Online classes expanding

SANTA ANA, Calif. The waves lap the white beaches of Jamaica. Tim Green poses for a photo by a magnificent waterfall. As the ocean roars and seagulls sing, Green begins teaching his Cal State Fullerton graduate class microcomputers in the elementary classroom.

Green, a California State University-Fullerton professor, dials onto the computer from his father’s house, and posts discussion questions for his students back home.

Online learning is nothing if not convenient.

And despite some rather spectacular “virtual university” failures in recent years fed by the dot-com bust, local colleges and universities are steadily expanding their online offerings.

Cal State Fullerton launched its first online master’s degree program in September, in instructional design and technology, a course designed for working people to use technology for teaching. The University of California-Irvine will offer a master’s in criminology in January. Community colleges like Coastline have been offering online courses for seven years.

CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed has said he’d like to see two online master’s degree programs per campus, or 5 percent of courses online, up from less than 1 percent now. He believes even using online tools in a traditional class will “enrich the learning experience” and save space, which is crucial at a time of booming enrollments and slim budgets.

“We’re always going to do some things in traditional ways,” Reed said. “But if we use technology and . . . Web- based assignments, we can put all that together, then students won’t have to come to class every day. Maybe they’ll come for a lecture one day out of three. That will clear up a seat, and seats are what we need.”

At least 60 percent of campuses have at least one online course, according to a 2001 survey put out by the Encino-based Campus Computing Project. About 35 percent of classes nationwide have Web pages, 20 percent use an online course-management system and 47 percent use Internet resources, according to the survey.

College administrators are moving enthusiastically but more carefully since the first rush to online learning when the Net was new. The dot-com money isn’t there any more. And educators now know online education is not for everybody.

“My students hate it,” said Cal State Fullerton political-science professor Sandra Sutphen, who posts course information for her students online. “OK, hate is a little strong. They’re frustrated by the fact the system is slow. Most have dial-up modems and it’s cumbersome. They have to know how to type. They want face-to-face interactions.”

Online courses tend to attract people like Amy Shultz, 26, a fourth-grade teacher from Anaheim Hills. Shultz took two online classes over the summer. Online classes take some getting used to, she says. “The difference is you’re not in face-to-face interactions with other people. The professor has to foster that communication because you haven’t seen these people before.”

Students log into their online classrooms as they would their e-mail accounts. Instructors post assignments and questions for discussions. Students file papers via e-mail. If there are tests, students might file them from a remote learning center, where they have to show identification.

While students have a reputation for being tech-savvy, some are clearly nervous about being dependent on it for their grade. One of Green’s students voiced unease when sending her final paper to Green, who is also acting director of distance education. “If there are gaping holes please let me know,” the student pleaded in an e-mail. “I think (pray) I’m sending the correct version.”

Online learning exploded onto campuses in the late 1990s in the glow of the dot-com boom. Universities hitched onto online ventures, certain that the students would come, said Kenneth C. Green of the Campus Computer Project. New York University launched NYU Online as a profit-making venture to develop courses for businesses. It was abandoned in 2001 after the university poured in $20 million. The California Virtual University was created in 1997 with much fanfare by the University of California, California State University and other colleges, but that died in 1999.

Jia Frydenberg, director of UCI’s distance learning center, says some of these grand projects stalled because universities underestimated how much technical support they needed, as well as the differences between the corporate and academic worlds companies want to get products to market fast and academics don’t see that pressing need.

“Everybody had good intentions,” said Frydenberg. “They wanted something so badly they glossed over the inherent differences.”

UCI is focusing its online learning toward midcareer professionals, people highly motivated to take online classes and boost their careers, but who can’t or won’t drive to campus. She says online works best for students who “squeak,” who ask questions and demand answers. For students who sit back and let things happen, it’s easy to drop out. And the attrition rate is as high as 20 percent to 30 percent.