Digital learning expands access

Digital learning is expanding higher education options for California students, reports the  San Jose Mercury News.

Estela Garcia, a working mother from Menlo Park, attends class at her kitchen table after she puts her daughters to bed; Tim Barham, a UC Berkeley senior, takes statistics at home after a day at work; and Oakland teenager Sergio Sandoval studies a college course while in high school.

“I think this is the single most transformational thing that could occur in higher education in decades,” said Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District.

With the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s universities are expanding online options. The University of California, whose campuses offer more than 2,500 online classes, may require undergraduates to take 10 percent of classes online. As soon as this summer,
San Jose State University and Udacity, a Mountain View-based company, “could open for-credit math classes to all takers, at $150 each. Some 300 high school, community college and university students are in a pilot program to test the classes.”

Galatolo wants to work with Udacity to design refresher courses to help incoming students ace placement tests, avoiding the remedial “black hole.”

Estela Garcia and a former classmate, Kelsey Harrison, said their online coursework requires self-discipline.

Still, because of the relatively small size of the class, it was easy for them to reach their College of San Mateoinstructors when they needed help. That kind of communication between students and faculty is impossible in a course with thousands of students. Those courses rely on virtual study groups and crowd-sourcing — seeking answers from the whole universe of students.

A well-developed online class might reach struggling students better than a traditional one, said Ronald Rogers, the San Jose State professor who developed Udacity’s statistics course. Rogers said when he stands in a lecture hall and asks if anyone has a question, nary a hand goes up. The new platform inserts short exercises and quizzes into the lecture, prompting instant student feedback.

“Imagine being in a class where if every minute and a half, the teacher shut up and asked if you got it,” he said.

Online courses helped Tim Barham transfer from a community college to Berkeley a year early. Now at Cal, the legal studies major is taking statistics online. Otherwise, he said, “I would have had to graduate later or cut down on work hours, which I can’t afford to do.”

Older students are looking for ways to combine credits earned in many ways to complete a degree, reports the New York Times. New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College, a pioneer in flexible, low-cost degrees, is growing rapidly. So are Charter Oak State College in Connecticut and the private, nonprofit Excelsior College in New York.  ”The idea of measuring students’ competency, not classroom hours, has become the cornerstone of newer institutions like Western Governors University,” the Times adds.

Pilar Mercedes Foy, 31, a Thomas Edison graduate whose parents did not go to college, said after she got an entry-level job at PSEG, the New Jersey energy company, she realized that she would need a degree to advance. She earned the bulk of her credits through heavily subsidized evening classes offered at work, supplemented by classes at Union County College and 12 credits from the CLEP Spanish exam.

Foy didn’t borrow a penny.

David Esterson, 45, of Whittier, Calif., started taking college classes in high school and attended the University of Washington for a year. After working for years as a photographer and starting a music business, he decided to complete his degree three years ago. He took online courses at the University of Minnesota and the University of Phoenix and at several California community colleges, before earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Thomas Edison. He’s now enrolled in two graduate programs.

$10K degree provides high value

No online lecture can equal “the surprise, the frisson, the spontaneous give-and-take of a spirited, open-ended dialogue with another person,” says Darryl Tippens, the provost of Pepperdine University.

Arthur C. Brooks’ no-frissons, $10,000 bachelor’s degree “was the most important intellectual and career move I ever made,” he writes in the New York Times.

After high school, I spent an unedifying year in college. The year culminated in money problems, considerably less than a year of credits, and a joint decision with the school that I should pursue my happiness elsewhere. Next came what my parents affectionately called my “gap decade,” during which time I made my living as a musician.

Ready for school in his late 20s, he discovered Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J. , a virtual college with no residence requirements. Edison “banks credits acquired through inexpensive correspondence courses from any accredited college or university in America.”

I took classes by mail from the University of Washington, the University of Wyoming, and other schools with the lowest-priced correspondence courses I could find. My degree required the same number of credits and type of classes that any student at a traditional university would take. I took the same exams (proctored at local libraries and graded by graduate students) as in-person students. But I never met a teacher, never sat in a classroom, and to this day have never laid eyes on my beloved alma mater.

After spending $10,000 on his bachelor’s degree, Brooks invested $5,000 in a master’s at a local university while working full time. Only as a student in a residential PhD program did he endure “the standard penury,” but he completed three degrees with no debt.

He became a tenured professor in behavioral economics at Syracuse University and now is president of the American Enterprise Institute.

. . . my 10K-B.A. is what made higher education possible for me, and it changed the course of my life. More people should have this opportunity, in a society that is suffering from falling economic and social mobility.

Higher ed’s bubble is about to burst, writes Brooks. Many people must make a “cost-effective college investment” or forego higher education. “The entrepreneurs who see a way for millions to go to college affordably are the ones who understand the American dream,” Brooks writes. “That dream is the opportunity to build a life through earned success. That starts with education.”

Amy Alkon writes: “Had my parents not paid, I might have done what I advise kids who come from poor families to do (when I talk at a school) — go to a good community college like Santa Monica college for two years, gotten great grades . . .  and then transferred to a better, four-year school.”

Brooks, the son of professors, is an outlier, not an example of the typical nontraditional student, writes James M. Patterson on Minding the Campus.