Students study on computers at Santa Monica College's library. (Photo by Paul Alvarez Jr.)
Students study on computers at Santa Monica College's library. (Photo by Paul Alvarez Jr.)
Students study on computers at Santa Monica College’s library. (Photo by Paul Alvarez Jr.)

SMC — In January, Santa Monica College officials announced a $1 million gift from Santa Monica couple Conrad Lee Klein and Joan Dempsey Klein to create the Conrad Lee Klein Fund for Online Education.

College President Chui Tsang hailed the gift as generous gift to a program that was becoming an “increasingly vital alternative to the traditional classroom setting.”

“Working people, parents, individuals with disabilities, people who live outside the Santa Monica area and others who cannot regularly attend classes on campus will benefit immensely from this extremely generous gift,” Tsang said.

The donation came at a time that the potential of online education to reach a vast number of students without the normal boundaries of space or schedule was very much a topic of conversation amongst educators, legislators and even the governor as leaders struggled to find ways to fix California’s reportedly broken higher education system, which some say has failed in its objective to make higher education available to all Californians at a time when they need it most.

College degrees are required for many jobs in the technology economy fostered in California, and graduates with a bachelor’s degree make tens of thousands more than their peers with only a high school education. Those with advanced degrees show additional gains in average salaries and lower rates of unemployment.

With that in mind, colleges and universities across the state have been hopping on the online bandwagon.

The University of California system offered nearly 2,600 fully online courses and more than 90,000 enrollments in the 2011-12 school year alone, although the vast majority of those — 2,228, to be exact — were part of the continuing education classes through UC Extensions.

The UC system has also tipped its hat to the Massive Open Online Courses, better known as MOOCs, with 21 courses either offered or soon-to-be provided through Coursera, EdX and Udacity, online platforms that offer higher education courses for free (but generally not for degree credit).

SMC was online before it was cool, said Julie Yarrish, associate dean with the college’s Online Education Department.

SMC has been offering online courses for almost 13 years, making it one of the early adopters in the state. Today, every department in the college has some online offerings with the exception of the math department and cosmetology.

The college has 800 sections online, down from 1,000 before the budget crisis hit.

“At the beginning, people were not so sure, and thought it might be a passing fancy,” Yarrish said. “It worked very well, and it met the needs of our students.”

In the beginning, teachers interested in joining the online craze had to build their classes from the ground up. That means filming your own videos, creating tests and other learning materials and setting up the environment for students to take an active role in their education and participate in class.

Dorna Sakurai teaches an environmental biology course at SMC, and has done so both online and live on campus.

It took her three months to put together the videos and materials needed to launch the class, which involved learning new technologies so that she could include a mix of mediums — live video, screen shots and even animated tutorials — and keep the class engaging.

“There’s a lot of techniques you can use in an online environment to keep students engaged,” she said. “That’s the biggest challenge. You don’t want it to be like reading a textbook.”

Sakurai has some experience in these matters. She produces videos posted to Youtube for a dog training business that she has on the side.

“I learned how to edit videos. Some of those skills translate to the online class,” Sakurai said.

More important than the availability of the classes, however, is their impact on student learning.

A study released in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education crunched data from more than 1,000 studies of online learning to determine what research said about student outcomes and achievement. The results were overwhelmingly positive, showing online classrooms to be as good as the brick and mortar variety.

That doesn’t mean the medium itself is superior, the report cautioned. Instead, the studies showed that online and classroom conditions often differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and even the type of instruction provided by teachers.

That point is something Brandon Martinez, a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, stresses — online classes require a new kind of teacher that can manage and direct that kind of learning.

Throwing a traditional teacher into an online classroom may not result in success, Martinez said.

“One of the false assumptions that people have held is that content area expertise translates into being an effective online instructor. The takeaway is that people in charge of putting programs online need to spend the time to train the faculty so that they’re effective,” Martinez said.

For Sakurai, at least, the online medium itself has opened doors. Her online environmental biology class includes students from Taiwan and London, each of whom can bring their individual experiences of local environmental policy and practices to bear on the discussion.

“They have different recycling programs and pollution issues, it’s fascinating,” she said.

Some kinds of classes do not translate so easily to the online format. Think hard sciences, or anything with a hands-on component. While those kinds of classes have been tackled online, they tend to embrace a hybrid model that allows for in-person class time a few times a year, Yarrish said.

Although online classes are growing in popularity at all levels — the Department of Education reported a 65 percent increase in the number of K-12 students who took online courses between 2002-03 and 2003-04 — some still have reservations.

SMC’s Math Department has been testing out online classes for several years, but still hasn’t made the transition to online.

Moya Mazorow, assistant chair of the department who’s in charge of curriculum and learning resources, has been left in charge of the 67 hybrid sections that the department is using to get its feet wet. It’s raised a number of issues important to teachers, like how to handle office hours and student questions.

By 12:30 p.m., Mazorow already had 20 questions from students about homework.

Although math programs are routinely taught online at other colleges and universities, the SMC Math Department didn’t feel comfortable putting their coursework online until all students were able to participate, Mazorow said.

Online classes prepackaged by publishers come with online content, videos, animations and even tests and quizzes. Many are translated into English and Spanish subtitles, but Mazorow hasn’t seen one that can handle a student who’s blind or has limited vision.

“You can get away with things for a while until you have a student say, ‘Hey, but…,'” Mazorow said.

The SMC Foundation purchased a program for the math department that can actually speak math symbols, which would enable math-documents to translate to the online world. Mazorow is in the process of transferring all of the documents to that new language.

Another significant issue is the technology available to students when they are far from the classroom and the teacher’s watching eye. Some calculators are advanced enough to do the work for students with the click of a few buttons — only recently were programs available that force students to show their work in online exams, Mazorow said.

Although access must be part of the thought process, programs can’t just wait for the new best thing, Martinez said.

“I don’t think you should wait. You’ll wait forever because there will always be a new technology,” Martinez said.

The math department is expected to vote on whether or not it wants to move to an online in the near future, but nothing’s a guarantee with so many moving pieces.

“I hope we do it soon,” Mazorow said.

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