UC officials announce initiatives to improve online education systemwide

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In a continued effort to improve online education at the University of California, UC officials announced a series of new initiatives to expand online course offerings last week.

Recent projects through the university’s Innovative Learning Technology Initiative, or ILTI, include creation of a pilot cross-campus enrollment webpage, funding for the development of 30 proposed new undergraduate online courses and ongoing formation of an approval process for cross-campus course credit. UC Provost Aimee Dorr presented the initiatives at the UC Board of Regents meeting Wednesday, bringing larger issues with online education to the fore.

The pilot cross-campus enrollment system, which enables students systemwide to enroll in courses at other campuses, was launched in November, and new courses still in the development stage are slated to be offered in 2014-15 through the UC Online Education program.

The ILTI, launched in early 2013 under then-UC President Mark Yudof, garnered $10 million in state funding from Gov. Jerry Brown in July and aims to foster research and development of the university’s online education capability. UC Online, an older program launched in January 2012 after a two-year pilot project, is offering 11 courses for cross-campus enrollment during the 2014 spring semester/winter quarter.

But Dorr’s announcements attracted questions about the larger issues at stake in the university’s support for online education. Brown, a strong supporter of online instruction over the years, pressured the university to re-examine the structure of current online courses, which often mix recorded lectures and online texts with face-to-face interaction through live video “office hours” with graduate student instructors.

“You say you need human touch —I say, maybe you don’t need it,” Brown said to the regents at Wednesday’s meeting. “The barrier here is the human software, the human thought that we’re putting into the technology.”
Dorr disagreed, saying students in courses with no human interaction are typically “less happy and less engaged” than students in mixed courses, who are “better learners.”

Some UC Berkeley professors also expressed skepticism that online courses without any human interaction could be as effective as traditional face-to-face courses or online courses that offer a blend of the two approaches. Despite the time and money that go into developing such classes and course material, professors with experience teaching online said technology should be used to enhance — not replace — face-to-face educational experiences.

“The right way to think about online classes is that they’re the evolution of the textbook, not the evolution of the class,” said professor and chair of statistics Philip Stark, who first taught his Statistics 21 course entirely online in 2007.

Panayiotis Papadopoulos, a campus professor of mechanical engineering and vice chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate, echoed Stark’s sentiment that online education should be used to supplement in-person learning but noted that students in a course he taught online outperformed those in an on-campus class on similar final exams.

The ILTI intends to establish 150 credit-earning online and hybrid courses by 2016. A work group of UC officials, Academic Senate leaders and others has met regularly since last September to facilitate the process.

UC Berkeley sophomore Sophia Liu, who took Statistics W21 using Stark’s curriculum through Berkeley Summer Sessions last year, said she did not learn as thoroughly in the online course as she might have in a similar course on campus. Still, she said students who want to graduate early or catch up on requirements should consider online courses as an option.

“On campus, there are a lot of resources,” Liu said. “There’s the SLC, the other students in your class, and you have your GSI. Online, it’s harder to find the support you need.”

Connor Grubaugh covers higher education. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ConnorGrubaugh.