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Community colleges to try blended studies

Add in-person help for online education

The fast-moving world of online education, where anyone can take classes at a world-famous university, is making a new foray into the community college system, with a personal twist.

In a partnership billed as the first of its kind, the online education provider edX plans to announce Monday that it has teamed up with two Massachusetts community colleges to offer computer science classes that will combine virtual and classroom instruction.

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Beginning next term, Bunker Hill and MassBay community colleges will offer versions of an online MIT course that will be supplemented with on-campus classes. Those classes, to be taught by instructors at the two-year schools, will give students a chance to review the online material and receive personal help.

“This allows for more one-to-one faculty mentoring” than exclusively online courses, said John O’Donnell, president of MassBay Community College in Wellesley. O’Donnell added that the schools’ involvement allows edX “to test its course content on a broader range of students.”

Students will pay the same amount they would for a standard class.

The pilot program marks the first time edX, a collaboration between MIT and Harvard University to offer open, online courses, has worked with community colleges. The program is being financed by a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Anant Agarwal, president of edX and a professor in MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, said combining online and face-to-face instruction — an approach known as the blended model — has shown promise in helping students learn.

Bringing that approach to community colleges, which are seen as crucial to developing a strong workforce, seemed a natural extension of online classes at major research universities.

“Students really seem to like the model, and our expectation and hope is that the experiment will go well,” he said. “That will set the stage for a much broader deployment.”

The edX collaboration offers open online courses that feature a mix of written and video tutorials, assignment and tests, and discussion forums. About 120,000 students signed up for the first MIT course, “Circuits and Electronics.”

Adding a teacher-led component gives students a chance to ask questions, discuss what they learned, and bounce ideas off students and faculty.

“It takes the best of both worlds,” said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary. “This is a pioneering experiment that opens up new learning opportunities for students.”

Reville said the course takes aim at a shortage of workers with computer programming skills, and gives community college students a flexible way to learn a marketable skill.

Governor Deval Patrick has made improving the community college system a priority, and in July lawmakers gave the state greater oversight of the 15 campuses, linking budgets to academic performance.

The two-year colleges educate nearly half of all students who attend public colleges in Massachusetts and are an important path for students from low-income backgrounds.

In a way, the classroom instruction stands the traditional model on its head. Where students used to attend lectures, then do assignments on their own, under this approach they attend lectures on their own, then work on the assignments with a teacher’s guidance.

“There’s a certain logic to having the coach right by your side,” Reville said.

O’Donnell said the approach should lower costs for students in the long-term.

Online courses are already popular at community colleges here and elsewhere, where students often juggle classes and job and family obligations. But educators have voiced concerns that students are more likely to abandon their studies without the structure and personal interaction of a traditional classroom.

Enrollment in online courses at community colleges nationwide has increased sharply in recent years. Last year, campuses reported an 8 percent increase, on the heels of a 9 percent rise in 2010, according to the a survey by the Instructional Technology Council, which is affiliated with the American Association of Community Colleges.

Bunker Hill president Mary Fifield said she was thrilled when edX approached her with the course. Blending online and face-to-face instruction in subjects such as nursing has proven popular, she noted.

“It looked like an opportunity that was too good to miss,” she said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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