Foothill grad earns degree entirely online

Berkeley-bound student offers insight into pros and cons of online learning

A Berkeley-bound student who earned his associate's degree entirely online is among nearly 1,000 students who will graduate from Foothill College Friday, June 27.

From his home in Mendocino — or occasionally sitting in a Mendocino café or library — James Sommermann completed 23 Foothill classes online in music, English, statistics, Spanish, psychology, anthropology and geology.

He will enter the University of California at Berkeley this fall with hopes of double majoring in music and English.

Foothill offers all-online associate's degrees in 18 subjects as well as an array of all-online "certificates of proficiency." College officials said they have no way to track the number of students earning all-online degrees but that online classes accounted for about 27 percent of last quarter's enrollment.

Many students take a combination of traditional classes and online classes. But Sommermann needed to stay close to home in Mendocino, where he's been helping with driving and household chores for a family member who has health problems.

"I'm not going to say it's ideal because I'd rather go to in-person classes to be honest, but it was really just not possible for me at that point," he said.

He'd never taken an online class before enrolling at Foothill and said he first considered it "kind of a weird idea." He stumbled on Foothill — which he'd never heard of before — while helping a friend search for an online music class. Then he decided to try it himself.

"I ended up really enjoying it, for the most part," he said.

Over 18 months as a Foothill student Sommermann met "very few" of his professors in person but "talked to them a lot through email," he said. While he missed the camaraderie of in-person classes, he said professors tried to make up for it by welcoming electronic contact.

"They return emails very quickly and they encourage you to communicate with them," he said. "If you don't understand something you 'talk' to them. Some of them you get to know pretty well — at least as well as you can know anybody through email.

"A few of them even asked me where I'm transferring to and stuff."

Sommermann "met" his fellow students online, including a partner in a Spanish class with whom he regularly recorded conversations for review by the professor.

"You have to record it in real time, so you're talking over the computer like it's a phone, or a video chat without the video," he said. "The professor listens to it and grades it."

In twice-weekly online conversations, Sommermann got acquainted with his Spanish partner online but still could not say where the partner actually, physically lives.

"I assume it was close (to Foothill) because I think he took in-person classes too," Sommermann said. "He works a lot, so that's why online classes were good for him."

He also used specialized software that enabled him to enter musical notation for assignments in his music theory classes.

He met other remote classmates through online forums.

"For most classes there would be like a discussion board. We'd post introductions so we could actually talk to each other a bit, to make it more social. Some people have their picture on it," he said.

Sommermann had to physically travel to the Los Altos Hills campus to take exams — "some of them, not all of them" — and also to participate in a week-long program called Pass the Torch, during which he learned how to tutor fellow students.

His stellar performance at Foothill earned him the President's Medal, the college's highest academic honor, as well as admission to UC campuses at Berkeley, Davis, Riverside and San Diego.

He chose Cal because it's not too far from Mendocino and because, he said, "I've always kind of wanted to go to Berkeley."

Though he loved his online classes, Sommermann said he can understand the view of skeptics of online learning.

"I've heard people say you can't learn the same way online as you can in person, or that it's easier or something, which I can't really tell you because I haven't taken the actual class in person.

"Personally I loved (online classes) ... but I could see why someone might say otherwise. College has always had this really traditional aura — it seems caught up in a traditional culture and they wouldn't be so accepting of online classes.

"I'm definitely looking forward to going to Berkeley where I can actually be there."

Foothill's 54th Annual Commencement Ceremony begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday, June 27, in the college's Library Quad. Tickets are not required and parking in student lots is free for the event.

From its first graduating class of 37 students in 1960 Foothill has grown to serve some 14,000 students each quarter. This year's graduates include 520 earning associate in arts degrees and 355 for associate in science degrees. An additional 61 students will graduate under a new program in collaboration with the California State University system that guarantees admission to CSU with junior standing.

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Like this comment
Posted by Mac Clayton
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 27, 2014 at 10:05 am

Congratulations, James. Wonderful achievement. Enjoy Berkeley.

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Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 27, 2014 at 10:33 am

Yes, a big congratulations to you! I'm glad there is this possibility of taking classes on-line. (I remember doing a few correspondence courses back in the day.) I do think you miss out on the social aspects but this is still a very good way to learn. Harder it would seem to me. Kudos for getting into Berkeley!

Like this comment
Posted by me
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 27, 2014 at 10:56 am

I am a big proponent of online education. My son was ill and had to take all his classes online. He learned more, did it on his terms and had no "bad teachers" or class disruptive problems. I strongly believe more classes should be taught this way!

Congrats to another great student graduating from this 21st century way of education...time the rest of us move with it!

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Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 27, 2014 at 11:28 am

Because of poor schools, a large percentage of Foothill students have to take at least of year of high school level remedial classes before they can start taking classes for their AA. I can't believe that anyone could take more than a few classes without being in a classroom with other students discussing issues, interacting with the instructor.
I would not hire anyone that has not gone to a majority of classes at the College. I would like to know what percentage of the on-line only students actually graduate from the college they transfer to. Its probably very low, especially since they would be taking classes at a Junior level of college.

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 27, 2014 at 12:17 pm

@jerry99 - I have a degree in Economics but I have taken a couple of online classes at Foothill in subjects of interest. There was plenty of "students discussing issues and interacting with the instructor".

The classes were very well done and consisted of online lectures, reading assignments, writing assignments, classroom discussions (done in a manner similar to the Town Square, but with names), quizzes, tests, presentations and papers. Just like a regular class except you discuss things online - which takes a bit more time than in classroom. The discussion topics were posted by the professor and in each class, the students were required to respond to a minimum number of posts and also to post their own discussion topics/questions. One of the classes had a required group project - a powerpoint presentation that required research and coordinating with the other students, just like any other class. There were as many deadlines as any other class, assignments due on a certain date, quizzes and tests given on a certain date (although you generally have about a 36 hour "window" to take the test), deadlines for posting to a discussion, etc. I found the classes challenging, interesting and actually more time consuming than the "in person" versions.

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Posted by A necessity
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 27, 2014 at 1:05 pm

With the outlandish costs of a college education continuing to rise with no end in sight, online education could give a money-saving head start to most students. This is especially true lately, when most employers require a master's degree or a PhD to work in high tech ( even though their founders and CEOs have no degrees).

A college education has returned to being available only to the very rich, which is undemocratic in a country where most jobs now require a minimum of at least a four-year degree.

A traditional college education leaves a lot of people undereducated, underpaid, and underemployed, because it leaves out 90% of American students who need it ( no doubt worsened by schools who give priority to students from China) .

Add to all this the fact that the US is one of only five countries in the world ( the other four are in Africa) that does not pay for qualified students to get a four-year degree or better, and anyone can see that without online universities, American kids are doomed, as is America.

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Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2014 at 10:41 am

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2014 at 11:58 am

> I can't believe that anyone could take more than a few classes
> without being in a classroom with other students discussing issues,
> interacting with the instructor.

A couple of other posters have more-or-less answered this poster, but I wanted to add a couple points. On-line course, properly conceived, use as many tools available on the Internet/WEB as possible. VideoChat allows one-on-one interaction with instruction, other students and even people who might be seen as resources for research projects. Skype provides free VoiceChat/VideoChat and Instant Messenger—which goes a long way towards putting people face-to-face. Google/Hangouts allows multiple people to join in a meeting. Other tools exist, but may be fee-based, unlike Skype and Google/Hangouts.

The comment about the on-line course taking more time/effort is good to hear. It’s hard to judge students’ perceptions of these tools, and instructional packages, unless they have been through the traditional path at least once.
Will be interesting to see if more people shift to on-line at the Community Colleges. The drop-out rate at the schools is pretty high. It would be better if more people used on-line if they weren’t sure if additional education is something that they are suited for.

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Posted by A Necessity
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2014 at 2:11 pm

There is a very good article about online education in the June 28 edition of "The Economist", among other related articles about how education must change.

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Posted by Foothill's Easy
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 28, 2014 at 8:12 pm

I wonder what the success rate is for those who transfer to UCB from Foothill when they are competing with students who have super high SAT scores and super high GPAs and have taken many AP classes in high school. Sure, it seems like an easier route to attend UCB through the CC route, and kick back in high school and avoid the SAT, but does the student have the aptitude to compete at UCB with these super students?

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Posted by Curious
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 29, 2014 at 7:20 am

UCB publishes surveys and research on the success of CC transfers - overall success is very similar to freshman admitees. About 90% graduation rate. It's worth reading, and a positive sign for these students.

Web Link

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 29, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Very interesting article. Great to have these high quality options.
@Foothill's easy, who posted above, has a strange mentality with his/her slam on Foothill students, in my viewpoint. [Portion removed.]
Better to stand on your own two feet like Foothill students who may have to strive but who have a plan and who are intelligent enough to save money on their education (may not have the benefit of Daddy's $$$ like you to fund costly private schools) and who also sometimes transfer into UC Berkeley!

Like this comment
Posted by Get over yourself
a resident of Duveneck School
on Jun 29, 2014 at 2:40 pm

@anonymous: there is no right way to do anything. I think it's an assumption that "Foothill's easy" is slamming Foothill. The question is valid and "Curious" answered it successfully without a resentful posting which bashes the wealthy. I attended Foothill for a year before transferring, and I agree that Foothill is much easier than a UC and an easier route to fulfill general ed requirements.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 29, 2014 at 3:08 pm

@get over "Foothill's easy"'s post. Sounds like a slam to me.
Incidentally, I had a family member do a summer class at Foothill and they used....wait for it....Stanford curriculum! It was solid.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 29, 2014 at 4:07 pm

There are many variables here, but to claim that taking a class at Foothill is comparable to attending at Stanford is ludicrous and defensive. The competition of students at Foothill is considerably less than attending top tier universities, therefore, although it might be Stanford curriculum, it's easier to take the class at Foothill. Summer school students are also not necessarily the same caliber as the school year students because university students return home during the summer. Sure, there are the top students who need to save money and attend community college, but in general, it's not the majority.

2 people like this
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 30, 2014 at 9:06 am

@Joe - No community college will be "comparable to attending Stanford", for that matter, very few Universities will be comparable to Stanford. However, Foothill has a great reputation and solid professors who actually teach the classes vs. TAs and grad students. Much of your first two years in college are spent fulfilling general ed requirements which matter very little to your major.

@jerry99 - I find your comment interesting that you "would not hire anyone that has not gone to a majority of classes at the College". For most of the people I have hired in my 35 years in the business world, except for their first job, where someone went to school matters very little. Their experience and work ethic matter much more. And one of met best employees never graduated from college at all.

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Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 9:21 am

[Portion removed.] Not only is the Bay Area full of successful people who transferred, back before online education, this article shows exactly what online education can do.

Congratulations, and best wishes to James.

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Posted by Foothill rocks
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 30, 2014 at 10:12 am

@FoothilI'sEasy: You are posing the valid and good question how Foothill students measure up at the next higher level in education and when competing with students that come on different routes. The statistics are out there and - I am happy to say - in our favor.

What I don't appreciate is your attitude and assumption that students that successfully finish their studies at a CC take this route because they "kickback in high school and avoid the SAT". It only shows how little you know about that demographic.
Many of the students I met during my time at Foothill successfully graduated this spring from several highly recognized 4-year colleges and yes, Stanford was among those. They are hardworking individuals that for many different reasons didn't go the traditional route - laziness and shying away from a challenge were not among them. Many had to work their way through high school and further, without parents that were able to support them, pay for tuition, the expensive tutors or SAT prep classes that others are able to take advantage of and that brings up their grades in order to be "competitive". They worked tiring jobs throughout their colleges years and sill kept their grades up. Some even supported families and still finished at the same time as the super competitive students you are talking about.

From my own experience I can report: Foothill prepared us well. Because of my choice of a bachelor in Science I had to take all my basic introductory science classes at Foothill and it was hard and it was exactly what I needed when I got to UCSC. I hit the ground running because that is what I learned at Foothill. I just graduated among the 5% best of my class.

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Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2014 at 10:52 am

Foothill has been referred to as Harvard on the Hill for good reason. For decades, data have shown that students who transfer from JC are successful, and well-adjusted. Some studies have shown that they're even more well-adjusted than non-transfer students, because many have already held jobs and other responsibilities.

Yes, my siblings and I attended Foothill, then transferred. We are all successful professionals. The UC system not only had provided us with our undergrad degrees, but graduate, as well. Our mother attended a JC before transferring, while she raised us, and we had a neighbor who was a JC instructor. He had a PhD from Stanford and loved teaching in a JC. Our father is the only immediate family member who didn't attend a JC, but as an educator, he is a strong proponent of them.

I recall a large group of students a year ahead of me at Foothill, with whom I shared a class. The majority transferred to UC, including 6 who went to Cal. Several also transferred to Stanford. We were all serious students, from various backgrounds, and we varied in age.

[Portion removed.]

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Posted by God Bless America
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 30, 2014 at 10:54 am

The wonderful aspect of America besides the fact that each person's life is valued, is that this country allows for multiple chances at success if a person works hard. People are allowed to change careers and do. Community college is giving the less wealthy, less academic, and/or students with no family guidance, a second chance. No student in elementary school has the dream to attend community college, but it's a stopping ground to fulfill their dreams.

We should hang our flag with pride and be grateful that our military is keeping us safe. People in other countries can only dream while Americans can make it happen if they have the potential and motivation.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 30, 2014 at 10:55 am

My family member showed me the curriculum - happened to be Accounting - several years ago, which said in black and white at the front of the mass of material - it was substantive - that it was written by Stanford profs - so therefore I assume THEY use their own curriculum, too for that as some professors do in this world. I am not current but that happened then. I never said Foothill equals Stanford. It would be ludicrous to compare the socio-economic backgrounds and advantages of Stanford private university students to public community college students. Still, Foothill is a very high quality community college -- yes, there are some that are lower quality out there -- and it appears many - I never said all - students may obtain a great 2 year start there for a very reasonable price, so WHY are posters arguing with me on that?? Many of us also have known students over the years who have transferred on and succeeded at UC Berkeley (and likely other universities, too).
Defensive statements on behalf of Stanford are completely unnecessary, they have a major PR machine with a big budget already.
Again, I congratulate the student who is the subject of this original news story and who took an interesting path via online education.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 30, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

God Bless America - why are you making the junior college students less than others? I attended one with students who came from money, whose grades were better than those who got into the State schools, but not good enough for a UC or an Ivy League school. Many of them were also just not sure yet which focus to have in life, academically, and it was smarter to go to a JC. I know parents who wisely guided their kids there instead of allowing them to drift along and party for 2 or 3 years at a 4 year institution. They wanted their kids to mature a bit, maybe hold down a job part time while going to school, as well as other reasons. I have a friend whose thrifty parents had plenty of money, and all of the kids started out in JC. All of them transferred, they're all professionals, and several of them in that one family have advanced degrees, as is the same in my family. In fact, many of the less intellectual kids were happy to go to a state school, and the more intellectual ones went to community college, then a UC or other uni. Meanwhile, I had friends at Stanford that would get their syllabus but be absent from classes for days and days, which doesn't fly at a junior college.

1 person likes this
Posted by just depends
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 30, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Generally, the students who attend JC aren't as privileged or focused as those who attend colleges with good reputations. Doesn't mean they can't make something of themselves. There are plenty of elite school students who have done nothing that makes their degree necessary. And plenty at other 4-year schools who have flunked out due to partying.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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