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

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.

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Comments to "Why UC is exploring online learning: Cost, access, innovation":
    • Kevin Padian

      How hypocritical is it of Chris Edley to exhort everyone else in the University to develop online programs while he refuses to consider it for the Boalt Law School, of which he is Dean?

      He can’t seem to understand why any other school or department faculty would have a problem with this, but he’s sure that it won’t work for Law.

      If this is such a good idea, why did his effort to raise private funds for this fail miserably? The “pilot program” is being initiated only with funds he got from his cronies at UCOP, and at a small fraction of what he hoped to raise.

      Good academic leadership follows the wisdom and initiatives of the faculty, because you get momentum to roll the ball downhill. Edley is trying to push it uphill against the advice of the faculty. This is the worst way to initiate a program.

      No doubt there are some Berkeley courses that will work online; some already do. Let’s explore those situations in which they work well and encourage them, rather than treating online education as the wave of the future for everyone. It isn’t yet, and we all know it.

      [Report abuse]

    • Marc The Hypnosis Guy

      I DO believe it hurts the on-campus experience. One of the things I learned from hypnosis is that it is much more powerful in person. So for example it will work in email but not as well as on the phone. And on the phone is not as powerful as in person. There is something that is more powerful about using all our senses in an experience such as learning. I believe online learning to some degree cheats a person of the power of the experience, much the way hypnosis is more powerful in person.

      [Report abuse]

    • Thomas Hewitt

      This in some form or another is inevitable. I think maybe a more gradual step whereby students can take some non core courses online might be a better start. Perhaps summer courses could be offered in this way also. That way motivated students might be able to graduate with only two to three years of expensive traditional classes. I.E. I think a cost saving hybrid model probably makes more sense near term.

      We are already seeing a bit of hybridization within traditional courses. I have two son’s beginning university careers at different UC campuses. One concern is the steep price of textbooks. My son didn’t want to pay $300 dollars for a general Physics text, but apparently the option to buy/borrow used is not available because the purchase price includes online homework services which are paid for by the textbook purchase. We are upper middle class, so this won’t break us, but we know increasing numbers of middle class people who are having to seriously compromise their education plans because of the cost.

      [Report abuse]

    • David Welker

      I think this proposal for a pilot program for online education is a great idea. It is important that, even while faced with budget cuts, UC continues to innovate and expand its offerings to more students. There is absolutely no reason that the quality of instruction cannot be as good. (In fact, I expect there is a good chance it will be better – since instructors facing a permanent medium for their work will probably tend to be even more motivated than they already are – and they will have a chance to view their own performance to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their lectures.)

      The one concern I have is that there will be important elements of the university experience that online students miss out on. So, I think it is important to consider how to provide opportunities for online students to participate in the university community to the extent they wish to (keeping in mind that this may simply be infeasible for some students who live at too great of a distance from campus).

      [Report abuse]

    • ariston servisi

      I graduated from Cal with a B.A. in Sociology in 2008. I then pursued a M.A. in Leadership from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga which is primarily online with periodic on-campus sessions called “Executive Weekends” which are held once every two months. Believe me when I tell you that online learning is fantastic. Coming from a very traditional academic background, I’ll be the first to admit my skepticism with online learning. This probably had something to do with the way schools such as the University of Phoenix and others are portrayed as being options for those who are lazy and couldn’t handle a real school. After my first week of online learning exposure, my skepticism evaporated. The books we were assigned to read were fantastic and the level of contribution each graduate student provided to the overall discussion was extremely fulfilling. During my time at Berkeley, I sat next to some of the same people for an entire semester in huge classes in Kroeber Hall, Dwinelle Hall, Evans, Wheeler and the Goldman School of Public Policy and never knew who they were as people.The online format allowed our cohort to build a learning community. Furthermore, with an online format, I had an opportunity to see how each one of my fellow classmates responded to the same material which is something that you rarely have an opportunity to do in a traditional academic environment. There is no question that my online learning experience will allow me to invest in the education of others as I pursue law school in the near future.

      [Report abuse]

    • Thomas A. Brady Jr.

      Dean Edley,
      It is a bitter thing to see a colleague working as a pitchman for the integration of public higher education into the profit-oriented world of corporate management. Over the past generation the number of administrators per 1,000 students in public higher education has more than doubled, the number of faculty per 1,000 students has declined by at least 50%. The changes you advocate can only strengthen this trend by further swelling the academic bureaucracies and the university-corporation partnerships that our chancellor promotes. These moves may save money in the short run, but they will leave the university awash in obsolete technologies and also degrade further the environment of learning in public universities. I can understand your climbing on this bandwagon, but your description of classroom teaching relieves my mind a bit. It tells me that whatever you did in your days as a professor, it was not teaching university undergraduates.

      [Report abuse]

    • Anthony St. John

      UC was built by California taxpayers for California students as their highest priority first, it’s not a private school. Thus, my letter below to the L.A. Times Editor about the LA Times July 20 editorial, UC gets smarter about cuts:

      To L.A. Times Editor: What are you thinking? UC was built by California taxpayers for California students as their highest priority first, it’s not a private school. There are more than enough high quality California students to fill all the seats so let’s not sell out California students.

      The fact is that UC administrators are having so many out of control problems is because they have proven for far too long that they are arrogant, indolent and incompetent, which means that UC scholars have also failed to educate and advise UC administrators on how to make successful decisions in the first place.

      How can UC possibly be “ranked as a top university in the nation” when they are failing to meet the needs of California students as well as all the citizens of California?

      And if they “attracted high-powered industries — as well as some of he world’s best minds” why is California failing so badly economically, politically, socially and environmentally today?

      Ask yourself, why did it take so long to “centralize administrative functions — that will ultimately save half a billion dollars a year”? The truth is that they watched and did nothing to prevent California and UC from going into the Crash and Burn mode that we are in today, no wonder California is rapidly becoming a state of calamity.

      You really need to rethink your endorsement because our “crown jewel of higher education” is now made of lead. We need to fire our failed Board of Regents and their sycophant administrators and appoint and hire people with track records of success in education with a sense of urgency.

      Ironically these replacements may require us to bring in the best and brightest from outside California if we can’t find qualified regents and administrators from California to make the right things happen anymore.

      [Report abuse]

    • SJAX

      I graduated from Cal with a B.A. in Sociology in 2008. I then pursued a M.A. in Leadership from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga which is primarily online with periodic on-campus sessions called “Executive Weekends” which are held once every two months. Believe me when I tell you that online learning is fantastic. Coming from a very traditional academic background, I’ll be the first to admit my skepticism with online learning. This probably had something to do with the way schools such as the University of Phoenix and others are portrayed as being options for those who are lazy and couldn’t handle a real school. After my first week of online learning exposure, my skepticism evaporated. The books we were assigned to read were fantastic and the level of contribution each graduate student provided to the overall discussion was extremely fulfilling. During my time at Berkeley, I sat next to some of the same people for an entire semester in huge classes in Kroeber Hall, Dwinelle Hall, Evans, Wheeler and the Goldman School of Public Policy and never knew who they were as people.The online format allowed our cohort to build a learning community. Furthermore, with an online format, I had an opportunity to see how each one of my fellow classmates responded to the same material which is something that you rarely have an opportunity to do in a traditional academic environment. There is no question that my online learning experience will allow me to invest in the education of others as I pursue law school in the near future.

      [Report abuse]

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