Online Education Moves Forward Despite Concerns

Photo: A Tuesday forum addressed the UC system's online education plan. The university will begin accepting faculty proposals at the end of this month despite many faculty concerns.
Chris McDermut/Staff
A Tuesday forum addressed the UC system's online education plan. The university will begin accepting faculty proposals at the end of this month despite many faculty concerns.

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Following months of debate, a controversial project to establish the University of California as a leader in online education will begin accepting preliminary proposals from UC faculty on Oct. 29 despite ongoing criticism by university faculty, staff and students regarding the quality of the education the program would provide.

At a Tuesday forum cosponsored by several campus student and worker groups, Christopher Edley, the plan's architect and dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, defended his proposal - first introduced to the UC Commission on the Future last March - and addressed apprehensions regarding the caliber of the program's education and the program's infrastructural and labor-related costs.

The timeline for the pilot program has been mostly laid out - faculty will be able to submit pre-proposals for online courses starting Oct. 29, select faculty will be asked to submit full proposals in March 2011 and about 25 lower-division courses will be developed in June 2011 to be open for enrollment that fall, according to Dan Greenstein, UC vice provost for academic planning, programs and coordination.

The pilot program hopes to garner $6 million in support from private donors and has so far raised enough to run until May, Greenstein said.

But as the program moves forward, many have remaining concerns.

"Fully online education has been deemed inadequate for the task of educating and changing students," said Wendy Brown, a panel member at the forum and UC Berkeley professor of political science and gender and women's studies. "What does it mean to unleash it in potentially the most transformative period in the life of young adults?"

Brown added that though there is "an enormous amount of opposition and skepticism" among faculty, there is still a "lot of openmindedness" about what the pilot will reveal.

Edley maintained that the quality of online instruction will not differ from what is provided on campuses.

"We should not - and I certainly would not - support online instruction ... unless we were confident that it could be conducted in a way that was excellent ... albeit excellent in a different way from the experience people have on campus," he said.

Brown also highlighted previous failed attempts by other liberal arts institutions as examples of what may occur with the proposed plan.

"To date, for-profit high-quality online liberal arts education has been a financial disaster for institutions engaged in investing in it," she said. "In their experiments with online education, Columbia, the University of Illinois ... have all lost hundreds of millions of dollars and have abandoned or radically scaled back their efforts, joining the failures from earlier years."

In January 2008, the University of Illinois, one of the institutions the UC compares itself to, launched an online education program called Global Campus, which was met with failure and eventually phased out in May 2009.

According to Charles Evans, assistant vice president for academic affairs at the University of Illinois and former director of Global Campus, the program's failure could be attributed largely to waning faculty support for the program. He said this will be an issue the UC will have to address in order to succeed in its own endeavors.

"If there's a key to making this work at a major university, it's to find faculty champions who will support it," Evans said. "California needs to identify faculty champions to carry this forward. It can't be administratively pushed."

Other universities have also expressed doubts over the efficacy of such a program. According to Stanford University spokesperson Lisa Lapin, while the university offers a limited selection of online courses, online education has not been a priority.

"There are a lot of parts of the college degree ... that involve personal interaction, experimentation, lab work, overseas travel - things that simply cannot be done online," Lapin said. "It hasn't really been discussed that Stanford would offer online degrees."

Officials from three more of the UC's comparator institutions - Harvard University, Yale University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology - also cited living and interacting on campus as essential to the college experience.

However, Edley asserted Tuesday that while online education is not a substitute for on-campus instruction, it makes high-quality education more accessible and affordable.

"The ambitions that I have relate to building something ... that would enable us to offer a UC quality of excellence to a population that simply can't fit in the bricks and mortar campus we have today," he said at the forum.

Tags: CHRISTOPHER EDLEY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, ONLINE EDUCATION, MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY


Aaida Samad covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected]



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