by Nanette Asimov, July 12, 2010
Taking online college courses is, to many, like eating at McDonald’s: convenient, fast and filling. You may not get filet mignon, but afterward you’re just as full.
Now the University of California wants to jump into online education for undergraduates, hoping to become the nation’s first top-tier research institution to offer a bachelor’s degree over the Internet comparable in quality to its prestigious campus program.
“We want to do a highly selective, fully online, credit-bearing program on a large scale – and that has not been done,” said UC Berkeley law school Dean Christopher Edley, who is leading the effort.
But a number of skeptical faculty members and graduate student instructors fear that a cyber UC would deflate the university’s five-star education into a fast-food equivalent, cheapening the brand. Similar complaints at the University of Illinois helped bring down that school’s ambitious Global Campus program last fall after just two years.
UC officials say theirs will be different.
On Wednesday in San Francisco, UC’s governing Board of Regents will hear about a pilot program of 25 to 40 courses to be developed after UC raises $6 million from private donors. The short-term goal is to take pressure off heavily enrolled general education classes like writing and math, Edley said.
More for less
Long term, the idea is to expand access to the university while saving money. Tuition for online and traditional courses would be the same. But with students able to take courses in their living rooms, the university envisions spending less on their education while increasing the number of tuition-paying students – helpful as state financial support drops.
Savings estimates are “encouraging” but too preliminary to disclose, Edley said, noting that even if the pilot program succeeds, cyber UC is still several years away.
Evidence nationwide suggests students could be warm to the idea of online learning.
The number of college students taking online courses nearly tripled between 2002 and 2008, according to the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit that encourages online education. Nearly 5 million students took at least one online course in 2008, up from 1.6 million in 2002, Sloan found.
UC wouldn’t be the first university to offer undergraduate degrees online. Among the most successful is the University of Massachusetts’ “UMassOnline,” which includes graduate degrees. It reported revenue growth of 20 percent since last year, to $56 million, and 14 percent enrollment growth, to 45,815 students.
Cal State University East Bay also offers four online bachelor degrees: in business administration, human development, tourism and recreation.
The Stanford example
But UC says it’s looking for something qualitatively different, possibly like Stanford University’s high-end – and cyber – graduate engineering degree.
“Within 30 minutes of a class being taught at Stanford, we’re able to offer it around the world,” said Andy DiPaolo, senior associate dean at the School of Engineering. “We think in many ways it’s comparable (in quality). It’s not live instruction. We’ve tried not to lock students into a specific time.”
Students in Stanford’s online manufacturing class, for example, live in different time zones yet team up online to design, say, a car lock, DiPaolo said.
“This is not a second-tier program,” he said. “We have identical admissions, identical requirements” for online and traditional degrees.
But some UC faculty and graduate student instructors believe removing face-to-face interaction by definition diminishes quality.
In May, student instructors delivered a less-than-subtle warning to the regents.
“We find Dean Edley’s cyber campus to be just the beginning of a frightening trajectory that will undoubtedly end in the complete implosion of public higher education” in California, Berkeley doctoral student Shane Boyle testified.
Using a slightly more sober tone, the Berkeley Faculty Association expressed similar concerns in a May report.
“The danger is not only degraded education, but centralized academic policy that undermines faculty control of academic standards and curriculum,” it said. “It is also likely that the whole thing will be a boondoggle.”
Furthermore, the report said, online instruction is “inappropriate for many subjects and types of learning.”
Not inappropriate, countered Edley, but challenging. He acknowledged that figuring out how to put an excellent lab science course online remains “one of the mysteries.”
But he agreed with DiPaolo of Stanford that faculty support is key.
Disapproval helped kill the University of Illinois’ online program last year, and no wonder: Not only were outsiders hired to teach courses developed by faculty, but courses rejected by faculty were offered online.
“Setting up something the faculty doesn’t believe in would be nuts,” Edley said. And yet, taking UC online needs only a “coalition of the willing,” he said, “not universal support.”
The UC Board of Regents will meet Tuesday through Thursday at UCSF-Mission Bay Community Center, 1675 Owens St., San Francisco.
Discussion: The Committee on Educational Policy will discuss five items, including the online undergraduate degree pilot project, beginning at 9:35 a.m. Wednesday.
— Learn more about the pilot project. sfgate.com/ZJYX and sfgate.com/ZJYY
E-mail Nanette Asimov at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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