Category Archives: Undergraduate Studies

Status of Online Learning

Aerial view of SDSU campus, 2014-15

Photo courtesy of Joel Ortiz

As we complete our commencement celebrations and look ahead to the next academic year, we have an important opportunity to reflect on broader developments, such as the role and impact of technology on our educational programs.

At the height of the Great Recession, a new orthodoxy emerged with claims that technology-mediated instruction was transforming higher education (see my blog from 2013 here).  This view – strongly endorsed by politicians and others outside education – heralded the end of physical campuses and face-to-face interaction, assuming that a technologically sophisticated generation would not only embrace online educational programs, but would demand them.  Another important assumption was that technologically mediated education would dramatically reduce costs.  How this would occur was not necessarily specified, but the presumption was that technology could somehow replace personnel and facilities – perhaps in the same way that factory automation has reduced manufacturing costs.

Looking at the landscape today, it is clear that online and hybrid educational programs have grown substantially at San Diego State and across the nation.  For example, this summer, there are over 5,000 students enrolled in online programs.  Similarly, we had nearly 13,000 students enrolled in hybrid courses (courses with both face-to-face and online components) this past academic year, and we now offer six fully online master’s programs.  These programs help some students advance in their academic programs and produce some cost savings. For example, hybrid classes facilitate more efficient use of our classrooms, and online summer courses permit students to make academic progress even when they are not in San Diego.  Online master’s programs create opportunities for students who might not otherwise enroll due to family or job constraints.

At the same time, predictions regarding the demand for online programs eclipsing demand for face-to-face programs have not been borne out.  This past year, SDSU again set an applications record – for enrollment in our face-to-face programs.  In the last five years, our annual applications for face-to-face programs from the most technologically advanced generation in human history have increased 31 percent to 81,080.

There have also been significant challenges to online programs.  Most notably, fully online programs were touted as programs that would enhance access to education, but repeated analyses show that students facing academic and financial challenges perform more poorly online than in face-to-face programs. The challenges of massive open online courses (so-called MOOCs) have received the most attention in the media (Chronicle of Higher Education update here) as universities and MOOC providers rethink and restructure the classes – and sometimes their business models – based on mixed results.  We also review and re-evaluate course formats and offerings at SDSU, and we have seen challenges in our own online efforts.  For example, failure rates in lower-division math courses have been significantly higher in online courses than in face-to-face courses and, for this reason, we will not be offering these courses in fully online format until these challenges are resolved.

For a variety of reasons, some of which were predictable, online cost efficiencies have also fallen far short of predictions.  For example, technology is very expensive, offsetting cost savings from more efficient use of facilities.  Similarly, and ironically, online courses require professors to handle more individual inquiries relative to face-to-face courses.  Students are more likely to form support groups in face-to-face courses through which they can assist each other. The greater reliance on the instructor has forced course sizes to be smaller in fully online lower-division courses than in comparable face-to-face courses – reducing efficiencies.

So, where does this all leave us?  We are in medias res – in the middle of things. There have been significant changes, significant progress and significant challenges in educational technology at SDSU. Embracing collaboration between our faculty, staff and administrators, continuing to experiment and changing our approaches based on the results will continue to serve our students well.

There are, of course, many implications of technology for our educational programs that go well beyond how we deliver our programs. In my next blog I will turn to some of those topics.



Filed under Academic Affairs, Uncategorized

Holidays Build SDSU Community Ready to Conquer Challenges

During the holiday season, the days are a little shorter, the light a little less brilliant and, even in San Diego, the temperatures are a little bit colder.  So, as people have done for thousands of years, we gather together to share our warmth, light and generosity.  The last several weeks have been a time for communal gatherings, large and small.  Our Department of Geography celebrated its 100th anniversary.  We came together for our “Get Together, Give Back” event in support of our military and the Monarch School community.Les Miserables production at SDSU in December 2014.Our School of Theatre, Television and Film and our School of Music and Dance collaborated on an extraordinary concert production of “Les Misérables,” and our athletic teams inspired us with a conference title in women’s soccer, a fifth consecutive bowl game in football and a national ranking in men’s basketball.  Add countless department and office celebrations across campus and you appreciate the flurry of activities that accompany the holiday season.

These gatherings illustrate the essential role of community at San Diego State. During the formulation of our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence,” the theme of community and its many meanings arose again and again.  People recognized the benefits of strengthening our campus community, the necessity of building relationships with our alumni community and the importance of supporting our regional community.  As we have moved forward with implementing “Building Get Together, Give Back event at SDSU in December 2014.on Excellence,” we have initiated the “Get Together, Give Back” program to support faculty and staff morale, the Aztec Mentor Program to bring alumni and current students together, and the Sage Project in National City, in which over a thousand students, faculty and staff work on community projects.

Each of these programs – and others like them – is an important effort in its own right, but each also serves a larger purpose in building our community. Through community, we bring a diversity of perspectivesAztec Mentor Program participants at SDSU. and talents to address our challenges. Equally important, each of our individual efforts takes on a deeper meaning and purpose when it is tied to the common efforts of friends and colleagues in our community. This shared purpose is essential to the Aztec spirit – resolute and indefatigable – with which we meet our challenges, large and small.

The three central themes of “Building on Excellence” are Student Success, Research and Creative Endeavors, and Community and Communication. While we have critical goals in all three areas, our ability to achieve all of our goals rests on our ability to work together as a community.  In fact, given the strength and scope of the Aztec family, no aspiration and no goal is beyond our reach when we concentrate our efforts and work together.  While life presents many challenges, both to individuals and to universities, this fundamental truth, the power of community, is always essential to addressing them.  I look forward to working with all members of our community to continue to make progress and move our university forward in the spring semester.

Best wishes to all for the holiday season and the New Year.

SDSU football team singing the fight song after a victory in 2014.                          SDSU women's soccer team celebrates their conference championship in 2014.


Filed under Athletics, Building on Excellence, College of Arts and Letters, College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts, Community, Strategic Plan, Uncategorized, Undergraduate Studies

Special Moment to Establish SDSU as Leading Public University

As I have shared in a number of blogs, the academic year has its own unique seasons.  The year kicks off with our All-University and New Student and Family convocations and the first day of classes.  It is a time filled with excitement, “welcomes,” promise – and some measure of anxiety. SDSU band marches through campus to collect students for New Student and Family Convocation.

This year brings special opportunities to our university. Universities are not fixed in their missions or identities. They are dynamic institutions, evolving and changing over time.  In the last 117 years, and especially in the past 40 or so when Brage Golding, Tom Day and Steve Weber served as our presidents, we have developed an extraordinary tradition of achievement.  At All-University Convocation, I described many of our achievements in the past year in SDSU student at the Great Wall of programs, entrepreneurship, student success, community engagement, research and creative endeavors, and athletics, among other areas.

More recently, our campus has undergone another fundamental change, beginning with the Great Recession in 2007.  As I described in a prior blog, we have gone from being a state-supported university to being a university that is a public-private partnership.  In this latter model, our funding is dependent on multiple public and private sources.  The combination of our tradition of achievement and our recent transition to a public-private partnership funding model – one that includes philanthropy – creates a unique moment in our history.

As envisioned in our strategic plan “Building on Excellence,” the resources provided by our new funding model create powerful opportunities to support the communal aspirations of our students, faculty, staff, alumni and community supporters.  To capture it in a sentence:  This special moment allows us to establish ourselves as one of our nation’s leading public universities.

This fall, we will pursue 42 initiatives as part of the second year of the implementation of our SDSU strategic plan.  These initiatives will support student success, provide our students with transformational educationalLab, laserborder experiences, advance research and creative endeavors, enhance our campus facilities and bring us together as one SDSU community.  In short, they will move us forward as a leading public university.  At the same time, we will continue to build the infrastructure to support the revenue initiatives in our new financial model – initiatives that, in turn, will support further efforts to enhance our programs and our campus.  Our success in these critical areas will lay the foundation for SDSU’s future and determine our progress as a leading public university.

While there are many ways to measure our progress (e.g., our goal of ranking in the top 50 of public universities by U.S. News & World Report), the foundational issue is who we can be and what we can accomplish as a leading public university.  We can continue to establish ourselves as a university of the highest quality where all students achieve success, where faculty, staff and student researchers address pressing societal challenges, where we come together to experience the beauty and power of the arts, and where we harness our knowledge and our talents to serve our community and the broader society.

Thank you to our entire community for supporting our university and our aspirations.  I look forward to a great year.

SDSU campus with Hepner Hall in the background.

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Filed under Academic Affairs, Building on Excellence, Community, News, Strategic Plan, Uncategorized

Honors College Builds on SDSU History

Today, I approved the University Senate’s recommendation that we create an Honors College at San Diego State University.  As I signed, I had a cascade of visions and thoughts of our university’s history and aspirations. San Diego Normal School students on La Jolla beach, 1902. I saw the familiar photograph of young men and women, enrolled at the San Diego Normal School, sitting in a circle on the beach studying – the men in suits and the women in their Victorian-era long dresses. I saw students, faculty and staff members moving furniture and books as we established our current campus on Montezuma Mesa at the height of the Great Depression in 1931.  These visions were woven together with an appreciation for the efforts of the administrators, faculty, staff and students who led us to the university status (and current name) that we attained in 1974 and for those efforts in the ensuing 40 years that have led to progress on every significant measure of academic excellence. Students move furniture to new Montezuma Mesa campus in 1931.The establishment of the Honors College builds seamlessly on this tradition of aspiration and academic excellence.  It will improve our honors education experience, help recruit academically strong students and raise the profile of our culture of achievement.  Looking to the future, the Honors College will support a large, diverse group of high-achieving students who benefit from its focus on inquiry, engagement, and interdisciplinary problem-solving.  These students will, through their campus leadership roles and their participation in the broader intellectual life of the university, strengthen our campus culture and lay the foundation for even greater academic aspirations. The Honors College is, however, about much more than aspiration and academic excellence.  It is also about building a community, a gathering place, for a diverse group of students within a larger university.  In this regard, the establishment of the Honors College is a part of our ongoing efforts to create smaller communities of place and purpose that support student success.SDSU students study on the lawn.  Among other important efforts to bring together members of our community are the Aztec Mentor Program, the Aztec Scholars Program, the Commuter Resource Center, the Price Community Scholars Program, the Pride Center, new residential learning communities, the Writing Center and the Zahn Innovation Center.  In this regard, our aspirations for excellence support the very fabric of our community.  This thread, above all else, ties together our past, our present and our future.


Filed under Academic Affairs, Honors College, News, Uncategorized

Why Rankings Matter

As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, the academic year has its own unique seasons and rhythms.  At the beginning of October, the admissions process begins and another notable period, the rankings season, ends – and it has been quite a rankings season for San Diego State University.

Business Insider:  Why SDSU is Soaring Higher in U.S. News Rankings Most notably, U.S. News and World Report named us to its list  of top “Up-and-Coming Schools.”  We were ranked #14  nationally on the list of universities “making the most  promising and innovative changes in the areas of academics,  faculty and student life.”  In an analysis of this year’s rankings,  the Washington Post reported that we have increased our  overall ranking the most of any university in the country since  2011 (31 places).

Other rankings also recognized our efforts.  For example, Washington Monthly ranked us #6 nationally for the economic value of our degrees.  Similarly, individual programs and colleges were also recognized in national rankings.  Our International Business program was ranked #8 in the nation by U.S. News, and our College of Engineering was ranked #15 in a national survey of the economic value of engineering degrees.

This national recognition is a testament to the dedication and passion of our faculty, staff, students, alumni and community supporters.  By highlighting the university’s excellence, it will attract new students and add value to the degrees of our current students and alumni. These distinctions are especially noteworthy given the significant challenges that are transforming public higher education in California, and they occasion many questions.  The two I get most frequently are “Do rankings matter?” and “How did we move up?”

My answer to the question of whether rankings matter is a decided “yes.”  Put directly, rankings reflect (and create) prestige – a reputation based on achievement and success – and achievement and success matter to students, their families, our alumni and prospective employers.  The rankings are especially important for students and their families who are not familiar with the university.  Colleges and universities are complex, hard-to-understand places, and attending a college or university requires a very significant investment of time and money.  The rankings try to help students and their families understand the investment they are about to make.  No ranking can fully characterize an individual university or quantify the match between the needs of an individual student and the strength of a specific university, but students and their families find the rankings to be a useful starting point.

The question of why we have moved up in various rankings has been analyzed in detail by Business Insider.  Three factors were cited as critical:  our campuswide efforts to support student success that improved our retention and graduation rates, the growth of our research efforts and their overall impact on our academic programs, and the success of our first comprehensive fundraising campaign which has raised over $425 million to date.  Each of these factors has contributed directly to metrics used in rankings and, indirectly, to the overall reputation of our university.

There is, however, more to it.  Underlying each individual factor is something more fundamental – a spirit of innovation that aspires to make our university better and always seems to find a way to do so.  It is this spirit of innovation that underlies our efforts to improve student success, advance research and build our culture of philanthropy.  This same spirit – this can-do attitude – motivates the ambitious initiatives proposed in our recently completed strategic plan “Building on Excellence,” and I am certain that it will propel us forward as we pursue these initiatives and advance our university.


Filed under College of Arts and Letters, College of Engineering, International Programs, Uncategorized, Undergraduate Studies

Role of Online Learning at SDSU

Discussions of “online” learning are everywhere.  Stanford professors are offering MOOCs (massive open online courses) to thousands of students.  Our governor has very publicly encouraged the California State University and the University of California systems to develop online courses, and both systems have launched online initiatives.  Columnists in the New York Times claim that online learning can address the cost challenges in higher education.

How should we at San Diego State think about these issues?

First, it is important to recognize that technology-mediated education is not new.  When I was a child, our local CBS television affiliate would broadcast taped college courses.  I was surprised to learn recently that over 100,000 people were regular viewers.  At the same time, recent advances in technology (e.g., widespread, high-speed wireless access) have been dramatic, and these advances have opened a broad range of new educational possibilities.

In considering these possibilities, we should embrace the best of our academic traditions, combining innovation with a focus on rigorous evaluation.  A small sampling of possibilities:  Students who are not in residence during the summer can take courses and speed their time to degree.  “Hybrid” courses allow more students to enroll when there are classroom shortages.  Online professional master’s programs can allow students to enroll even when their schedules do not permit commuting.

In considering these possibilities, we should focus on the quality of our programs.  We should carefully evaluate whether online learning is appropriate for individual academic subjects.  We should carefully evaluate whether all students have access to, and benefit from, technologies.  We should carefully evaluate the financial implications (positive or negative) of offering online courses.

In the last area, there is much work to be done.  For example, it is often pointed out that MOOCs enroll thousands of students and, consequently, can generate substantial “profits.”  It is also the case that these courses are, currently, free. Student enrollment may drop dramatically when tuition is charged.  Despite widespread claims to the contrary, the financial model used by Internet search engines may not apply seamlessly to universities.

Development of online learning raises many more questions than I can answer in detail here.  Does online learning signal the end of the residential campus?  (Very unlikely, given the role of the residential campus in facilitating student development.)  If we could standardize courses across all universities in a state or system, would we want to do this?  (We wouldn’t, because of the enormous benefits of having heterogeneous perspectives on academic topics.)  Will there be failed attempts in the process of developing online approaches?  (There have already been many dramatic failures, and there will be many more as universities attempt to innovate.)

What I can do here is reinforce our commitment to partnering with our faculty, staff and students in developing pedagogical innovations and online learning.  In these collaborative partnerships, our faculty, staff and students have generated new approaches to teaching and learning and our leadership team has facilitated and supported these approaches.

Through this collaborative approach, we have developed hundreds of online and hybrid courses, five online master’s programs and online summer courses that now enroll over 5,000 students.  Collectively, these accomplishments show the powerful role technology can play in supporting our academic goals and educational mission.


Filed under Uncategorized, Undergraduate Studies

Meeting the Deans

I had the pleasure of meeting individually with three of our Deans, Ric Hovda of Education, David Hayhurst of Engineering, and Geoff Chase of Undergraduate Studies (who also has responsibility for the integration of sustainability into our academic efforts). Each Dean spoke articulately and with passion regarding the needs, challenges and opportunities before them this year.

Just as importantly, they all sounded common themes regarding their and their colleagues’ efforts. A focus on the success of all of our students, an emphasis on the role of research and creative endeavors in addressing local and national challenges, the importance of engaging with all facets of our community, the pre-eminence of diversity and internationalization, and the need to tie these themes together in a way that is environmentally and fiscally sustainable permeated all of our discussions.  I left campus that night excited and energized and  I look forward to hearing  from students, faculty and staff regarding how we can advance these central areas in this and the coming years

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Filed under College of Education, College of Engineering, Community, Undergraduate Studies