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Apodaca: Digital education finally finds foothold

September 29, 2012|By Patrice Apodaca

In many ways, it appears that online education is at last taking hold.

Earlier this month, UC Irvine announced it would offer a selection of free online courses through an agreement with Coursera, a company started by two Stanford University professors. It joins a growing list of universities, including Caltech, Duke, the University of Michigan and Princeton, that have deals with Coursera.

Other online education companies are popping up, including edX, a joint venture of Harvard University, MIT and UC Berkeley, and Udacity, also founded by Stanford professors.

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The trend stoked a controversy at the University of Virginia recently, when the president was dismissed, in part because she was slow to move on Internet classes. She was quickly reinstated, and UVA subsequently signed an agreement with Coursera.

Although it's far from clear how these ventures will make money, they are viewed as a means of expanding the reach of higher education to thousands of potential students worldwide. There's even a new acronym for the concept: MOOC, for massive open online courses.

In an age of slashed budgets, overcrowding and reduced class offerings, some public school officials also see online education as a realistic, cost-effective response. Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the struggling Cal State University system, has pushed an initiative to develop online classes to improve access and graduation rates.

But in the K-12 universe, the embrace of online classes has been sporadic.

Take Newport-Mesa. Our local school district has for years offered the same limited menu of online courses for high school students: American democracy, economics, health, and drivers education.

(Students who fail certain classes are sometimes given the opportunity to earn credit online.)

Online classes present an array of challenges and potential problems in the K-12 arena that have so far worked to limit their scope. Among the obstacles are teacher training, and how to address state and federal policies that mandate everything from funding to students' seat-time.

Collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions pose another complication. How are matters such as caps on "student contacts," for instance, to be handled in online education?

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