Cal State must improve online education across campuses, study urges

January 4, 2018

Students at Cal State Northridge's library computer lab

To help boost graduation rates, the Cal State system needs to make it easier for students to take online classes offered by CSU campuses other than their home one, a state Legislative Analyst report says.

The study found that few students — only about two per campus in 2015 — enroll in online courses at other Cal State schools. That’s at a time when 86,600 students systemwide took at least one online course at their home campuses.

Many Cal State students find it difficult to even learn about the availability of such classes systemwide and also face technological hurdles in accessing and using the computer-based learning programs, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Fixing those problems could aid Cal State students who are squeezed out of regular in-classroom courses or whose home campuses are not offering the class they need that semester, the study suggests. “Online education can offer a number of potential benefits to students, including providing opportunities for students attending one campus to find and get credit for courses at other campuses, thereby potentially speeding their time to graduation,” the report said. Cal State is working to sharply increase its graduation rates by 2025.

Four years ago, the state Legislature established requirements for the 23-campus Cal State system to better coordinate the many online programs its campuses offer independently of each other and to streamline registration across campuses. The new report notes that the Cal State system has met some of those requirements, including starting a website of online courses and creating clear rules for students to take such courses.

However, the Legislative Analyst found that cross-enrollment is so low in part because the website “is very awkward and makes finding courses difficult.” Students need to know the proper and somewhat obscure abbreviations of course departments to use it properly; for example a student who searched for an online “political science” class would not have found any unless they entered the term “posc,” the study said.

Another issue is the lack of a common Learning Management System, the technology that allows faculty to post readings and videos, students to submit assignments and the whole class to participate in group chats. Four different systems are used throughout Cal State. “Multiple platforms can present challenges for students who cross-enroll at other campuses. This is because each LMS has a different layout, requiring students to spend time learning how to navigate that particular system,” the report noted. A common platform “would promote greater ease-of-use.”

A substantial number of students are taking at least one fully online course at their home Cal State campuses (only the Maritime Academy does not offer those classes.) In fall 2015, about 80,000 undergraduates, or about 19 percent of the total, did so as did 6,600 graduate students, or about 12 percent, the new report found.

Asked for a response to the Legislative Analyst’s findings, Cal State system spokesperson Toni Molle acknowledged that the system needs to be improved but emphasized that a major overhaul “takes time, money and manpower.” She said the university is testing a new pilot version of the catalog and registration for online courses. “The current process is rather complicated and cumbersome for students and we are interested in improving the user experience,” she said. The pilot aims to find out “what courses students are looking for and taking from other campuses — which could help their enrollment planning.”

Molle added that “accessibility to a high-quality degree is a key tenet of the CSU mission, and online offerings provide students with additional opportunities to earn a degree. Innovation in the delivery of higher education, including expanding the number of online courses available to students, is just one of the strategies being implemented to better serve our students through Graduation Initiative 2025.”

The Cal State’s central chancellor’s office and the campuses are trying to comply with the legislative rules on online education and “we are confident that the availability of online courses and programs across the university will lead to even greater numbers of students earning a high-quality degree,” Molle said.

The report comes as officials in Sacramento are awaiting word from Gov. Jerry Brown on whether he will continue to push strongly and propose funding for a new community college that will be fully online. Brown is studying several options for such a plan aimed at serving the large number of Californians who attended some college but did not complete a credential or those who have never been to college at all. Brown may reveal his plans in his budget statement expected to be released next week. Some faculty leaders are skeptical of a fully online college program.

The issues about online classes at the community colleges differ somewhat from those at Cal State but are “related in terms of increasing course access for students and being more efficient with state dollars,” said Paul Steenhausen, a fiscal and policy expert with the Legislative Analyst’s Office who helped write the new report.

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