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The California State University System may bet big on virtual labs starting this fall, a sign of how heavily some policy makers are counting on technology to solve funding problems.

The effort could end in-the-flesh lab experimentation for many Cal State students who are not biology majors.

The proposal is part of a multipronged plan from the Cal State chancellor’s office to help students unable to find a path through the Cal State system. Officials are hoping to use a one-time infusion of $17.2 million for education technology to break the so-called course bottleneck that prevents students from advancing, prompts some to drop out and consumes state resources.

Officials have identified 22 bottleneck courses. Six of them are science classes, including biology courses where campuses struggle to find lab space and time for students. So, Cal State wonders: Can virtual lab software solve the problem?

According to a presentation by two Cal State administrators, “If 50 percent of STEM wet labs during a semester could be virtual, and the number of lab sections are doubled and filled, a campus will have a 100 percent increase in the capacity of their facilities.”

Robert Desharnais, associate chair of the biology department at Cal State Los Angeles, created a set of virtual biology courses a decade ago known as Biology Labs On-Line. Those virtual labs were designed to supplement traditional in-person labs, not replace them. One popular virtual lab developed at Cal State allows students to simulate fly breeding to experiment with genetic inheritance. But in a response to a request for proposals from the chancellor's office, he suggested using his courses and other biology simulations as a way to end the life sciences bottleneck -- and many students' exposure to real lab experiments.

By using virtual labs, he estimated, Cal State could reduce personnel costs for one biology course from $25,000 to $9,600 or less by reducing the time instructors need to spend with students.

Desharnais said biology majors should still take real labs but non-majors could learn about science from the virtual labs and the same lectures as always.

“I think when we look at general education, we have ask ourselves, what is it we want them to take away from taking a general education course?” he said.

Jeffrey Bell, chair of the biology department at Cal State Chico, also helped develop Biology Labs On-Line. He said virtual labs are better than real labs for some things but not others – and he cautioned against entirely scrapping real labs, even for non-majors.

Bell worries that virtual labs add an extra layer of abstraction for students.

“My biggest concern, especially with freshman classes where they are talking about it, is you don’t want students seeing reality as a video game – a key thing in science is we investigate reality,” he said. Virtual labs are, by definition, not reality.

Bell and Desharnais both said they did not have good research on whether Biology Labs On-Line improves student learning.

But real labs may not be that good to begin with. For one thing, students are pressed for time during class.

“You have to sort of treat them as robots: you have to do this, you have to do this, you have to do this,”  Bell said.

Simulations, by contrast, allow students to do virtual experiments on things like evolution and genetics across generations that cannot be studied in a few hours or even weeks.

The turn toward virtual labs is only one part of Cal State’s bottleneck reduction effort, said Michael Uhlenkamp, spokesman for Cal State Chancellor Timothy White.

The system is also looking at efforts to make sure Cal State students locked out of a course on one campus can enroll in the same course online if it’s offered at another campus. Cal State is also looking to contract with an e-advising provider to give students more counseling options. Cal State is also looking to redesign some courses to maximize their effectiveness.

Uhlenkamp said Cal State wants to show Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers it can use the infusion of new money – the first new money in a while – to solve longstanding problems created by the state's budget woes.

To fix Cal State's problems, the chancellor is looking to faculty for ideas, Uhlenkamp said. That contrasts with lawmakers who are weighing a plan that would force Cal State to look to outside companies for help with the bottleneck. That's a plan faculty representatives in the Cal State, University of California and community college systems all oppose.

“We have 23,000 faculty members – there’s a lot of smart people that are working toward this, so it makes perfect sense for us to rely on those folks to show us best practices,” Uhlenkamp said.

Diana Wright Guerin, the chair of the Cal State Academic Senate, said the faculty are interested in reviewing the proposals and weighing in, but she suggested the focus on bottleneck courses is ignoring a larger problem.

Cal State’s woes are longstanding and certainly a product of the state of California’s years-long budget crisis. The Cal State system has turned away as many as 25,000 qualified applicants in the past few years.

That bottleneck, Guerin said, is faculty’s major concern.

“We are terribly concerned about bottlenecks and the biggest one, in our opinion, is the admissions bottleneck,” she said. “We simply don’t have enough funding from the Legislature to admit students who are qualified.”

The Academic Senate and the union that represent Cal State faculty have yet to take a position on the evolving plans from the chancellor’s office. They are, however, opposed to the plan that would force California’s three college and university systems to turn to outside course providers, including companies that could include Udacity, Coursera, StraighterLine or Capella. A key vote on that legislative proposal is expected Thursday.

Michael Feldstein, the co-author of a recent foundation-backed report on the course bottleneck, said “safety valve” solutions offered by such outside providers are a must in California, despite the efforts by Cal State and others.

“There needs to be a path of last resort for those students to get an education in a timely manner while they are waiting for the colleges and universities to put in place whatever measures they need to put in place,” Feldstein said. That path need not be private, he said, and could just as well include agreements with public higher education institutions in other states that offer online programs.

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