Educators give online college courses added support

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Dazzled by the potential of free online college classes, educators are now turning to the gritty task of harnessing online materials to meet the toughest challenges in American higher education: giving more students access to college, and helping them graduate on time.

Nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates arrive on campus needing remedial work before they can begin regular credit-bearing classes. That early detour can be costly, leading many to drop out, often in heavy debt and with diminished prospects of finding a job.

Meanwhile, shrinking state budgets have taken a heavy toll at public institutions, reducing the number seats available in classes students must take to graduate. In California alone, higher education cuts have left hundreds of thousands of college students without access to classes they need.

To address both problems and keep students on track to graduation, universities have begun to blend the new massive open online courses, created to deliver elite college instruction to anyone with an Internet connection, into their curriculum. While the courses, known as MOOCs, have enrolled millions of students around the world, most who enroll never start a single assignment, and very few complete the courses.

So to reach students who are not ready for college-level work, or struggling with introductory courses, universities are beginning to add extra supports to the online materials, in hopes of improving success rates.

At San Jose State, for example, two pilot programs weave material from the online classes into the instructional mix -- and allow students to earn credit for them.

"We're in Silicon Valley, we breathe that entrepreneurial air, so it makes sense that we are the first university to try this," said Mohammad Qayoumi, the university's president. "In academia, people are scared to fail, but we know that innovation always comes with the possibility of failure. And if it doesn't work the first time, we'll figure out what went wrong and do better."

In one pilot program, the university is working with Udacity, a company co-founded by a Stanford professor, to see whether around-the-clock online mentors, hired and trained by the company, can help more students make their way through three fully online basic math courses.

The tiny for-credit pilot courses, open to both San Jose State students and local high school and community college students, began in January, so it is too early to draw any conclusions. But early signs are promising, so this summer, Udacity and San Jose State are expanding those classes to 1,000 students, and adding new courses in psychology and computer programming -- with tuition of only $150 a course.

San Jose State has already achieved remarkable results with online materials from edX, a nonprofit online provider, in its circuits course, a long-standing hurdle for would-be engineers.

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