Improving online education

UNIVERSITY ISSUES: If UC leaders expand the university’s online education program, they must figure out how to make it drastically better for students.

Online education is an attractive venue for universities to explore, and for good reason. It offers many advantages to higher education institutions, from the prospect of saving costs to expediting students’ time in the classroom and expanding a university’s reach. But if UC officials are going to invest heavily in expanding the university’s online education efforts, the current program needs to improve.

In his recently unveiled January budget plan, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed allocating $10 million to the university for bolstering online and technology-based courses. Used properly, these funds could make online UC classes a substantially more enriching — and, for university administrators, successful — experience. But the university has a long way to go.

Last week, the UC Board of Regents’ discussion around online education unearthed some troubling information about the university’s progress. Only one non-UC student enrolled in a UC Online course last year; about 1,700 UC students  did. Attracting students from outside the university is critical to making an online program sustainable, and the university needs to figure out how to enroll more outside students moving forward.

Understandably, the university’s movement toward offering more online courses has prompted many questions and concerns. How will an expanded online catalog mesh with the on-campus education? How will the university maintain its academic integrity while opening up its education to students outside the system? Mindful of this, UC officials should seek more student input as they consider expanding online education’s scope.

Under UC President Mark Yudof’s vision, future UC students will be able to “take one or two years’ worth of high-quality general education courses and then transfer to a UC campus.” This could ease some of the pressure on the state’s community college system, as students there might be inclined to take a UC Online course instead. Within the university, Yudof’s vision could also go a long way toward fulfilling one of Brown’s other goals: graduating more students in four years.

Regardless of how the university proceeds, online education will be an important element of higher education in years to come. The practice is already spreading quickly: For instance, online education platform Coursera now partners with more than 30 public and private universities. UC leaders must do everything they can to remain on the forefront of that movement.