On UC’s Risky Venture Into Online Education
Mortarboards without the bricks
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Christopher Edley, dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, say…
A handful of administrators at the University of California are spearheading an effort to create an ambitious online educational program for undergraduates. The idea is that UC could become the first top-tier American university to offer a bachelor’s degree over the Internet. It’s a thought-provoking, fascinating and innovative concept. It’s also a highly risky experiment.
Online education has a place – even in the university system. For students, it’s impossible to beat the convenience and the accessibility of online learning. For workers, it can be a great way to expand their knowledge base without having to leave their jobs. Corporations, small businesses, even traffic schools – all of these institutions have shown that there’s a positive place for online education in our society.
But that doesn’t mean that the UC should jump into the fray.
As it stands now, online education is a hodgepodge effort by private, for-profit companies that are making gobs of money – but not providing much in the way of quality to students. UC Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley, who is leading the online charge, said he first noticed this while serving on a university task force about community college transfer students. He noticed that large numbers of UC-eligible students – particularly African American and Latino students – were enrolling at for-profit online universities, such as the University of Phoenix, after graduating from community college. For whatever reason, he said, many students find online education more attractive than the experience they’d get at a bricks-and-mortar institution.
“Our inability to move quickly is creating a gap in the marketplace that these other institutions are running to fill,” Edley said in a recent meeting with the editorial board.
Edley envisions a high-quality, high-interaction method of online instruction – one that would provide lots of support for both teachers and students. “The excellence issue is what we have to resolve,” he said.
That’s for sure. All the PowerPoint slides and chat rooms in the world can’t replicate the power of an in-person learning experience, and it’s hard to see how a cyber UC degree would have the same status as a regular one. UC faculty members are skeptical now, but in the future, employers and graduate schools will be. Complaints about how a cyber college would dilute the university’s status and dumb down learning helped bring down a similar project at the University of Illinois after two years.
Apart from concerns about status – which are real, even if they’re not pretty – there’s an increasing amount of research that shows online learning is qualitatively different from regular learning – and not for the better.
Last month, the National Bureau of Economic Research began circulating a report from two Duke professors that examined computer use among a half-million middle school students. Their research found that the spread of home computers and Internet access corresponded with significant declines in math and reading scores. The study follows up on others that show that increased access to online computers isn’t good for student achievement. There’s also a growing pile of research showing that the way we learn online is different – that we learn things less comprehensively and more distractedly. Clearly, more research needs to be done, but does the UC want to jump into something that may be degrading learning, not increasing it?
There are also questions about money. The idea is that students would pay the same to take online courses as they do to take brick-and-mortar ones. It remains to be seen if they would be willing to do so. In addition, to teach the kind of online course that Edley is talking about, the UC is going to have to invest some money. Vice Provost Daniel Greenstein estimates that each online course would cost $16,000 to $50,000 to develop and deliver. (They could not answer how much it costs to develop and deliver a regular course.) There’s also ongoing technical support for both teachers and students, not to mention money for extra professors and graduate students as the university scales up to meet the demands of a larger audience.
Edley says many of these concerns will be addressed in a privately funded pilot project that will launch with 25 to 40 courses.
Given these realities – and the fact that the largest expense for any university is people – there is the possibility that this endeavor could be profitable. There is also the possibility that it could be a disaster – or that the UC would have to include so many students that it would compromise quality for the faculty, the online students and the students who have made the commitment to attend the UC in person.
This article appeared on page E – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle