Gary Reyes / San Jose Mercury News

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks Tuesday at an event announcing San Jose State will partner with Udacity to offer online classes. Brown contacted the Web company after reading about it.

Jerry Brown touts deal for online classes at San Jose State

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013 - 10:08 pm

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 Tuesday 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 unusual 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 in San Jose. "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 today.

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 program as a research and development project for 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.' "

Thrun said Udacity does not expect to profit from the trial program. 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.

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