An Online UC Degree: A Panacea or a Mirage?

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On Jun. 14, the UC Commission on the Future met to discuss a proposal circulated by the UC President's Office for an ambitious plan to market the University of California online. The proposal entertains the vision of an eventual online bachelor's degree, by tapping new students all over the world from "Sheboygan and Shanghai." In fact, the track record for online higher education is very uneven. It requires massive upfront investments and continual investments for upgrades. Given these high stakes and the financial pressures on the university in the current political climate, it is crucial for it to move prudently in this area.

As educators and scholars, we are, like our students, increasingly "wired in" and use the Internet every day in our research and teaching. For this very reason, we recommend that the following three things be kept in mind.

First, online teaching cannot replace the classroom experience. Internet use can only be effective if it supplements the face-to-face dialogue that is the hallmark of university education. Knowledge moves too fast in the contemporary world to justify any pedagogical medium that is not extremely flexible, and the most flexible medium of all is conversation. It is no coincidence that the main technology firms such as Apple, Cisco, Google, and Microsoft, all have central campuses where innovators consult and work together. We need to exploit technology as a way of serving the speed and ongoing innovation of teaching.

Second, the university serves California. Most data and previous experiments suggest that any financial gains from an online UC are decades away - if in fact they ever materialize at all. Given these dim prospects, the only sensible reason to expand online pedagogy is as a service to California - to the students of the university, and to those students who would transfer into the university from CSU and the community colleges. The university must avoid investing its precious resources in some "UC Brand" to be marketed across the globe. Such branding would involve outsourcing teaching to part-timers who are not researchers, resulting in a decline in quality for those students who are our primary responsibility.

Third, teaching and research are one. One of the hallmarks of UC is the combination of excellence in teaching and research at all levels. Teaching and research feed into each other through extended work over time. Simply to "extract" bits of teaching and put them online out of context would sever the links between teaching and research that make the university unique.

Most of the discussion about online education has come from administrators who are far removed from the experience of teaching and the financial realities of online education. The university has hundreds of superb teachers. They have scarcely been consulted, beyond a few cursory meetings. However it is obvious that it is teachers, not administrators, who should be the architects of this initiative, and at every step.

These common-sense suggestions must be kept in mind as the university explores online learning. If they are not, the University runs the risk of destroying its reputation and excellence in the name of marketing a brand. The taxpayers and students of California will be much the poorer.

Kristie Boering, Wendy Brown, Kevis Goodman, Steven Goldsmith, Timothy Hampton and Garisson Sposito are professors at UC Berkeley. Reply to [email protected]

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