SAN JOSE -- Students at San Jose State and other California State universities might soon find themselves watching lectures at home and doing their homework in the lecture hall as part of the system's latest experiment with technology and free online courses.
Encouraged by unusually high student pass rates in a dreaded electrical engineering course, nearly all CSU campuses with engineering programs are expected to join SJSU in offering a partly online, partly in-person course in the fall through a partnership with edX, a nonprofit online education provider.
Proponents have billed the free online platform as a powerful tool for professors, who will spend more time working with students and assessing their progress instead of preparing and delivering long lectures.
"Five hundred years ago we gave them a textbook, and in 1862 we gave them chalk," said Anant Agarwal, president of edX. "What tools have we given them since then? Please don't say PowerPoint."
San Jose State also plans to test the technological waters in other disciplines, such as humanities, business and science. It is paying edX nothing for the partnership, which gives participating professors special access to the platform to add their own content and check their students' online coursework.
Eighty SJSU students in EE098, an electrical circuit analysis course that all engineering students must take, were the guinea pigs for the new approach, which blends online quizzes and lectures from MIT with in-class quizzes, tutoring and exams.
The results were astonishing, even for online education's most ardent proponents: The pass rates for the two traditional sections of the engineering course offered in the fall were 55 and 59 percent. In the revamped version, in which randomly assigned students took the same final exam as the others, 91 percent passed -- by far the highest that Professor Khosrow Ghadiri had seen in his 22 years at the university.
The structure of the 80-student class, with its emphasis on in-class problem solving, is simply more effective, said SJSU President Mo Qayoumi, who noted another benefit: Only a handful of the students will have to retake the class, reducing bottlenecks in the system.
But there's another factor, too: The online videos and quizzes can take 10 to 12 hours a week to watch and complete, far more than expected in the traditional format. In addition, Ghadiri said he and his teaching assistants spend a combined 80 hours a week on the class, preparing materials, checking students' progress and sending them emails when they fall behind.
"It does require a lot more time," said Marisa Williams, a civil engineering major, taking a break from a group quiz on the power generated from electrical circuits and each of their components.
Entering the large lecture room after a news conference, Ghadiri stripped off his suit jacket and roved among groups of students, answering questions about a quiz. The gregarious professor, brimming with enthusiasm and information, knows not all of his students share his love for the material -- especially non-electrical engineering majors forced to take the time-consuming version of the class.
"They say, 'Why should I put so much time into something that is not my field? This is a core course, and I have to take it. Why do you make my life miserable?'" he said.
But chances are, at semester's end, they won't have to take it again.
Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.