Online learning isn’t just another path into the middle class. It’s also a way for the government to spend more wisely.
Three times a week, 15 weeks a semester, you can expect to see Sandra DeSousa teaching a room of 150 to 250 students the math they should have learned in high school. The adjunct professor at San Jose State University has another 100 students under her charge this spring, but she rarely sees them face-to-face.
In January, the California university entered into a partnership with Udacity, a Palo Alto-based company that specializes in providing free online courses, to develop entry-level classes in mathematics. Any student, not only those enrolled at San Jose State, can take one of the courses for academic credit. The university has its own separate online offerings, but a three-unit course can cost $1,050. The programs developed with Udacity were priced at $150.
What’s happening at 30,000-student San Jose State, the oldest public university in the West, reflects the pressures facing higher education across the country. Like other state-run schools, it is expected to provide access to as many students as possible. But in the wake of the Great Recession, taxpayers and tuition-payers are struggling to foot the bill. Deficit-ridden California has cut spending per student on higher education almost 30 percent since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and tuition at the state’s public four-year colleges has risen 72 percent. Not surprisingly, students have found it ever-harder to obtain the diploma that’s become almost a requirement for jobs that assure a middle-class life.
Education reformers see a remedy in Internet-based tools, which they say can help more students earn college degrees at a lower cost to themselves, their families, and the government. California legislators, hoping to hurry the process, are considering legislation that would require public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses. Those could include some of Uda-city’s free offerings.
Online education isn’t new. But the latest technological wave could shake up traditional modes of instruction—on-screen and off—and change the way brick-and-mortar universities operate. “I really do feel like this is going to erupt in a way that is helpful to students,” said Michelle Rhee-Weise, a senior research fellow in education at the Innosight Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. San Jose State’s partnership with Udacity could be the first tremor.