A new report from the Legislative Analyst's Office is urging the state's public colleges and universities to expand online classes and degree programs – a concept the report says could boost efficiency and access to public higher education in California.
The report comes as the University of California is getting the ball rolling on a controversial proposal to develop online-only bachelor's degree programs.
The Legislative Analyst Office's report, written by policy analyst Paul Steenhausen, argues that the legislature should guide a statewide vision on online education. There should be clearer definitions and more data on who enrolls and who succeeds in online courses at the UC, California State University and California Community Colleges systems, the report says. While all three systems offer some kind of online courses, they define them differently and vary in how much data they collect.
Steenhausen's report also offers a number of strategies aimed at increasing the number of online courses and programs in California. The state should create competitive grants for faculty to create online course content that can be shared with professors across the state. The CSU and community college systems should study the idea of offering online degree-completion programs for people who have some college credit but never finished. And the state should put together a task force that would pursue a public-private partnership with Western Governors University, a Utah-based nonprofit online university, the report says.
Western Governors University launched one such partnership with the state of Indiana earlier this year. Indiana students can use state grants to attend "WGU Indiana," which receives no other state aid. The university operates under the purview of the Indiana Higher Education Commission. Tuition is $5,800 per year.
Research on the benefits of online education for college students is mixed. A frequently cited 2009 study [PDF] commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and produced by SRI International found that students completing online classes learned more, on average, than those taking the same classes in the face-to-face setting.
The report reviewed 43 previously published studies that compared how adults performed in online courses, including classes that mixed online and face-to-face methods, with traditional classroom-only instruction. The authors suggested it wasn't necessarily the online method that helped students learn more – rather, it was the extra learning time and faculty interaction included in these classes that helped.
A later report from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, challenged SRI's findings. Researchers reviewed the same studies and found that most of the classes where students excelled were partially online and partially face-to-face. For fully online, semester-length college courses – the kind that most colleges are keen on creating – there is no trend in favor of the online mode. Plus, the authors pointed out, the studies reviewed by SRI focused on courses that were taken by relatively well-prepared university students, so their results may not translate for underprepared students.
Daniel Greenstein, a UC vice provost who is helping lead the effort to create an online-only bachelor's degree program, says the online method could give faculty and universities more information about what underprepared students need to succeed.
"There are huge opportunities to gather information about students and how they're doing in very granular data … to tell who's struggling with what – the opportunithy to really hone and tailor teaching," said Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning, programs and coordination.
The UC system is about 10 days away from inviting faculty to participate in a pilot program to develop 25 to 40 undergraduate online courses, with the goal of figuring out whether the university can offer online classes that are equal in quality to traditional on-campus instruction, Greenstein said.
He expressed enthusiasm for the Legislative Analyst's Office report, saying statewide collaboration among the UC, CSU and community college systems could broaden access to higher education for a population that can't pursue the traditional residential undergraduate route.
Currently, most online courses in California are offered by for-profit colleges and the California Community Colleges system. At the community colleges, online courses were taken by about 1 percent of full-time equivalent students in 1999–2000. In 2009–10, that figure rose dramatically to 10 percent, the report said.
All of CSU’s campuses offer online courses, but there are no systemwide figures on enrollment data because the chancellor’s office does not collect this data from campuses and the colleges don't have the same definition of an online course.
Gerry Hanley, senior director for academic technology services at the CSU Office of the Chancellor, said the system plans to get all the campuses to agree on a standard definition. CSU should have a timeline for that at the end of this academic year, Hanley said.
"I think the (report's) recommendations fall in line with what the CSU already had on their roadmap to work on," Hanley said.