In Fall 2011, SF State’s cinema department faced a grave problem: bottlenecking. About 100 “super seniors” and 175 juniors were enrolled in sophomore-level classes, and the department was serving 200 more students than its normal enrollment.

The department hired Daniel Bernardi, an online program developer for film and media at UC Los Angeles and Arizona State University, as the department chair. He hired an online course technician and offered support for faculty who wanted to translate their syllabuses to online.

Using flash-built websites, the cinema department now serves about 500 students online and has alleviated their bottleneck problem. By offering its online courses doubly through the College of Extended Learning, the cinema department has almost paid off the salary of their online course technician and even expects extra revenue in the future for department technology.

SF State’s cinema department is the poster child story of how online education can solve the biggest problems (accessibility, lack of funding, prolonged graduation) of higher education today. Online education was the buzz of academia discussion in 2012 and has come to fruition in 2013.

This January, California State University officials announced the growth of their online education initiatives with the inception of two programs: Cal State Online and San Jose State University Udacity-hosted courses. SF State offers 61 online courses this Spring and has plans to increase that number in the future with “full confidence” according to SF State administration.

“The CSU administration would like the campuses to serve more students, more effectively with constrained resources, and the SFSU administration supports that initiative,” Brian Beatty, SF State associate vice president for Academic Affairs Operations, said.

Cal State Online offers online courses from three different campuses in one centralized place. San Jose State University offers $150 courses through massive online open classroom (MOOC) host, Udacity. CSU spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp expressed interest in expanding both programs to other campuses after studying and troubleshooting the effectiveness of each.

“There’s obviously a value to be in a classroom with a professor. We’re investigating other ways to provide access, and ways to use technology to provide access to courses,” Uhlenkamp said.

Gov. Jerry Brown allocated 13 percent of the projected CSU budget for San Jose State University Udacity courses. In a statement to CBS Los Angeles, Gov. Brown said online was the solution to lowering student loans by giving access to “bottleneck” courses such as algebra and remedial math, and eliminating prolonged graduations.

MOOC providers such as Udacity and Coursera have gained popularity as a “democratic” education alternative for students around the world. Courses are low cost, and sometimes free. Students can take courses from professors at Ivy League schools. According to the New York Times, Coursera offers 197 courses in 18 subjects, and has been awarded the Best New Startup of 2012 by Tech Crunch.

SF State offers courses through MOOC provider Coursera, “hyflex” or hybrid flexible courses with options of attending class in person or online, flash-built courses with streamlined audio and video, short video lectures that can be viewed on the iPhone, and courses supported by iLearn.

“The numbers, at least the preliminary numbers (of enrollment in online courses) I saw were really encouraging for us. We’ll continue to look at online work during the summer, as complements to (the online courses offered during) the Fall and Spring semesters,” President Leslie E. Wong said.

Principles of marketing professor, Bruce Robertson, acknowledges online is “not the right way to teach any kind of class,” but says certain theory-based core courses can utilize online through a method called unbundling.

“The way that we justify principles of marketing is to give students the language and terms of marketing, then offer smaller sections (of upper division courses) where (they) can apply the principles,” Robertson said.

Robertson believes that students who may not pass a class because of struggling with multiple choice testing are “screwed and at a disadvantage.” Robertson admits multiple choice is the biggest criticism in his class evaluations.

Basic concerns about online are the lack of face-to-face contact, hindering community, group work and networking; ample multiple choice testing; and technical issues.

“It’s easy to forget about the class altogether. You don’t have a professor or classmates reminding you to check online or do the homework,” hospitality management student Aralyn Austin said.

Faculty members who have taught online courses say there are certain students who do better in online courses such as non-native English speakers, and students who are organized and committed.

Conversely, students who are disorganized and underestimate the time needed to invest in an online course, do poorly. Bernardi says he gets more A’s and F’s in online courses than the same course taught traditionally.

Professors Robertson and Bernardi have orientations to warn students about what Robertson calls “over-optimism” of those enrolled in online courses, thinking online courses are easier than those taught in classrooms.

“I hold town hall meetings for the cinema department every semester as chair. I tell them, ‘don’t be fooled by online,'” Bernardi said.

There are some benefits to online courses. Economically, online courses like Robertson’s principles of marketing has 25 sections freeing up classroom space, saving commuting dollars and in theory, tuition by abbreviating graduation times.

Much less obvious are the creative uses for online learning. Robertson explains supporting creativity in online learning might mean experimenting with smaller sections instead of large, but less efficiency of online education isn’t something administration’s interests lie in.

“There’s a perception at the administrative and university level that online classes are a way to save money. They’re economical. Online allows you to be creative and unique in ways that you can’t teach in traditional (formats). There has been less willingness to support experimentation.”

But faculty has to face complications tied to online education including establishment of copyrights for content produced by professors, the risk of bad evaluations for a course newly offered online, lack of time to build an online course and lack of technical support from the University to manage it.

“It’s a resource issue. A lot of people say just make courses online, but don’t understand the teacher has to learn a new tool and learn how to implement it. They have to test it out. Most faculty [members] like to learn new things, but have other realities, like getting tenure and getting promoted,” Wei Ming Dariotis, SF State chapter president of the California Faculty Association, said.

As the number of online courses at SF State increase, the University will provide ongoing training and support for faculty who want to adapt their teaching methods Beatty said. Beatty says SF State’s support is for “effective” online education because of it’s efficiency and flexibility, but according to Robertson it’s best qualities have yet to be discovered.

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Lindsay Oda

Lindsay Oda