Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - October 26, 2012

Online education's local incubator

Through Internet learning, Foothill College can extend education — but it's not for everyone

For Foothill College President Judy Miner, online learning represents an opportunity to broaden the reach of her life's work — extending educational options for people who wouldn't otherwise have them.

While state budget cuts have reduced the number of students she can serve, Miner views partnerships with online education entities as a chance to buck that trend.

She has huddled with Sal Khan of the Khan Academy and Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun on ways the new technologies can enable Foothill to expand its offerings.

She's angling for Foothill to become a demonstration site for the "massive, open, online courses" offered by startups like Palo Alto's Udacity, with an eye toward making that curriculum transferrable to the California State University system.

Khan already plans to use Foothill's Los Altos Hills campus for a Khan Academy summer program in 2013.

Online learning is nothing new to Foothill. The community college already offers 13 degrees — including music technology and various computer science degrees — entirely in an online format.

Miner estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the college's course enrollment is online and that number jumps to 20 percent if "hybrid" courses — part online, part face-to-face — are included.

But online learning isn't for everyone, she warns — a reality that must be factored in when considering the rush to Internet-based learning. The college's "global access" website offers a self-assessment for students to determine how well-suited they are to the online style.

It asks questions such as, "Can you meet deadlines without frequent prodding?" "Will you be able to set aside some time to participate in weekly online discussions?" "Are you a self-motivated, independent learner?" "How will you handle the situation if your internet connection is interrupted for a period of time?"

Some people have the misguided notion that online courses are easier because you don't have to come to class, Miner said.

"But if you're not as self-motivated as you need to be it can be a bit of a trap."

She worries that the dropout rate of online courses is higher than in classroom courses, particularly because the state now places limits on how many times it will fund a student to take the same class.

Miner herself prefers the face-to-face model.

"Even now when I give talks I read the room, whether people are smiling, frowning or not responding. I think as an instructor I'd have a hard time delivering and engaging students online because I'm so personally depending on that face to face.

"Having said that, I'm very excited about the new technologies. Students are equipped for getting access to what's out there in the cloud or on the web."

She predicts a fading of the traditional model, now governed by funding laws that grew out of K-12 face-to-face instruction with a credentialed teacher.

"I think we're blowing up that model," she said.

In its place may be a system where students get their instruction for free — say from a set of Khan Academy videos that meets Foothill course requirements.

Rather than paying tuition to sit in front of an instructor, students could get as much online instruction as they need or want and would pay only when they want to demonstrate their knowledge and earn credit.

With mixed reviews from current instructors, online learning at Foothill will "only go so far down the road where we have the support and engagement of the faculty," Miner said.

"There will never be one size that fits all, but we very much want to engage the faculty champions around this.

"We don't know exactly where it's going, but we know it's going to be important, and we want to be in the mix and manage these tools in the interest of student learning," she said.

— Chris Kenrick

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