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UC inaugurates pilot program for online classes

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FEBRUARY 20, 2012

Welcome to the online university.

Despite some faculty and student contention and a rocky financial start, the University of California’s controversial online education initiative is advancing this semester.

The UC Online Instruction Pilot Project — an initiative to develop and offer online classes — has introduced its first class and will add over two dozen more courses throughout the UC system over the next few semesters on a rolling basis.

The project was designed to increase funds for the university and ease the burden on overloaded classes. Its first course, preparatory calculus, is being offered at UC Merced this semester. From its onset, the pilot has generated excitement about the opportunities associated with it — along with doubts and concern about the impact of online learning on the quality of public education.

A rough start

Consideration of online education at the UC began in 2009, when the UC Commission on the Future was developed to create a fiscally sustainable university despite dwindling resources.

UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Christopher Edley, who also acts as a special adviser to UC President Mark Yudof, spearheaded the project and said he “should be shot” if he was unable to obtain millions in private funds for the project.

Fast-forward three years later, and the program is now in full swing — but with less than $750,000 in private funds and a $6.9 million loan from the president’s office to make up for the rest. According to UC spokesperson Steve Montiel, the loan will be paid back by fiscal year 2018-19.

Although Edley essentially failed to gain the promised millions through outside funds, UC Vice Provost for Academic Planning, Programs and Coordination Dan Greenstein, who  oversees the project on a daily basis, said he remains confident that the program has been developed as a sustainable business model.

Although the pilot courses will initially be offered to UC students only, the pilot’s financial success depends on outside student enrollment, which Greenstein said should generate enough revenue to pay back the loan and provide funds to departments offering the courses.

Concerns and contention

Yet the dependence on outside students to take the courses, along with the difficulty of measuring classroom quality and success, have caused political science professor and Berkeley Faculty Association co-chair Wendy Brown to doubt the pilot’s effectiveness.

Brown said in an email that she is not always against online education but is “opposed to converting a first class university education into a set of on-line courses produced and delivered on the cheap and then pretending this hasn’t downgraded the education students are paying ever more for … (and) selling such courses to unwitting students in far-flung parts of the world who believe they are buying a Berkeley education.”

Similar concerns are shared by UC Berkeley sophomore David DeSmet. DeSmet took Chemistry 1A and 1B — which may both be offered online next fall.

“I would be worried that if I’m taking a Berkeley class and anyone can sign up for it, regardless of their caliber, how can I tell that I’m taking a Berkeley-level class?” he said. “I feel like you can make it work, but you would lose the student experience.”

Students and faculty have also expressed concern over professors’ ability — or lack thereof — to connect with their students online.

Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, a union representing non-senate faculty and librarians at the university, said the online classes will be overseen by professors who “are not very involved in undergraduate instruction” and may support the program to “bring revenue to their department.”

Moving forward

Greenstein is aware of concerns but maintains that research put into the program will ensure a high-quality learning experience and keep the university on the level of other elite research institutions.

“Sure there is great skepticism — change is hard,” Greenstein said. “But this is not an edge activity any longer — if anything, we’re playing catch up.”

Universities already involved in online learning, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, Stanford University and Cornell University, are challenging the idea that online courses are for vocational colleges or working students.

MIT recently introduced MITx, which allows students to obtain a credential for a “modest fee” proving they have mastered a free online class, according to the program’s website.

At UC Berkeley, pilot supporters hope the courses will “democratize education” by providing UC-quality classes to students around the world.

Dan Garcia, a UC Berkeley computer science lecturer who plans to offer an online class in computing next fall, maintains that trial and error is all just part of the research process.

“Remember, this is an experiment at the root level,” he said. “It’s taking baby steps to see how (online education) works.”

Garcia also said the pilot is “a win-win-win-win” for several reasons, including the opportunity to use his computing class to train high school teachers for instructing public school students in AP Computer Science.

“This is really empowering and democratizing education,” he said. “We want to help and teach the world.”

With a sizable loan and support from many university officials, the pilot project is now on its way. But it remains unclear how the university will measure the quality of the pilot’s classes.

“I think we’re very interested in the UC defining quality for its undergraduate program,” Greenstein said.

Jessica Rossoni covers higher education.

JULY 24, 2012

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