Does Online Education Deal with Budget Cuts?

Amid the ongoing talk of budget cuts and fewer class offerings, the lure of online education with virtual classrooms could offer a respite to vanishing seats in the physical world.

But is it really saving academia money? Are the rumors that the school is turning to online classes to deal with the budget cuts true?

A resounding no, according to numbers released by the state and Santa Monica College.

In a report from the Board of Trustees, reduced availability in distance education at SMC mirrors the same trend of reducing courses and sections, yet the demand for online classes remains high.

The college offered 725 online classes in the 2011 to 2012 school year, a drop from 779 the previous year. The drop is attributed to hybrid classes, where students take most of their classes online but still attend some class meetings. However, SMC’s distance education enrollment clocks in a little higher than the state at 12 percent of students attending classes on the Internet, said a report from the SMC Office of Institutional Research.

According to the school, online classes provide more flexibility for students’ schedules, reduce traffic and parking volume at peak hours, and free up spaces in traditional classrooms.

But the research also indicates a gap in the retention rates between students in distance learning and students in face-to-face classes, with many of the faculty and students skeptical about the value and legitimacy of the delivery method.

“I took a music course online; I couldn’t really understand some of it,” said SMC student Brian Lee.

“I don’t think that was a good class to take online, and I had to spend over 50 bucks on a CD that I haven’t listened to since.”

However, some students like Alexa Buiton, who took history, business, and counseling courses, enjoy the online option. “It’s more straightforward and less work for me, and you can communicate with the teacher better,” she said. “The classes are taught more direct and to the point.”

According to the California Community College Chancellor‘s Office, distance education courses made up only 0.63 percent of all course sessions in 1995-96, with the trend jumping  to 9.6 percent today.

The state Legislative Analyst’s Office, which makes recommendations to the legislature on fiscal policy, found that students who complete distance education courses learn as much as those taking the same courses in person.

 Almost 19,000 online classes are available to California students at four-year, community college and technical college levels. At SMC, all but four departments offer online education: Theatre Arts, Cosmetology, Dance and Math.

Although maintenance costs are reduced by the lack of physical classrooms, technology costs, according to the college, make up for the difference. “It is not the solution to the budget, because we’re funded by the state, and online classes comes out of that same budget,” said Trustee Louise Jaffe.

School administrators say that teachers are paid an additional fee to set up the online delivery of the course.

The budget crisis compels colleges to reduce expenses and online education allows  instructors to carry more students by either increasing class size or the number of sections, or swap out more expensive teachers with less expensive ones, a report from the Chancellors Office said..

The report from the Chancellor’s Office suggests that the schools implement a fee for students who take online courses that would be used by the schools to conduct studies aimed at finding how to raise retention rates.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office report indicates that instructional costs for distance education and on-site courses are similar, but that campuses can’t deliver the same quality of support services to online students as they do for students on campus, and that colleges need more uniformity to ensure academic integrity.