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Sac Bee on UC Online Ed

In the past week, the Sacramento Bee published two pieces about the UC online education pilot program.

(1) “UC professors raise doubts about online degree plan”; and
(2) Editorial: “Online education? Beware of glitches”

(1) UC professors raise doubts about online degree plan
Published Tuesday, Jul. 27, 2010

The University of California’s interest in offering an online degree is opening a new chapter in the debate over online education.

Many professors question whether the state’s premier university system should tread so deeply into cyberspace, where other prestigious universities have failed – and where some less selective colleges have thrived, sometimes with programs of questionable quality.

The professors are concerned that a virtual UC will waste limited resources, compromise the university’s academic reputation and divert it from its primary mission of educating California’s top-performing students.

The plan’s creator – Christopher Edley, dean of UC Berkeley’s law school – says the opposite is true. He contends UC can maintain its rigor online and that doing so will allow the university to reach more of those stellar students at a lower cost.

“How do we provide access to UC quality when the state is not there for us and the student demand is growing? We need an alternative to the bricks-and-mortar model, and this may be it,” said Edley, who also serves as an adviser to UC President Mark Yudof.

Edley acknowledges his biggest hurdle is getting buy-in from UC’s academic senate, the formal voice of the faculty. Their support is critical to any major educational changes.

Edley is kicking off the online initiative by raising $6 million from private donors to cover the cost of a pilot project. The money will be used to produce 25 to 40 online courses in subjects such as calculus, chemistry and freshman composition that typically draw huge enrollments at the lower-division level. Students at any of UC’s 10 campuses will be able to take the online classes, which may be available by spring. For the pilot, they’ll pay the same tuition as they would taking classes in person.

Edley envisions steadily expanding UC’s Web presence: adding upper-division courses, then offering a bachelor’s degree online, and eventually allowing people around the world to enroll in the virtual UC. Tuition for an online degree, should one be created, has not been determined.

Making a degree available online would allow UC to earn money that could be pumped back into the traditional campuses, Edley argues.

Not so fast, say many UC profs.

“Are we in the business of making money by selling services to non-students?” asked Dan Simmons, a UC Davis law professor who is vice-chair of the statewide academic senate. “People have created a set of expectations about the potential for online education that is not really there.”

Even professors who support a greater use of technology say the plan has flaws. Some like the idea of expanding online offerings, but don’t think UC should offer an online degree. Others think online curriculum should be developed and controlled by academic departments on each campus – not by UC’s statewide bureaucracy.

“I think they’re looking for a one-size-fits-all model, and I don’t think that’s the way to go,” said Cynthia Carter Ching, a UC Davis education professor.

Ching embraces online learning. She will teach an online class this spring and, before coming to Davis, taught two online classes at the University of Illinois.

In those classes, Ching and her students convened for an online lecture once a week using conferencing software. Each student took part from a computer that streamed audio and had a microphone for asking questions. Students also participated in online discussion boards where they read and posted comments about class work.

Ching’s classes were not part of Global Campus, an ambitious effort the University of Illinois launched a few years ago to create an entirely online program. It ultimately failed due to opposition from faculty and lack of interest from students.

In recent years, online learning has grown more common at American colleges. In 2002, less than 10 percent of college students nationwide were enrolled in an online class, according to research by the Sloan Consortium. Six years later, that number had grown to more than 25 percent.

But just because students take classes online doesn’t mean they like them.

“Even with a good instructor who monitored and maintained all the online material, I’ll never take an online class again,” James Mouradian, a UC Davis student majoring in computer science, said in an e-mail interview.

“The in-class lectures were a hundred times more valuable. You cannot ask questions to a computer and get meaningful answers.”

That may just be a matter of using the right technology, say professors who teach online. Mouradian’s online art history course involved logging in to watch a pre-recorded lecture. There were no discussion boards or other formats for online interaction, he said.

UC Davis professor Robert Blake uses live video chats to teach Spanish. The videoconferencing software allows students to break into small groups and practice their language skills.

“We’re dealing with students more and more who are very used to social computing. They’re used to getting online and doing projects together,” Blake said.

He is developing Arabic and Punjabi classes that will be available online to UC students across the state. Still, he’s not sure UC should rush into offering an online degree.

“Fortunately, the University of California has a governance structure that will allow the faculty to determine what is the appropriate way to mix these things,” Blake said.

“I trust my colleagues to put on the brakes at the right time, and also stick their noses out and experiment.”

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

(2) Editorial: “Online education? Beware of glitches”

It’s hardly surprising that, in an era of diminished state support, California’s university leaders are trying to find new ways to work around budget-related enrollment restrictions.

Those restrictions have prevented qualified high school students from attending a UC campus, and reduced access to courses for those who do get admitted.

Yet as the UC Board of Regents ventures more deeply into the world of distance learning – online programs and degrees – they need to be careful to put the needs of Californians first and not undermine UC’s reputation for quality.

At their July 14 meeting, the regents launched an “Undergraduate Online Instruction Pilot Project” with two parts – one for UC-enrolled students and one for “fully distant” students.

The potential for tapping fee-paying students far from California – the “Kentucky to Kuala Lumpur” dream – captured the headlines and the controversy. Based on the experience of others, there is good reason to be skeptical of a model where individuals never need set foot on a UC campus to get a bachelor’s degree.

But discussion of the “fully distant” market ought not to mask the real impact of the online project, which will be on California students. That online shift deserves more in-depth debate.

The heart of the project turns to online courses (typically no face-to-face meetings) for California students to meet their introductory and lower-division course requirements.

These are courses that:

• Have the heaviest enrollments on UC campuses;

• Are most in demand by community college students planning to transfer;

• Are the most oversubscribed;

• And are the ones the faculty are less eager to teach.

So the pilot project proposes to create 25 to 40 online options for high-demand lower division and foundation courses: writing and composition, basic math, calculus, economics, statistics, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, physics, physiology, communications, history, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, American studies, anthropology, business.

This covers a big chunk of the undergraduate experience. Students and parents need to pay attention to this shift and weigh in.

Certainly online courses have advantages for students faced with the choice of a 300-seat lecture class or being shut out of a course. They have advantages, too, for students with work or family obligations.

But these courses should not simply be treated as “requirements to get out of the way.” They are the principal gateway courses for students exploring a major.

Equally important, for non- majors, they may be the only courses students take in science or politics, for example, which should give them enough to be informed citizens. These need to be strong, interesting courses.

Nor should issues of student accountability be overlooked. How do you know that a student, and not someone else, is actually taking the exam?

Based on experience elsewhere, offering quality online courses may not be a cost-saver. Good online courses are time-intensive.

A few news stories from Inside Higher Education provide cautionary tales on this front.

One September 2009 story describes how the University of Illinois Global Campus “crashed and burned.” This attempt to attract a global audience was “going to be a cash cow.” Instead, “it’s kaput.”

Attempting to put up a high-quality program against dozens of low-cost, for-profit online operations proved more difficult than advocates thought. The university invested millions and attracted only a few hundred students.

Another story, featuring the University of Texas, is headlined, “Texas Kills Its Telecampus” (April 9). Money, the story indicated, “played a role in the TeleCampus’s hastened demise.” This experiment depended on a large annual subsidy from the UT system, plus fees from the campuses.

The University of Massachusetts campus-based online initiative, UMassOnline, has seen better success. It hasn’t set unrealistic goals for cost savings. “Not all success is financial” is the motto.

Distance learning has a long tradition in this country and can be an avenue for achieving democratic ideals of access. But to maintain UC standards of quality and a California-first priority, it has to be done right.

That means it is unlikely to be a cash cow.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.


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