Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010
The University of California Board of Regents reacted enthusiastically Wednesday to developing a fully online undergraduate degree program at the top-tier research institution they oversee, and endorsed a pilot program to test it.
“We have the opportunity to show everyone else how to do it,” said Regent Sherry Lansing. “This should be one of our highest priorities. We cannot wait.”
Despite earlier warnings from professors and instructors that taking UC online would destroy the university’s good name and quality, several regents said they were convinced of just the opposite: that UC has the brainpower – and the motives – to develop the nation’s first highly selective, Web-based degree program for undergraduates.
They largely agreed with the plan’s leader, UC Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley, that an online degree program could save UC money while expanding access to far-flung, tuition-paying students “from Kentucky to Kuala Lumpur.”
“We are in a position to lead,” said Regents Chairman Russell Gould, who created the UC Commission on the Future, which developed the online concept as one of many ways UC might thrive in an era of shrinking financial support from the state.
Edley sits on Gould’s commission and expects to raise $6 million in private donations so faculty can begin designing dozens of rigorous online classes this fall. First up would be UC’s most crowded courses: calculus, chemistry, physics, freshman composition and others, Edley said. It’s unclear when students could enroll.
Providing easier access
UC already has 1,250 courses online, which Edley called a starting point for a more sophisticated “high-touch” approach that will give students easier access to instructors and classmates.
“It’s not where you stick a couple of camcorders in the lecture hall,” Edley said. “We’re talking about high production values. Discussions in desktop video conferencing. Chat rooms and discussion boards. We’d use social-networking software that I’d say our students are already addicted to.”
Even the group working on the idea never met in person, Edley said.
He told the regents, meeting in San Francisco, that expanding online would be less expensive than expanding campuses, while giving more students a chance to attend.
“We can’t treat UC as a precious little box,” he said. “Demand is growing.”
With those tempting notions of equity and economics – and the suggestion that UC is in a race to become the first top-tier university with a stellar online program – Edley’s arguments appeared convincing to the regents.
“It’s the future,” Regent Bonnie Reiss said.
Regent Dick Blum said, “We just can’t keep teaching the way we did 200 years ago.”
Some regents unconvinced
More skeptical were Regents George Kieffer and George Marcus.
“I’m very concerned about this,” Marcus said. “It’s very faddish.”
He told the regents that the project should be abandoned if data from the pilot program show it isn’t working.
No one disagreed.
Only one public speaker addressed the online issue, speaking against it.
In the few minutes he had to speak, Bob Samuels, a UCLA writing instructor, said he learned how problematic online instruction is after teaching online courses.
He later said that online instructors have to be on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I would literally get 50 e-mails saying, ‘OMG it’s Saturday night, my paper’s due Monday, and I can’t access the documents,’ ” Samuels recalled.
Purchasing up-to-date software was a constant expense, he said, as was maintaining equipment and negotiating intellectual property rights: Do professors own the curriculum they develop?
In the end, however, Regent Eddie Island had this message for skeptical instructors:
“Lead this effort. Embrace it. It will be seen in the future as critical.”
E-mail Nanette Asimov at firstname.lastname@example.org.