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This is the home page for online learning at Chabot College. (Steve Dempsey/Staff)

As president of a local community college I can't help but notice that the latest "quick fix" for California's underfunded public colleges and universities is being heralded in news stories touting a golden age of "digital learning."

These articles propose online classes as the solution to the ongoing crisis in funding for all of California public education; a crisis that persists even with the much-needed passage of Proposition 30.

Call it "The Wizard of Oz" effect: someone posing as the Wizard dazzles us with terms like "digital access," "MOOCs," and "virtual colleges" from behind the think-tank curtain.

These ideas then proliferate in media, touting the cost-saving virtues of online education as a cure for what ails our public systems of higher education. The governor appears sold on this concept, recently proposing that the first two years of university could be completed by many students online.

In an age in which online media has exploded in importance, why not an "app" for your entire college degree!

As president of a college that has excelled in the development of rigorous online class offerings I support the role of online education. But here is the harsh reality: while online classes have an important role, they are not for every student, and will never replace the access to quality education provided by a teacher in a classroom.


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This is especially true for the underprepared students who make up the majority of those entering community colleges.

The attrition -- read: dropout rate -- from online classes is high, as even their most fervent supporters acknowledge.

Here are some facts largely unexamined by the corporate and political promoters of the online panacea: of the approximately 2.5 million students served by the California community colleges, including returning veterans, the vast majority come unprepared for college-level work. With retention rates of 10 percent in many digital classes statewide, online classes will never serve every student, especially the ones needing face-to-face support and basic skills education.

At my college, 96 percent entering full-time freshmen lack college readiness. Research shows that it is these very students who do not thrive in the online environment. They benefit from the classroom setting, the skill of expert teachers and counselors, and the modeling of habits of mind in a real, not virtual, community of learners. Despite the hyperbole about digital classrooms, they will not increase access for those most in need. On the contrary, as corporate think tanks and politicians push the new digital agenda, the large gap between the "haves and the have-nots" in our state will only increase.

Those with tuition money and preparation will enter elite private universities in which they have the full attention of professors and classmates in face-to-face freshman seminars.

Here they are known as "whole" human beings, not just digital presences, advantages that translate into lifetime opportunities. Meanwhile, many underserved students from poor and working-class communities will need to vie for time at library computers (do not assume all students have access to computers at home) to enter a "virtual college class" in which, evidence suggests, they are likely to fail.

California's personal income, already in decline, will decline by 11 percent further by the year 2020 unless the state increases the number of first generation college students successfully completing their degrees and credentials.

The big push to turn the first two years of college for the least prepared into a virtual "make it online or drop out" system distracts from the reality of the real reform we need in California -- a state that is largely failing its youth in public education.

Currently, a minority rules our ability to offer quality public education. The ability to block school funding by a minority vote has turned our state public system, from preschool through university, into among the poorest in the nation.

One good start would be to urge the passage of current legislation allowing a 55 percent majority to vote for parcel taxes in support of their local schools. This would be in the spirit of American democracy and the right to equal access of all California youth to quality public education.

Susan Sperling, Ph.D., is president of Chabot College.