, but I can’t take his teaching for more than one hour or so. Online teaching needs to reach a level of quality to engage the viewer, er student – and we still have no plan to commit to and offer such quality.

  • I’m currently enrolled in several Coursera classes, and while the overall concept is definitely a work in progress, it is pretty exciting to see how many people sign up for these classes from all over the world! I signed up for a vaccines class last fall because it was taught by one of the leading authorities on the subject, who happens to be a professor at Penn, and I would have never had access to this professor without coursera. I don’t think online classes are going to solve all the problems of higher education, but there are many valuable elements that cannot be ignored! I look forward to seeing how it develops…

    • Charles Templeplate

      I am excited about the future of coursera. It appears to have a lot figured out, especially about it’s current limitations regarding critical thinking and interpretation type courses. But this is free and not affiliated with a university program, i.e., you can’t earn a degree with it. A problem with Udacity is that it is being offered as a replacement to in-class learning in order to make money. And the money issue, as noted above and below, is critical.

  • Christopher Newfield

    “Blended” on line that uses people won’t save money. Cheap online won’t maintain quality. What is the specific evidence from Thrun or anyone else that they can square this circle with a 40 year old technology? “Strong instructor interaction” to quote Thrun – you have that you just stopped saving money.

  • disqus_uP2BLKhTvF

    I took some online classes through a community college while I was at a state college which helped me finish a year early. My parents, who worked about 30 years with an AA and now find themselves in need of BAs to advance, are taking online courses at an expensive private college. The classes are great for dedicated, self-directed students who are really interested in getting a piece of paper that says they’ve got a degree — my parents and myself. But the three of us agree that they don’t give you much in the way of expanded insight (discussion boards are not the same as in-class discussion–it’s nearly impossible to get momentum going), and teachers often have zero experience in using web tools (“lectures” cancelled after a struggle with technology.)

    The increasing cost of classroom-based education has not been driven by professor salaries– just look at the share of “adjunct” and part-time professors who have no real hope for tenure, or even health insurance.

  • Christopher Newfield

    Stanton Glantz and Eric Hays have shown that you can restore state funding and roll back tuition to 2000-01 levels for ALL THREE segments of higher ed for $48 / year (at median income). SJSU wants to charge 3x that for one online course. Why don’t your guests support restoring systems to quality that can afford the human contact that 21st century students need?

  • Kati H-P

    I had to chime in after hearing the commenter who was remarking about students who needed the “Greek” experience and “sports.”

    Firstly, I graduated from a commuter school, Cal State Hayward, East Bay. Almost all classes I took in person, except a few. This was back in 2003–yes, they had online courses even then. I did not get the college experience and did not miss out.

    Second, I received my Master’s in Library and Information Science from SJSU in 2009. Almost ALL courses I took online. This was an excellent aspect of the program because it allowed for me to work full-time (in order to pay for tuition!). Not every student is rich or has rich parents. My degree consisted mostly of reading scholarly articles, writing essays/thesis papers, and having online discussions. So, I can’t speak to other majors. If you are comfortable with chatting and reading online, and do not have time to attend an in-person class, I do not see any downside to online learning.

    • FayNissenbaum

      Hi Kati. I am interested in a Masters in Library Science. Was the SJSU online degree well regarded for actually getting a job? Thanks in advance!

      • Kati H-P

        Hi Fay,

        As far as I know, there are not many options for getting an MLIS. SJSU is one of the only programs around (you may want to Google this). I think there is also one back east. It is an accredited program, so as far as I know, it is well regarded, or at the very least, it’s where everyone in this area (SF Bay Area) has gotten their degree.

        As for getting a job, that is entirely up to the individual. As you probably know, a degree is never a guarantee to any job. I graduated during the recession, so it was quite difficult to land any job at all. I now work as a records manager for a pharmaceutical company, and the MLIS did help. However, I can’t speak to any other library job (legal, academic, public, archives).

        If you are speaking only to the “online” part of the degree, this was hardly an issue and I never once got a question about it on any interview. A degree is a degree.

        Hope this helps.

      • Kati H-P

        Hi Fay,

        My comment seems to have disappeared. Let’s try this again:

        Anyway, I was just going to say that the SJSU program is one of the only MLIS programs in the country (you may need to Google that as I am not sure). Therefore, most people in libraries/records management are graduates of SJSU, at least in the SF Bay Area.

        I graduated at the height of the recession, so it was difficult for me to land any job. However, when I did get my current job (records manager for a pharmaceutical company), my MLIS was a big plus.

        Speaking to the “online” aspect of the degree, I never once was asked, in any interview or test, about the online nature of the degree. A degree is a degree. SJSU is an accredited program, which is all that really matters.

        Hope this helps.

  • Syd

    I took three online classes on the way to earning my BA, all through CCSF. As an older student, I was working full time while finishing my transfer credits. The online classes theoretically allowed me to take an additional class during the semester, but they were actually quite time consuming. Additionally, I felt there was not enough support for students. I often found myself asking questions, but either never getting a response or not getting an adequate response. Delayed, text based answers are not as robust as when a GSI or professor can both talk it out and write or draw something on the blackboard. Once at Cal, I relished the true “university experience” and loved being around other students, especially during my first semester there. Sure, there is partying and social pressure to goof off rather than read, but there is also a real sense of positive peer pressure and learning excitement as everyone is talking about class subjects, projects they are working on, philosophical and theoretical topics, internships they are looking at, future job prospects, and graduate school, with all of this being done outside of class. What types of personal interactions would be built into the online-only experience to mimic this very key student-led positive peer pressure and support?

  • Guest

    Innovation isn’t good? There is a reason we use the phrase “old school” to describe obsolete ways of doing things.

  • $11165038

    Students today conduct their whole lives using online chat and text so I don’t think the concerns about students adapting to online learning will be as tough as they think. I wish we could get away from this either/or sort of thinking. Colleges and University need to think outside the box and realize that online education can go hand in hand with classroom education. Why does it have to be seen as a threat? Universities are supposed to be on the cutting edge of thought and open to new ideas yet they just sound like they fighting to keep the status quo instead of working to create a new teaching paradigm that makes room for both classroom and online teaching. Technology is quickly evolving and colleges and universities will find themselves obsolete if they don’t find a way to grow with it instead of fight against it.

  • Online courses are GREAT! I know many students who have been on a revolving door at their local JC’s because of an inability to get into the general education courses required for transfer. However, online courses should be a SMALL part of major requirements. Case in point- I dont want to be served by a doctor who did 90% of their education online!

  • Udacity provides a lot of assistance to professors in creating online classes. We have a staff of about 20 instructional designers and educational specialist who assist instructors. The online medium is really different from the in-class medium. Too many online courses are composed of recorded lectures. If we unleash the full potential of online, we have environments like Carnegie Mellon’s OLI which provides students with personalized learning paths. Check out our Physics 101 course to get a taste of this (and yes, this is work in progress).

    • Christopher Newfield

      Prof. Thrun, if you use OLI or other blended systems with personalized feedback and faculty contact you won’t save higher ed money. If you save them money, you will downgrade quality. You’ve made huge promises, and your promises have convinced senior leadership in higher ed and state government that they don’t need to reverse catastrophic cuts that have for example eliminated seminars and replaced them with the large lectures none of us want. I think you now have a responsibility to produce real data about costs and educational results that show how you for the first time in history have overcome the “cost disease” problem of all services (education, health) that require personal attention. (Health care is a great example of how quality-through-technology has NOT lowered costs — we spend 2x of any other country for mediocre results). We have been unable to find any concrete data to back up your claims.
      I am enrolled in your Udacity stats class and can confirm that you are yourself an excellent instructor.

    • Kevin Heller

      @twitter-318063815:disqus: I love the idea of Udacity providing assistance to help a professor get their course online and take advantage of all the technological resources that are available, but how can this be done for $150/student? Capped at 100 students, that’s $15,000/class. So the professor, TAs, and Udacity staff can make a profit even at this low cost? I would love to see numbers on that!

  • erictremont

    Professor Meranze’s denialism about the prevalence of overcrowded undergraduate courses in the UC system and the paucity of opportunities for meaningful student face time with tenured faculty is quite remarkable. One of the good things about online education is that it could create more opportunities for lower-division undergraduate students to access UC’s faculty superstars.

  • SB92

    What do people think of Harvard University’s Extension School and their online/on-campus MLA degree programs?

  • TonyB

    I am a graduate student at SJSU whose progam is all-online. I think it’s worth noting that there is a range of methods within the all-online approach. Some instructors hold weekly live classes in a fully interactive web conference environment. Some pre-record lectures. Some just assign readings. Some use a combination of these methods. So, there is a spectrum of “online-ness.” This is an important distinction to make. It is not a simple argument of “online is good” vs “online is bad.”

    Also, the instructors’ use of tools such as web conferencing seems directly related to their familiarity with the tools. So, that will improve with time as the faculty adjusts.

    The outcomes will be eventually be reflected in accreditation and school ranking measures. These indicators are updated fairly slowly, so it will take time for new instruction methods to be fully evaluated. In the meantime, your mileage may vary. Student reviews of instructors give students essential power with quick results. We vote with our class choices each semester. Avoid weak instructors and they will not be rehired.

  • Germanmykmyk

    I came from Germany and had to take 2 years college to complete my BA in philosophy at SFSU. In regard to GE classes, I experienced quality wise big differences. Not all teacher teach student friendly or know how to organize their content.The same goes for online classes. Some tools are not really helpful, some teachers are technologically inept, but this goes for students too [how to discuss in an on and offline environment…uncertainties, drama and all that]. I believe that there is no way that education will continue without the online experience/alternative. What we all experience is the transition to this new world which adds electronics to every section of our lives. But unfortunately this happens under financial pressure – we are forced to deal with this electronic alternative [instead of being pro-active embracing new opportunities]. The sad part is that this additional tool finds birth under financial pressure and not by some vision of a better world: education for free because success based on knowledge is better then success based on coincidence [or something more catchy …]. To sum up, electronics are a part of our life and as always: when u learn how to do something [online-classes] right and apply it right [with all your heart and compassion] you are actually practicing the human experience.

  • CALA

    Online learning can be a successful and stimulating experience when a mix of exercises and interaction are provided. I received a certificate in Sustainability Leadership from University of California, Irvine in 2010. The program was an early offering, not widely available at other institutions even in the progressive bay area at the time. Through the program I was able to interact with highly engaged classmates from around the country and world — including England and India. In addition to rigorous reading, papers, tests and projects, online interaction was a requirement. Questions posed by the instructor initiated lively discussion — I looked forward each day to reading and taking part in the dialogue. The online platform offered the ability to keep stimulating exchanges going throughout the week that meshed with personal schedules. Several classes also required team projects, and live presentation to the entire class. The instructors were actively sharing insight as well as the students online and were also available via phone / email. As noted in a few other comments, it’s not a simple question of “good or bad”… it’s how the tools available today are used to generate an effective learning experience. It should be noted that the certificate program was not inexpensive and class sizes were limited (unlike some local collage programs that have low costs and high attendance, that precludes the ability to take part in the full string of exchange or receive one-on-one support from the instructor).

  • Dan

    Education costs money for the student, and education in general should lead to employement or a salary which can pay back the education cost.

    It would like to see a study on how well on-line degree graduates do compared to graduates which receive more face-to-face tuition. Especially important is the attitude of the employer or hiring manager.

    I hazard a guess that universities cannot justify the same high price of education when tuition is delivered on-line, as it is viewed as a second tier education. It has value, the value is not as high.

  • greatlakes

    The big secret is tenured faculty are lazy, pampered, used to perks out the wazoo, used to time off out the wazoo, used to getting out of teaching for flimsy little administrative tasks, spend most of their time scheming about how to take another trip out of the country (when they could talk on Skype or send a .pdf to the same effect), etc. Not to mention many of them are neurotic, quasi-autistic, etc., and couldn’t function without a welfare-type environment like higher education. They rightly fear they are not as indispensable as they like to think they are. I mean, why should a faculty member give the same 24 lectures for 30 years on European history or Medieval art when a single set of lectures could be taped for repetition for posterity? Why does a prof. of Sanskrit make $160,000 a year on the taxpayers? I mean wouldn’t one think there are several hundred unemployed PhDs in Sanskrit? or thousands in English, or American History, or Egyptology? My point? This innovation is long overdue. Faculty always oppose innovation because innovation could disturb their perks. Period. Education has always had higher quality environments and lower quality ones, even within a single, even elite, school like Princeton. Moreover, this much vaunted talk of the “student experience” is a nice myth, but no one has ever cited any data or studies to back up what is essentially a prejudice for the “old way”..

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