Online education is graduating from being an outlier to a legitimate player in mainstream education. According to an article published in the New York Times yesterday, a bill has been introduced today in California that requires the state’s public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses. The measure is designed to help students at educational institutions, who are shut out of oversubscribed classes. Interestingly, the courses will be sourced from popular online sites such as Coursera and Udacity. In addition, they will use government-approved textbooks or course materials from private education technology companies such as Pearson.
At first glance, the bill seems like a smart strategy to co-opt low-cost technology offerings into the existing education system. At the very least, the move reduces the waiting time for students at community colleges and increases efficiencies in the system.It also provides a simple and effective way for credit transfer between colleges.
Community colleges and public universities in California have already been reeling under the effect of budget cuts for the last two years. They have responded by cutting back on the number of classes being offered at their institutions. As a result, wait lists have grown longer. According to the article, the state’s 112 community colleges had an average of 7,000 enrolled students on waiting lists.
Can technology help solve the problem?
At first glance, the answer to that question seems to be positive. Online education providers, such as Coursera, can work in tandem with state universities to balance student demand for popular courses. They can pick up extra load from these institutions and help the state achieve a better educational outcome. Outside courses can also help drive efficiencies within the system by working as a performance benchmark. In turn, this could force complacent professors and teachers to perform better. With their promise of open-source textbooks and nominal fees, online courses can also help drive down costs.
Or, so it seems.
In the absence of detailed logistics about the proposed bill, online courses might end up increasing costs for educational institutions. In addition to course materials and faculty salaries, participating institutions will have to shell out additional money for nominal course fees (which could turn out to be not be so nominal, given the volume of students clamoring for these classes). For example. Coursera is considering charging $100 for completion certificates for its courses. With an average of 7,000 students at a community college, this bill has the potential to inflate costs by a neat $700,000 in operations.
Then, there is the added (and intangible cost) of increased faculty workload. This is because a traditional college system does not follow the peer assessment model of online classes. Instead, it offers a top-down approach, one that is marked by professorial oversight and supervision. Thus, in addition to class time with their regular students, faculty members will also have to work with students from online courses and align their course pacing to match the online student’s expectations. At the very least, this would have the effect of increasing expenses for the participating institution.