New concerns over another of Brown’s online learning ideas

New concerns over another of Brown’s online learning ideas

(Calif.) The non-partisan Legislative Analyst urged lawmakers Tuesday to reject a proposal from the governor to double the state’s ongoing support for online education at community colleges to $20 million annually.

Although the LAO acknowledged that an initial $17 million investment allowed the 113-college system to save money by sharing the cost of software and related expenses, the legislature’s primary budget analyst said an additional allocation wasn’t needed to cover ongoing subscription costs.

“We entirely agree that adoption of the (online education initiative) saves money for the system, it helps the faculty, it helps the students,” Judy Heiman, a principal fiscal and policy analyst at the LAO told members of the Assembly subcommittee on education finance.

The problem, she said, is that the Legislature has already provided funding to establish the program that derives savings for each individual campus. “They could use just a portion of those savings to pay for the subscription costs,” she said, calling the additional funding a “backdoor subsidy.”

Although the subcommittee took no action on the item, there appeared to be some skepticism among some members about the governor’s proposal.

Maritza Urquiza, representing the Department of Finance, said that the purpose of the funding was to simplify the payment for the software services and allow each community college campus to decide how to use the savings for other expenses.

Brown drew national attention three years ago with a budget plan aimed at encouraging the state’s college and universities to offer more online courses that would help control the spiraling cost of a college degree. He also wanted a rewrite of the state rules surrounding independent study at K-12 schools to allow more instruction delivered over the web.

Both ideas ran into technical and political hurdles, but the governor has continued to push the general concept of online education where he could. Most recently, his target has been at the community colleges where the benefits can be shared not only with traditional first and second year college students, but also some high school and adult education enrollees.

The latest issue started with the 2013-14 budget, which included money to launch the online education initiative, as well as a commitment for ongoing support.

Since then, the state has provided about $57 million in funding to connect students to online courses. There seems to be general agreement that the money spent so far has been beneficial.

As structured, the community college system shares a common course management program as well as resources to help faculty design highly sought-after courses. There are also modules that support tutoring and counseling, according to a staff report.

Although 103 of the state’s 113 colleges are participating in the system to some degree, enrollment in the online courses has not grown as quickly as some had hoped.

Mario Rodriguez, a representative of the Community College Chancellor’s office, said organizing the new system was problematic. Among the challenges was coming to an agreement over student residency–that is, regulations that would allow a student in the Sacramento area to attend an online course being offered by a college in San Diego.

He said it was also important to develop standards and goals for the faculty teaching in the new learning environment. Rodriquez said the expectations are that enrollment in online courses will grow quickly from here forward.