Online Courses May Be Next for UC

Photo: Boalt Hall Dean Christopher Edley presented a proposal to develop online classes taught by UC faculty to the Board of Regents Wednesday.
Anna Vignet/Staff
Boalt Hall Dean Christopher Edley presented a proposal to develop online classes taught by UC faculty to the Board of Regents Wednesday.

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The future of online courses

Assistant News Editor Emma Anderson talks to News Editor Javier Panzar about the future of online courses for the UC as discussed at the July 15 UC Regents meeting in San Francisco.

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SAN FRANCISCO - If everything works out the way Christopher Edley wants, the University of California will be the first top-tier university to develop high-quality, completely online courses and - eventually - fully accredited degrees. But he has a lot standing in his way.

Other research universities' failed experiments with online education, lingering doubts about its role in higher education, reluctant faculty and about $6 million in private funding all present a challenge for Edley, dean of the Boalt Hall School of Law, and his plans to put the university on the cutting edge of online learning.

And after presenting his still developing proposal to the UC Board of Regents Wednesday - testing the waters of web-based learning in the UC system by creating a few dozen online undergraduate courses - Edley received the informal, albeit cautious, support of the board.

Edley's proposal, first presented to the UC Commission on the Future in March, would first raise $6 million in private funding, then ask UC faculty to design and submit proposals for fully online versions of classes they currently teach. The 25 to 40 online classes would be created to serve as large, general education classes.

The classes would be carefully monitored, their students assessed and their results scrutinized - all toward reaching the ultimate goal of the program: finding a way to deliver the university's quality in a new and expanding field.

"If we can answer the quality issues to the faculty's satisfaction, we can leverage the enormous amount of experience we already have on the 10 campuses," Edley said in a press conference after the presentation. "We will have the world's longest intellectual smorgasbord from which to feast."

The proposal, presented under the auspice that state funding for the UC will not keep pace with growing enrollment demand, could ultimately grow to serve 25,000 full-time students around the world at a $20 million cost to the UC, according to Edley. That kind of scale could generate $180 million in revenue.

By comparison, creating the physical infrastructure to serve 11,000 students - about the enrollment goal for UC Merced - would cost $1.8 billion.

Data from the UC Office of the President says the UC could face an enrollment gap of around 45,700 students by 2020 if funding does not increase. Edley told the regents this need to grow alone necessitates online growth.

"We can't treat the excellence of the (UC) like a precious little box ... that we protect and we polish and it's as big as it is and whoever can get in it, boy are they lucky," he told the board. "If all we do in the years ahead is take that little jewel box and put it on a higher and higher and higher shelf, then I think we are betraying our mission."

Though some regents said they were excited by the proposal, many expressed mixed feelings about the expansion into online learning.

Regent Bruce Varner said he wanted to make sure online courses require some form of human interaction. His concerns echo those of the Academic Senate, which approved the pilot program earlier this year with the request that online tools be used in a hybrid model along with regular human contact.

Though teaching methods have changed over time and the move toward online learning is gaining steam in the world of higher education, Regent George Kieffer said the pilot needs to be both bold and cautious as it proceeds into the future.

"I am so glad that we are pursuing it aggressively, but also confidently, that the faculty will rein you in when they feel it is appropriate," he told Edley during the meeting.

Still, others were skeptical about the move toward web learning. Regent George Marcus called the proposal "fad-ish," asking faculty to keep an eye on the program as it moves forward.

"We have to absolutely do a research project, like we would if you were given a grant, to determine the learning process and the experience and what will be omitted by using this methodology," he said of the proposal. "We should have facts and not opinions (before taking a vote)."

But before any debate can begin, Edley and his team need that $6 million. Though he did not say how much money the program had garnered so far, Edley said there were "too many strings attached" to funding from many private foundations, adding that the program would have to rely on individual donors.

He added that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had already personally pledged a donation and was helping enlist other donors.

"If we can't raise some private money to tackle something this important for all 10 campuses, I should be shot," Edley said at the press conference.

View a live blog of Wednesday's meeting at our news blog, Notes From The Field.


Javier Panzar is the news editor. Contact him at [email protected]

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