UC, campus looks to expand online education program

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Though UC Berkeley is making efforts to stay on the frontlines of online education through its pilot program, the UC Online Instruction Pilot Project, as well as with a worldwide company that provides online courses called Coursera, some campus faculty believe the university could do more to provide better online education for its students.

UC Online, run by the UC Office of the President, seeks to provide students throughout the UC system with access to online courses. The program was first implemented in January and has offered 10 courses since then, ranging from general education to science and social science courses.

According to current program director and UC Davis professor Keith Williams, UC Online will expand in the fall and continue to provide courses throughout the university on a rolling basis over the following semesters.

“(Aside from the 10 courses already offered) there will be four more courses added this fall, while some 30 courses from various disciplines are still being developed,” Williams said. “Our original intention was to emphasize high enrollment, lower-division gateway courses.”

Coursera, founded in 2001 by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, hosts 111 courses from 15 public and private universities, such as Stanford, CalTech and Princeton. Although students cannot receive credits toward graduation, the website allows students from around the world to enroll in the courses for less than $100 and receive a certificate upon course completion.

Williams said UC Berkeley is beginning to look into offering more courses through Coursera, but any involvement with the website would only complement UC Online.

“(Coursera) is a completely different way of developing courses,” Williams said. “If there were a revenue potential for it, that might be one more reason to get more involved — in general we think it’s a nice thing to provide free access to content and also good for other reasons to people who only want to learn.”

But the university’s online engagement is perhaps lagging compared to other top universities around the country, according to political science professor and outgoing Berkeley Faculty Association Co-Chair Wendy Brown.

“As Coursera and other elite online endeavors sailed the winds of open sourcing and brought ever more universities and constituencies on board, the UC online project kept shifting course,” Brown said in a letter issued last week. “The question of when and how campus Senate committees would be involved in authorizing courses and credits was also constantly shifting and deferred.”

In the letter, Brown also requests more transparency in the UC Online program, asking for clear details to be released on how a $6.9 million loan that UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Christopher Edley — former leader of the project — and UCOP Vice Provost Daniel Greenstein originally received to fund the pilot should be paid back.

UC spokesperson Steve Montiel said in February the loan will be paid back to the Office of the President by fiscal year 2018-19.

However, in April, the campus announced an oversight group comprised of administrative and faculty leaders including Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer and Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance John Wilton to design and implement online-education offerings.

“We believe online education will become increasingly important at all levels of the educational experience, including at the undergraduate and graduate level,” stated an April 27 press release. “If Berkeley is to retain its current standards in terms of access and excellence we think it is of paramount importance that we develop an overarching campus strategy that enables and supports online innovation.”

Staff writer Mateo Garcia contributed to this report.