By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - University of California President Janet Napolitano on Monday joined a growing chorus of higher education leaders who have expressed skepticism about the use and cost-effectiveness of courses that are offered online.
Napolitano's remarks at a Sacramento luncheon came as the 10-campus system struggles to overcome a possible $125 million budget shortfall for next year, a gap many had hoped would be repaired over time via low-cost online course offerings that would let the state educate more students while saving money.
"There's a developing consensus that online learning is a tool for the toolbox, but it's harder than it looks and if you do it right, it doesn't save all that much money," Napolitano told about 500 policy and education experts at a speaker series sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Educators are moving away from the idea that online courses can help disadvantaged students prepare for college or earn their degrees at a lower cost even as numerous startup companies jostle to create online universities that backers say will remake higher education.
The Keck Graduate Institute, one of California's Claremont colleges, is pairing with the for-profit Minerva Project to create an online university in San Francisco. Other startups, including Coursera and 2U have raised tens of millions of dollars from venture capitalists, while Harvard, MIT and other schools offer their own online courses for free in an initiative called EdX.
But a study released late last year by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education showed that only about 4 percent of those who register for an online course at Penn complete it, even though the courses are free.
Last summer, a high-profile online learning experiment by startup Udacity and San Jose State University, a public college in California but not one of the UC campuses, was put on hold after officials found that failure rates for online students were much higher than for traditional learners.
The university later resurrected three of the courses, but in a limited way that made them available only to students already enrolled at the university.
Asked about online learning during a question-and-answer session led by Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute, Napolitano said online courses do not work as intended for students who need remedial work.
Recent efforts to try online education have shown that these students are the ones who most need a teacher or professor in the classroom to help them, said Napolitano, a two-time governor of Arizona who served as Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration before taking the helm at the university last fall.
"I think it's false to say it's useful for remedial education," Napolitano said.
The courses are also proving difficult for those trying to meet lower-division college requirements. Online courses may indeed prove to be useful, she said, but more as a way to augment upper-division work for students who are already deeply engaged in their subject matter.
Such classes could also be used as a way for professors at one UC campus to share narrowly targeted courses with graduate or upper-division students at another location, she said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)