Controversial online instruction program moves forward with new funds

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The University of California's controversial online instruction program will be able to move forward in part thanks to a $6.9 million loan from the UC and a $748,000 grant announced Thursday.

The grant, which was made through the Next Generation Learning Challenges program and sponsored by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, will go towards funding the UC Online Instruction Pilot Project - an initiative arising out of the UC Office of the President, which aims to develop 29 online instruction courses, some of which could be available as soon as fall 2011. The grant's April 7 announcement was made the same day as a decision by the UC to extend a $6.9 million loan to the online project.

"(The funding) comes at the perfect time for where our project is," said program manager DoQuyen Tran-Taylor. "We are poised to start the development work."

According to UC spokesperson Steve Montiel, the loan secured by the project from the UC is a no-interest, seven-year loan that can be drawn from monthly and requires that the project meet certain quarterly milestones.

Tran-Taylor said that before the grant and UC loan, the project did not have funding from which to draw, adding that the majority of the work that has been done on the project thus far has been academic planning and research, largely from the office of UC Vice Provost for Academic Planning, Programs and Coordination Dan Greenstein, co-lead for the project.

This use of internal funding could go against the Academic Senate's approval of the project. In a May 11 memo to UC Provost Lawrence Pitts and Greenstein, then-chair of the Academic Senate Henry Powell wrote that the senate's endorsement of the project "is contingent on the procurement of external funds and that Council does not endorse the redirection of existing funds to this effort."

The pilot project has been a subject of controversy among UC staff and students who point to economic and educational failings of past online instruction programs at schools comparable to the UC. The University of Illinois phased out its online program in 2009.

Tran-Taylor said representatives from the project have spoken to people from universities who were unsuccessful at implementing online instruction programs about the problems they encountered and has designed its program with those problems in mind. She said that unlike the failed programs, the pilot project has more fully involved faculty in the process and will increase demand for its program by offering credit for its courses.

Greenstein said while exact figures will be determined by each proposal, he estimates that each full-credit, quarter-length course will cost an average of $75,000. He said if the project achieves its goal of building 20 courses within the next year, the year's costs will probably fall between $2.5 million and $3 million.

"There are so many dependencies, so many things could happen that could make those numbers much, much smaller or possibly larger," he said.

According to Marge Gammon, marketing director for EDUCAUSE - the nonprofit which helps lead the Next Generation Learning Challenges program - the grants were awarded to preexisting projects which demonstrated the ability to help students complete college. Gammon said she could not comment on any individual grant.

Tran-Taylor said the grant money will be used to fund course development for 10 of the project's courses, though it has not yet been determined exactly which courses those will be.

Tags: UC PRESIDENT MARK YUDOF, UC COMMISSION ON THE FUTURE, PATRICK LENZ, LEGISLATIVE ANALYST'S OFFICE, GOV. JERRY BROWN






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