Enhancing education, maintaining instructional resilience

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Technology has been instrumental to UC Berkeley’s ability to continue instruction when in-person classes were not possible during the COVID-19 pandemic and Northern California wildfires. The impact of these events on our academic pursuits was reduced thanks to the extraordinary efforts of faculty, staff and students and the availability of bCourses, Zoom, Course Capture and other tools. Going forward, we must prepare to deliver and support instruction in both face-to-face and virtual environments, being able to pivot on demand. We know this flexibility must be part of our “new normal” and will require tools, robust infrastructure and staff to support both modalities. For these reasons, campus is considering the creation of a course materials and services fee which we have named the Instructional Resilience and Enhancement Fee, or IREF.

We have also witnessed changes in the expectations of students and instructors seeking access to software to augment courses and learning. Microsoft and Adobe products, MATLAB, Grammarly and Qualtrics, among others, help our students to complete assignments and projects and gain internships and careers post-graduation. This software also assists instructors in enhancing learning and ensuring that our courses are world class. In many instances, software is as vital to instruction as textbooks, and it is imperative that we lower costs and increase access to this software.

State funding and tuition models were built with traditional on-campus instruction in mind and have not been adjusted to reflect the role technology now plays in modern instruction. The proposed new fee, which would ideally be implemented for the 2022-23 academic year, would provide a stable mechanism to fund investment in a wide range of technology, software and support services that will enhance student learning and faculty-student engagement, as well as support instructional resilience.

The IREF would be in line with other university campuses such as UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine and UC Riverside that have already instituted a course materials fee that funds a wide variety of instructional technology. Those fees vary from $324 to $112.50 per year at UCLA and UCSB, respectively.

In addition to critical instructional technology and support services, the IREF would fund popular student software previously supported by the Student Technology Fee. Some readers may recall that a majority of voting students supported that fee in a referendum last year. However, the referendum just missed the threshold of votes required for the fee to pass, with the low voter turnout likely due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. We heard from many students about their distress over losing access to services and software that were funded by the fee. A combination of one-time emergency funding and carry-forward funds enabled us to temporarily extend student access to software for this year only. However, emergency funding, by its nature, cannot be used for permanent expenses, and a more fiscally sustainable, longer-term solution is necessary.

The IREF would provide students with access to current software offerings, as well as new software requested by students. We aim to continually incorporate student input each year to revise software offerings based on what technology needs matter most to students in our ever-changing environment.

Most importantly, the IREF would allow UC Berkeley to leverage economies of scale to purchase software at a much lower cost than if students purchased those licenses individually. The IREF we envision would cost campus students ideally $139 per semester, or $278 per academic year, and would cover needs such as software licensing and the Student Technology Equity Program, which provides laptops and other hardware to students in need. For a cost comparison, if a student were to pay individually for software licenses, costs could total more than $500 per year.

We recognize students may be concerned about any proposed new fee. To be clear, we are committed to keeping the overall cost of a UC Berkeley education as low as possible and providing financial aid to help students in need finance their cost of attendance — which includes tuition and fees. Students receiving financial aid would be supported in covering the costs of any new fee such as the IREF. We should emphasize that the IREF would help low-income students overall by lowering software costs.

Last week, all undergraduate and graduate students received an invitation to complete a Pulse Survey. The survey includes questions about student technology use, which services and support students find most valuable and how this technology could be paid for with a course materials and services fee. We rely on this critical information to better serve students. Please share your feedback in the spring 2022 Pulse Survey before Jan. 31.

While we acknowledge the sensitivities concerning a possible fee, we believe strongly that this investment is critical to maintaining the quality of students’ academic experience; helping ensure the resilience of our campus despite climate change and pandemics; and providing a stable foundation for future learning and teaching at UC Berkeley. We ask for your engagement and support to help provide this foundation for your classmates and future generations of Golden Bears.

Oliver M. O’Reilly is the interim vice provost for undergraduate education, and Stephen C. Sutton is the vice chancellor of student affairs. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.