Analysts Say Online Initiative Not the Answer to STEM Gaps in California

A proposed budget by California's governor would allocate $10 million to set up an online "intersegmental" higher education initiative. The project would fund competitive grants for intersegmental teams of faculty to create new and redesign existing STEM courses — both online and hybrid — in a program titled the "California Education Learning Lab." However, state analysts aren't keen on the idea.

Jerry Brown's proposal stipulates that teams would need to have faculty representation from at least two of the three public higher education segments in the state — the University of California system, the California State University system and the California Community College system. The courses they'd develop would be required to include learning science and adaptive learning technologies. The overall goal: to increase college STEM participation, persistence and completion rates of historically underrepresented groups of students.

While the Legislative Analyst's Office found Governor Brown's goal of improving student outcomes "laudable," this approach isn't the answer, the office wrote in an analysis of the proposal. First, the analysis noted, the proposal doesn't address "the root causes of STEM disparities among student groups"; and second, it overlaps with other online initiatives already underway.

Among the funding the state already provides to the three institutional segments are these online projects, according to the report:

  • The community college system received $20 million for an online education initiative that covers faculty training to help design online courses; a common technology platform for delivering online courses; and the Online Education Initiative (OEI) Course Exchange, a pilot that helps students find, enroll in and get credit for online courses delivered by other colleges that are part of the exchange.
  • California State received $10 million specifically to fund development of online course in lower-division subjects with high enrollment demand.
  • The University of California system received $10 million for funding development of online undergraduate courses that any UC student can access. So far, that initiative has resulted in the creation of 250 online and hybrid courses.

The lab idea doesn't address the underlying gaps in STEM outcomes, according to the analysis. Those are a result of many factors, among them: a higher level of attendance at K-12 with less qualified math and science teachers; less access to advanced STEM courses in high school; lack of exposure to STEM role models and mentors; and perceptions of an unwelcoming academic culture in science and math departments.

"Given these underlying causes, it is unclear how the Governor's proposed program would achieve its stated goals in a meaningful way," the analysis pointed out. For that reason, the office recommended that the California legislature reject the proposal. The budget for 2018-2019 is expected to be passed this summer.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.