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California looks at MOOCs in online push

As California Goes?
January 16, 2013

California is the Fertile Crescent for massive open online course providers, at least the for-profit ones. The state is also shaping up as a testing ground for phase two of the MOOC experiment, which includes fees and a path to college credit, and where public colleges try to use material from MOOCs to help meet student demand in gateway courses.

San Jose State University on Tuesday announced a deal with Udacity, a major MOOC player, to create a pilot program of three online, entry-level courses that will cost students $150 to take and lead to university-awarded academic credits if passed. San Jose State professors will teach the courses while Udacity contributes the platform and staff support, including mentors who will help track and encourage students’ progress.

The university will cap enrollment at 100 for each of the three courses, with half of the slots going to students from San Jose State. Priority enrollment for the remaining 150 openings will go to high school and community college students, members of the military and veterans, and wait-listed San Jose State students -- all groups who might find it harder to be admitted to the university amid heavy student demand and tight budgets.

Meanwhile, California’s community college system is exploring a different approach with MOOCs.

Community college leaders in the state hope online courses can help with the system’s severe capacity crunch, which has accompanied years of budget cuts. Nearly 500,000 students have been turned away by the system’s colleges during California’s financial crisis. And MOOCs could be part of the solution, albeit in an indirect way.

Many of the 112 colleges in the system offer “challenge exams” that give students a chance to prove what they know for college credit. Officials from the system’s central office are working with faculty leaders from the Academic Senate to consider creating examinations for remedial courses and core general education courses for an associate degree aimed at students who want to transfer to a California State University campus. Students could use MOOCs to prepare for challenge exams, and community colleges could steer them toward the free online courses. And MOOC providers could tailor their offerings to the exams and gateway courses.

Barry A. Russell, the system’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, said community colleges might consider publishing a “crosswalk” that linked MOOCs to course requirements covered by an exam. However, he said a move to standardize the tests, which vary widely across the system, would likely require changes to state policy. The system would also need to ensure that credits earned from challenge exams would transfer to the state’s public universities, he said.

Asked which MOOC providers system officials had been working with on the project, Russell said the system’s goal is to be “agnostic to the provider,” with the key for collaboration being courses that match up with colleges’ academic requirements.

Treading Carefully

The San Jose State announcement and the ongoing MOOC-related exploration by California’s community college haven't provoked opposition by statewide faculty groups. Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, Cal State’s primary faculty union, said she likes that the Udacity agreement is contained to a small trial group and includes a strong research emphasis.

“We’re a little apprehensive about the MOOC model and the MOOC mania, because there isn’t a lot of research about it,” said Taiz, who is a history professor at the system’s Los Angeles campus. But on the whole, she said the association is “interested in seeing what comes of the experiment.”

On the community college side, some faculty members have been vocal in arguing that the MOOC push could steamroll shared governance and lead to online course offerings that are not up to snuff academically.

Michelle Pilati, president of the Academic Senate, which represents community college faculty, said faculty concerns about MOOCs are serious. But for now, she said the system is proceeding with appropriate caution.

“We have a good dialogue with the chancellor’s office,” said Pilati, a professor of psychology at Rio Hondo College, who has taught online. “As far as we know, there is nothing moving forward that we would take issue with.”

A crucial question, voiced by both faculty members and administrators in California, is whether substantial numbers of students will give MOOC platforms a whirl, and whether they will do what only a small fraction of MOOC students do – actually complete the courses.

“It requires a special kind of student to succeed online,” Pilati said, particularly in a MOOC, where “they don’t get a lot of help” from faculty members.

Many uncertainties remain about the viability of MOOCs for use as credit-bearing courses at public institutions, as officials said repeatedly during the unveiling of San Jose State’s partnership with Udacity. But the general sentiment is that it’s worth trying, sooner rather than later.

“As the public university that sends 8,000 graduates annually into the Silicon Valley work force, San Jose State must and will take a leading role in leveraging technology to transform higher ed with the goal of making a college degree affordable and accessible to all,” Mohammad Qayoumi, San Jose State’s president, said in a written statement.

But as Qayoumi said at a San Jose State media event that was broadcast on the Web, “this is not going to be easy.”

Gubernatorial Roadshow

Gov. Jerry Brown wants California’s public institutions to take a hard look at MOOCs. Along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he is encouraging experimentation with MOOC platforms for introductory and remedial courses.

Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University computer science professor who co-founded Udacity, said that Brown e-mailed and called him in June to kick off discussions about a partnership with public universities in the state. “We need your help,” Thrun said Brown told him.

While the state’s public institutions have plenty of experience in online education, their emphasis in digital learning may be shifting. The governor’s budget proposal, released last week, puts a priority on popular, often overbooked courses, while most previous online efforts in the state have been housed in extension programs, which are relatively expensive and often don’t lead to credit.

Both the California State University and University of California systems would receive $10 million under the budget proposal to expand online courses. California’s community college system would receive $16.9 million.

“The focus should be on the courses that have the highest demand, fill quickly and are prerequisites for many different degrees,” according to the budget document.

Officials from San Jose State and Udacity said they will research the results of their initial collaboration, which begins enrolling students now. (Classes start at the end of the month.) The National Science Foundation will help fund that research, which observers said adds academic prestige to the experiment.

“This is an R&D project for us right now,” said Timothy White, Cal State’s recently arrived chancellor, in the San Jose State media event. He described the Udacity pilot program as “working out the bugs for a handful of students in a handful of courses.”

The three courses in the trial run will be pre-algebra, college algebra and elementary statistics. The $150 tuition fee for them will be a third of the $430 for a typical San Jose State course, according to university officials.

Also on Tuesday, the American Council on Education said it was reviewing the three courses and another Udacity offering for possible credit recommendations. (See accompanying article.)

The university will spend $15,000 to develop each course, Qayoumi said. The $45,000 total will go to the professors who designed them. Neither Udacity nor the university expects any profit from the initial experiment, officials said. A university spokeswoman said she had not yet seen the contract, which is still being finalized. In the unlikely case that they reap net revenue, she said San Jose State would keep 51 percent, with 49 percent going to Udacity.

Dean Florez, a former California state senator, said Governor Brown is helping to push public institutions in the right direction with MOOCs: toward the development of low-cost, credit-bearing courses. Florez, who leads the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a California-based nonprofit, said the governor seemed serious about his online push, with upcoming visits to governing boards of the state’s higher education systems where he is likely to stress the need for technology in expanding student access.

“The governor’s on a roadshow for online education,” Florez said.

Public Collaborations

San Jose State’s credit-bearing MOOC hybrid follows several similar experiments that have popped up around the country in recent months. Most do not count as MOOCs -- the courses are not “open” in the pure sense, because students must enroll in and pay for them.

The University of Texas System in October announced that it would work with edX, a nonprofit MOOC provider formed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, to make some lower-level courses available as MOOCs. EdX is also helping two community colleges in Massachusetts to use a MOOC as the course material for introductory computer science classes, which will be taught by professors from the two colleges.

Coursera, the largest of the MOOC platforms, has also begun developing fee-based courses that students can take to earn a more substantial certificate. And the University of Washington is offering hybrid Coursera courses, where students can take credit-bearing versions for $2,000.

Also on Tuesday, the State University of New York System announced a broad online effort that it hopes will reach 100,000 students within three years. The system is launching 10 online degree programs in the fall, in high demand fields, and all 64 campuses will offer online degrees.

 

 

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