Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Why UC is exploring online learning: Cost, access, innovation

By Chris Edley


The University of California is launching an online learning pilot program. If successful, I hope the university will embrace large-scale online instruction -- not to replace the on-campus experience, but to enrich it.

More urgently, online learning would enable us to serve the growing number of qualified students for whom there will be no room on campus or for whom a residential full-time program won't work.

Online education could become central to the University of California. Technological evolution, especially social networking, is making innovations in teaching possible; even in huge courses, instruction doesn't have to be limited to the sage-on-the-stage.

Why UC is exploring online learning (John Blanchard / The San Francisco Chronicle)

Also, the bricks-and-mortar model for UC's past and present greatness faces serious budget threats. Demography and globalization mean UC should be a bigger, stronger engine of opportunity and knowledge this decade, but instead we'll be sputtering for lack of resources. (See graphic.)

Assume we can eliminate the budget gap through a combination of hard choices, donations and state funding. Even then, we face an enrollment gap, rejecting more and more eligible Californians. And a UC education likely will be decreasingly affordable, especially for the middle class.

Then we will have privatized in the worst way: Excellence + Exclusivity = an elitism noxious to a public institution.

Our purpose is to advance knowledge while democratizing excellence. To do that, we must innovate.

UC extension schools already offer 1,250 online courses. Six percent are automatically credited toward a UC degree, and about 85 percent carry transferable credits, which are usually accepted. Their quality varies and we can do better.

So, we are raising private funds to create an online learning pilot program. Before we go large scale, we must be confident the faculty can create online courses as excellent as on-campus courses.

This is no reckless revolution, but there are passionate objections to it. And responses. Among them:

The quality can't be as good.Probably wrong, but the pilot project of 25 to 40 courses will test that. A ton of research demonstrates equal or better content mastery by students taking quality online courses.

It cannot provide interaction among students and teachers.Wrong, given today's technologies. Like on-campus courses, large online classes will have discussion sections with graduate student instructors supervised by the professor. Today's desktop video conferencing allows live-video chats with 20 or more students. Instructors can hold virtual office hours and offer e-mail consultations. Social networking can create a vital online community focused on academics, although there's software to help neighbors coordinate a "real life" meet-up or a beer bash.

Students will slack off, and cheat.No. First, unlike large lecture classes, everyone gets a front-row seat. Frequent quizzes and self-assessments are a snap. Instructors can have data on levels of participation and will contact a floundering or absent student. Security strategies, like proctored regional exam sites, sophisticated software to check for plagiarism, address cheating.

It eliminates the campus experience.Wrong, sort of. The on-campus program stays. If the faculty senate and the UC regents decide to scale up the online program, it would be with new, tuition-paying, UC-eligible students we otherwise wouldn't have the room or resources to serve. And any net revenue would be plowed back into supporting the on-campus program.

It dilutes the value of a UC degree.Hmmm. No degree program is on the table now, only a pilot. I personally hope we eventually can offer at least a transfer associate degree, with the same UC admissions standards. If the concern is, "I have my fancy credential, and I don't want tons of others getting it," then I'm just not very sympathetic. We have a public mission.

Fully online undergraduate programs in selective institutions will happen. The question is when, and led by whom.

The leadership should come from the world's premier public university - which belongs to California.

Take a look: Here's are several examples of how UC promotes online learning.

What kind of online instruction does UC envision?

    It offers UC credit - It has the same academic standards, the same UC faculty, as on-campus courses.

    It offers students instruction anywhere, any time, through Web-based multimedia learning.

    It is "high touch," that is, teaching assistants will lead online chats and monitor discussion boards, conduct desktop webinars and video conferences. Instructors will hold office hours.

    It tracks student progress through tests, papers, video productions, tutorials and graded-discussion groups.

    It protects against cheating, using proctored exam sites.

    Its courses are developed by a UC professor with the assistance of technology experts, thus ensuring the same high-quality instruction as on-campus classes.

    Cross-posted from the San Francisco Chronicle opinion section.