Still, there are drawbacks to going entirely online, adjunct professor DeSousa says. Without face-to-face interaction, students can be harder to corral. Some missed the midterm, she said, because they hadn't read her e-mails. "It's all really about the student's attention span."
At Arizona State University, senior lecturer Irene Bloom has had more success than DeSousa using Web-based technology to help students in remedial math. Her students brush up on their skills with Knewton Math Readiness, an adaptive-learning course that uses complex algorithms to individualize education. As students interact with activities and quizzes, they demonstrate which concepts they've mastered and what they need to learn next. They proceed at their own pace, not by following a predetermined syllabus.
When Bloom's class meets — in a computer lab, twice a week — she roams with an iPad, seeking out students whom her online "dashboard" tells her are struggling. "Rather than lecturing to 60 students about something that five students need, I'm lecturing to the five students who need it," she says. This year, 2,000 of Arizona State's 72,000 students worked their way through the Knewton course. Pass rates rose from 64 percent to 75 percent, withdrawal rates dropped in half, and some students moved through the material so fast they completed the course a month early, according to Knewton. The university, impressed with the results, is developing Knewton-powered entry-level courses in psychology, science, and economics.
Arizona State, like San Jose State, offers online courses and degree programs of its own. But ASU is thinking about limiting the number of online classes that on-campus students can take for credit. "One thing we've found is that online classes actually require more maturity and discipline than face-to-face classes," said Philip Regier, Arizona State's dean of online and extended education. Older students do fine in online courses, but 18-to-23-year-olds often struggle.
Arizona State is betting that hybrid learning will help students pass the general-education classes they need to graduate. One thing these early-adopting universities have learned, however, is that hybrid learning doesn't necessarily save money — not least because new technologies are expensive to implement.
Entry-level courses are easy to put online because they cover basic material, where the answers tend to be right or wrong. But the equivalent on-campus lecture classes are also the cheapest courses for colleges to produce. At some community colleges, online degree programs aren't any cheaper than in-person courses, according to Rebecca J. Griffiths, program director of online learning at Ithaka S+R, a consultancy for education technology.
Besides, there are limits to what any computer program, even one as elaborate as Knewton's, can teach. "The two hardest things for students to do are, one, learn what a good paper topic is or what a good research topic is, and, second, to actually write a coherent paper," said Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor of health care management at the University of Pennsylvania and a big fan of MOOCs. Online tutors can help students with their writing, but someone still needs to read and grade it. When DeSousa and Bloom teach Web-based classes, they act more as coaches than as lecturers, but their human touch still counts.