SAN JOSE, Calif. — California’s colleges are facing a funding crisis, so universities are turning to massive open online education (dubbed “MOOCs”) to bolster pass rates and help students graduate on time.

At a press conference today, San Jose State University announced it would be expanding its online course offerings and opening a facility for adaptive and blended learning. This new center will train faculty members at the 11 participating California State University campuses.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has been pushing state universities to move more aggressively into online education. He first approached San Jose State University to come up with a technological solution to many of its problems, including the large and oversubscribed introductory courses.

But with Gov. Brown on a trade mission in China, it was another prominent figure in state politics who spoke today at San Jose State. California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) serves on the boards of University of California and CSU, and he is also a keen supporter of online courses.

“We need to learn to compete with limited resources,” Newsom said. “We have to provide more access.”

With all the initial hype around MOOCs, it’s not often we see real results. However, one of the first trials at San Jose State has proven promising.

San Jose State University's campus

Above: San Jose State University’s campus.

In the fall, professor Khosrow Ghadiri used a blended learning model for his introduction to circuits analysis course. The class received instruction from an online video component — an MIT course via EdX‘s website — which students could complete at home, coupled with in-class problem solving and discussion with Ghadari.

Although the numbers of students were small, the pass rate in the blended class was 91 percent, far higher than the usual 55 percent.

Michelle Rhee-Weise, an education researcher at the Clayton Christensen Institute, refers to this trial an example of “sustaining innovation,” meaning that it’s a “palatable or less controversial step.”

“It focuses on blended learning techniques and not on moving an entire campus experience online,” said Rhee-Weise. The circuits course will now be offered to 11 other CSU schools.

San Jose State first announced its partnership with edX in October. Edx is a nonprofit founded by MIT and Harvard that has subsequently grown to 12 university partners. Formed in 2011, it is one of the pioneers of MOOCs, and competes with Coursera and Udacity.

Education technology startup Udacity also offers San Jose State students access to its online video courses, the New York Times reports. The pilot program from Udacity includes a remedial algebra course, a college-level algebra course and introductory statistics.

“Our work is about trying many new approaches, identifying what works and pushing forward a national conversation on effective ways to infuse the opportunities offered by technology into the way we teach and learn,” San Jose State President Mohammad Qayoumi said. According to Qayoumi, the school’s location in the heart of Silicon Valley makes it a natural fit to test many of the new online education tools.

This San Jose State expansion follows a bill, which was under consideration in the California State Senate in March, and would force California’s universities and colleges to give credit for online courses. The bill was proposed to tackle the problem of students failing to graduate because they couldn’t get a seat in a required course.

Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the state’s 112 community colleges each had an average of 7,000 enrolled students who were on waiting lists, and at the 420,000-student, 23-campus California State University, only 16 percent of students graduate within four years.

Steinberg and others view MOOCs as a potential solution; students can enroll in an online course, rather than wait until a spot opens up in an oversubscribed — but required — introductory course.

San Jose State claims the expansion of the partnership will benefit thousands of students. The university hopes it will pave the way for community colleges and universities to examine new styles of learning.

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc/campus image via San Jose State University