SAN JOSE -- Amid a push by Gov. Jerry Brown to expand online course offerings at public colleges and universities, San Jose State University and an online education startup today announced a deal to provide three entry-level courses for credit online.
The pilot program, if successful, could eventually be expanded statewide, officials said. It is unique because of the low price -- $150 a course -- and because it makes courses available to students who are not enrolled at the university.
The deal with Palo Alto-based Udacity Inc. was announced after Brown approached Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun in June.
"We're talking about our society, our future and how we can all improve our skills, how we can exercise our imagination, and we can come to understand this great learning environment called California," Brown said at a news conference here. "We're about inquiry. We're about knowledge, and we're about reflection and wisdom. Technology helps that."
The Democratic governor is lobbying the University of California and California State University systems to expand online offerings to reach more students. He is also encouraging them to reduce costs, and he is expected to attend a meeting of University of California regents on Wednesday.
CSU Chancellor Timothy White said the offering of online courses can expand access to popular "bottleneck" courses, those entry-level courses that are necessary for degree completion but can be hard to get into.
"This is an important day in American higher education," he said, calling the partnership a "step forward."
He described the pilot as a research and development project for the CSU. The next question, he said, is, "Can it be scaled up?"
The pilot program is limited to 300 students, half of them from San Jose State and half from the surrounding area. The university said it has received a National Science Foundation grant to study the program's effectiveness.
The project is a major test for MOOCs, or massive open online courses. University and college professors have raised concerns about the quality and effectiveness of such courses.
San Jose State professors helped develop the courses and will teach them in coordination with Udacity, which will provide "course mentors" to monitor and encourage students, officials said. Registration for three classes -- two math classes and elementary statistics -- was expected to open today.
"We're for good, high-quality teaching no matter what," said Lillian Taiz, a professor of history at CSU Los Angeles and president of the California Faculty Association. "Whether it's online or it's in the classroom, our goal is to make sure that it is good quality. ... The place where we get kind of concerned is when folks sort of say, 'We want to do education on the cheap.' "
She said the study of the partnership announced this morning is likely to be instructive for the development of future courses..
"I think it'll be a really interesting set of information that will come out of it in the end, to just tell us more," she said. "We've got MOOC mania right now, and nobody's asking, 'OK, how does this work, is it successful, and what comes out of it,' and an experiment that does that I think can only be good."
When asked about the cost, Thrun said Udacity does not expect to profit from the initial trial. He said he has also talked to Texas and Ohio officials about a similar partnership.
"This is an exciting moment in the intellectual history of our state and of our university," Brown said, "and, you know, whatever the damn thing costs, it's going to be a hell of a lot cheaper than high-speed rail."
The university said it spent about $45,000 developing the project.
Meanwhile, California State University this week began offering a bachelor's degree program in business administration thought by faculty at CSU, Fullerton. It is to be followed by other courses for students who have taken some college classes and want to finish their degrees, but are unable to attend a campus.
Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, said this morning that he will introduce legislation this month to establish performance metrics to measure the effectiveness of online education and to make it easier for CSU students to enroll in online courses.
"We need to make sure that we can help students achieve their academic goals, and the goal is to accelerate degree completion," he said.
Levine called the Udacity announcement a "step in the right direction," but he added, "We should be taking leaps in online education systemwide ... We need to encourage this to scale quickly."
Brown is expected to discuss online education with UC regents on Wednesday. He said CSU has traditionally "been more flexible" in the area.
The UC, he said, has more "tradition, for both good and bad."
Brown has exhibited a renewed interest in the affairs of CSU and UC in recent months, including in the budget proposal he released last week. He is lobbying for expanded access and reduced costs.
Brown said he has not talked in detail with CSU officials about cost savings he wants them to adopt. He said, "It's going to take time."
White said he welcomed Brown's involvement.
"I don't actually feel it as scrutiny," the CSU chancellor said. "I feel it as interest."