Professors see varying success in online courses

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As the semester progressed, UC Berkeley lecturer Dan Garcia noticed one group of students falling behind: those taking his course without ever setting foot on campus.

Of the 320 students enrolled in “The Beauty and Joy of Computing,” the 60 students taking the course online consistently underperformed compared to the in-class students.

Garcia spent months transferring his course to an online platform, filming his course in high definition so his lecture videos would be of optimal quality, offering online versions of labs and working with instructional designers to adapt his course to the online format. But he came to the eventual conclusion that students would be better served taking his class where it was originally offered: in the classroom.

“This is an experiment,” Garcia said. “After courses run their first lot and maybe make some changes to the course, I would hope that each course goes back to the drawing board and fixes itself.”

Garcia finds himself in a similar place as other faculty members participating in the UC Online pilot program — a systemwide effort aimed at expanding the university’s online education offerings — as professors face the pains that come with developing and experimenting with online education.

Over the past few months, online education has garnered significant support. Both Gov. Jerry Brown and the UC Regents have publicly pushed for greater investment in online course development, citing great financial potential. Brown allocated $10 million to online education in his proposed budget.

But despite plans for heavy investment in online development, courses offered since UC Online’s launch have seen mixed results.

Garcia attributed his online students’ underperformance to a lack of accountability. Online students were “cramming” online course material right before exams instead of showing up to online lectures and discussions with the same frequency as the other students, he said.

Like Garcia, UC Berkeley assistant professor Brian Carver — who taught “An Introduction to Information” online this fall — struggled to engage online students. He spent two years developing a new course only to see enrollment drop nearly 25 percent over the course of the semester.

While Carver thinks it is possible for an online course to be as engaging as an in-person course, he has yet to see the online platform that delivers it.

“The time it took to develop this course took so much more time for me (than) to develop an in-person course that I’m not currently looking to develop anymore,” Carver said.

According to UC Online Interim Director Keith Williams, professors for UC Online work with instructional designers to create their courses. Online classes can have synchronous discussion sections and video-chat sequences or video-based lectures that allow students to go more at their own pace, and much of this structure is at the professor’s discretion.

“All of the courses we have developed, we have developed with the intent of running again and again,” Williams said. “Our goal is for these to be regular offerings and to be offered more than once. For a lot of the faculty, it is an experiment because they haven’t done it before. That’s where the instructional designer (comes in).”

After his first effort with online education, Garcia is now working to develop his course by creating more landmarks that require students to keep up with lectures and assignments, such as regular quizzing. He said that the available online platforms lacked analytics, tools with which he could observe students’ online activity, but quizzes may be a way around these limitations.

UCLA professor Susanne Lohmann eliminated the lecture from her UC online course, “Diversity, Disagreement and Democracy,” altogether, instead opting for game-based learning in which students participate in quizzes and answer questions and then analyze the data that the games elicit. Lohmann said the course structure allowed her students opportunities to interact with the class material that would not have been possible in a lecture hall.

“Her online class was completely different than what I expected,” said Andrew Litt, a senior at UCLA who took Lohmann’s course. “I personally don’t really think (recorded lectures) work well because (they’re) boring … but in professor Lohmann’s class, you play games and learn about how people think and reason, and in an online setting, that worked really, really well.”

Following positive student feedback, Lohmann plans on offering the course again in UCLA’s spring quarter.

Williams said he expects a systemwide meeting involving campuses and UC Online to take place in April. The regents have already discussed the possibility of having undergraduates take four online courses in their first two years in the UC system — a feat that the UC Office of the President estimates would require at least 137 high-enrollment online courses from both UC Online and campus-specific efforts.

Currently, UC Online is piloting two new UC Berkeley courses — “American Cybercultures: Principles of Internet Citizenship” and “Intro to Probability and Statistics for Business” — for the spring semester. UC Online plans to add approximately 20 new courses at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, according to the UC Office of the President.

“Right now, we are at baby steps,” Garcia said. “But through experimentation and the UC online program, I think we can really (create) an amazing experience.”

Libby Rainey covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @rainey_l.