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It is being described as a seismic shift, tsunami, the third rail in American higher education.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget allocates $16.9 million dollars for distance learning, or online education, wherein a student takes a class over the internet.

Nearly 7 million students nationwide are enrolled in at least one online class, up 32 percent over the past year, and that number will certainly climb in the years ahead.

In some fields, it is even possible for students to get their degrees by taking online classes, never setting foot in a classroom or attending a live lecture.

While some are touting this as a way to make education more accessible to more students in times of decreasing budgets, others wonder if distance learning can really live up to what proponents are promising.

There is no disputing that online classes are popular with students. The number of distance learning classes tripled from 2002 to 2010. At Allan Hancock College, 160-170 distance learning classes are offered each semester.

“We can’t keep up with the demand,” said Fred Patrick, Hancock’s distance learning specialist. “We could probably offer 50 percent more and still have the classes full.”

But the efficacy of online classes, both in how many students complete them and how much they learn in a distance learning course, is still being debated.

Studies consistently show distance learning classes have a lower student success rate than traditional courses. Hancock College Vice President Luis Sanchez notes, “Some students benefit from online learning, but many students struggle,” a sentiment echoed by Dean of Academic Affairs Nancy Meddings, whose department oversees Hancock’s distance learning program.

“Success rates are lower online,” she said.

Students’ comments reflect similar concerns.

“If I had a question,” said one, “I couldn’t get an answer from the teacher. My only communication was through e-mail, and by the time he responded the assignment was already due.”

While some students find distance learning courses difficult, some have the opposite experience, and believe online classes present little or no challenge.

“Easy A,” said one student of her online classes. “You can find the answers on Google.”

Statistics gathered so far indicate online class completion rates are at least 10 percent lower than traditional classes. Students with lower grade-point averages tend to do less well in a distance learning class and are more likely to drop out after starting one.

On the other hand, students who are better prepared academically are more likely to be successful in an online class than those who are struggling to keep up their grades, as Lisa McKinley, a Hancock counselor, notes.

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“Many times, the needs of an online class are more difficult than expected. It takes self-discipline, time management, computer skills, and screen reading skills to do well,” she said.

Another Hancock counselor, Julie Vasques, says students in an online course are “only learning through one modality — visually” and “they don’t have the instructor present to ask clarifying questions. They have to e-mail the instructor and sometimes the response can take a while.” That echos the most common complaint students have about online courses.

“Just make sure you don’t fall behind,” another student said.

The computer and the internet are changing the world, and education along with it.

“Online classes are here to stay,” Luis Sanchez points out, but adds, “they will never entirely replace live classrooms.”

Nor will computers ever replace live instructors. As one student put it, “There’s only so much you can learn from a computer.”

Mark James Miller is president of the Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College. He can be reached at Looking Forward runs every Friday, providing a progressive viewpoint on local issues.