Online learning and virtual interactions between faculty and students will undoubtedly become a more regular part of the college experience. There is significant debate, however, over how and to what extent online education should expand.
As part of his 2021-22 budget proposal, Newsom has requested that, by 2022, California’s public colleges and universities permanently increase the share of courses offered online by at least 10% over pre-pandemic levels.
The reaction to that idea has been mixed.
Jason Constantouros, a policy analyst with the Legislative Analyst’s Office, urged lawmakers during a recent state Assembly hearing to reject the proposal and instead require the state’s public colleges and universities to report to the Legislature about experiences with online learning.
“We have concerns with a specific, proposed (10%) target,” he said. “That target appears arbitrary to us and lacking in justification.”
Across the state’s colleges, staff and faculty are exploring how and whether to expand online classes. But none have yet adopted a specific target like the one proposed by Newsom.
Michael Dennin, UC Irvine’s vice provost for teaching and learning, said Newsom’s proposal reinforces a “false dichotomy” by pitting online vs. in-person classes.
Rather than focusing on increasing the percentage of online classes, Dennin said colleges and their faculty should use what they’ve learned during the pandemic to teach each class in the most effective way possible. He predicted that would result in many more hybrid courses that mix online and in-person elements.
Like UC, the chancellor’s office overseeing the state’s 116 community colleges is still studying Newsom’s proposal for a 10% increase in online class offerings, said Marty Alvarado, the system’s executive vice chancellor of education services. However, Alvarado added that she anticipates it will be easy for the community colleges to meet and even exceed that target.
Alvarado noted that, because of the shift to online classes last spring, all of the system’s colleges have now approved the majority of their classes to be offered online, and professional development for faculty in how to embrace online teaching “has been scaled up across the system.”
She expects many classes will be offered in a “hybrid-flex” manner, meaning that students will be given the option to attend fully online, but could also choose to attend in person.
Zahraa Khuraibet, president of the Cal State Student Association and a Cal State Northridge student, said there’s a diversity of opinion from students about whether they prefer online or in-person classes, which is why a hybrid approach appears to be the post-pandemic future, she said.
Khuraibet, who is currently attending her Northridge classes from Texas, said the flexibility is essential because while students miss the “on-campus experience,” there are others who have been thriving in the online environment.
In some ways, distance learning has proven to be more accessible for disabled students, too. As a starting point, lecture classes should regularly be recorded post-pandemic, said David Miller Shevelev, a student at UC Santa Cruz and an advocate for disabled students across the UC.
For students with physical disabilities, recorded lectures are helpful because those students may not always be able to walk to their classroom for a lecture. In Shevelev’s case, he has ADHD and “inevitably misses” 30% of any given lecture.
“Having a recorded lecture means that now I can go back and rewatch that,” he said.
Shifting to more online classes will be a contentious point with faculty. Debbie Klein, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, which is not a union but represents faculty issues, said she’s in favor of offering online options to students who need the flexibility. She also plans to keep holding office hours on Zoom, which she said is more accessible to many students.
But Klein is opposed to substituting any classes that were once face to face with online instruction. She noted that many community colleges offer high numbers of programs that require hands-on learning, such as nursing and automotive services.
“If each college or district were going to determine how much to increase online, it should be specific to their local community that they serve,” Klein said.
That should also be true at the four-year universities, said Diane Blair, a professor at Fresno State and secretary of the California Faculty Association, the union for faculty across the CSU.
Blair said some courses have a clear in-person element, like science labs, but she said even classes, such as communication courses, which she teaches, should remain primarily face to face. She said she’s realized during the pandemic that giving speeches over a Zoom call isn’t the same learning experience as giving them in front of a live audience.
There are certain elements of virtual teaching that Blair plans to keep using going forward. She may continue allowing students to take quizzes and tests online, having realized that the purpose of an assessment should be to get students “to engage the material,” not memorize it.
But Blair is opposed to any top-down directives to shift classes that were once face to face, to being online.
Private colleges, which have been especially hurt by the pandemic-driven decline in tuition and revenue, see online classes as a way to meet student needs.
“We have learned how to do this and are starting to do it well,” said Beth Kochly, associate provost for curriculum and academic resources at Mills College in Oakland.