Financial uncertainty clouds future of UC online education

Online education, touted by the UC Board of Regents and Gov. Jerry Brown as a strategy for navigating the university’s financial problems, has come to the forefront of the UC agenda in recent weeks, but it remains to be seen whether these types of programs can generate significant revenue.

This month, both the regents and Brown called for an expanded online program to serve students throughout the state, citing cost reduction and system efficiency as university priorities that online education could address. Campuses are hoping that “short-term investments” made now can establish long-term programs that are “financially viable and sustainable,” according to an executive summary from the UC Office of the President released at the Jan. 16 UC Board of Regents meeting.

Despite the calls for millions of dollars in funding to build online courses at the university, administrators have yet to determine whether these courses can generate significant revenue.

“I don’t necessarily think that we at UC know if (online education is) going to save money or make revenue, but no one really has the answer,” said UC media specialist Shelly Meron. “Everyone is struggling with (determining) what’s an effective business model.”

Like many UC campuses, UC Berkeley currently operates a campus-specific program that involves massive open online courses and UC Extension courses as well as some online courses that directly correspond to campus classes and are primarily offered in the summer.

Brown’s proposed budget, released Jan. 10, allocates $10 million to both the UC and CSU systems and $16.9 million to community colleges for online education exclusively — money that, if approved, could go to expanding course offerings online for undergraduates.

A primary focus of the university’s current online efforts has been UC Online, a systemwide program launched last January that offers courses to both non-UC and UC students for credit. While the program initially intended to make money from nonmatriculated student enrollment, nearly all participating students have come from within the system.

Still, UC Online plans to continue expanding, aiming to add approximately 20 new courses at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, according to the UC Office of the President. At UC Berkeley specifically, online courses may soon be approved for the fall and spring semesters, said Armando Fox, academic director of the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education.

While online education at the university has not lived up to financial expectations, its success as a teaching model has led to increased efficiency and a higher quality of instruction, both of which lead to indirect financial gains, according to Fox.

“The number of students who have failed and had to retake courses has dropped dramatically,” Fox said. “They graduate faster. They get into the workforce faster. Every part of (the online) equation points to cheaper, just not in the microscopic sense.”

UC Student Regent Jonathan Stein said that looking forward, he hopes to gather student input on online education in the coming months through small group discussions and larger forums.

“If we are talking about moving UC classes online, then we have to have a longer conversation,” Stein said. “I’m not sure students are in support of that. We don’t know if we are talking about supplementing the classroom experience with online or exclusively online courses. We just don’t know.”

Libby Rainey covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected].

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