UC Berkeley Offers First Completely Online Class

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Some students will complete a UC Berkeley course and receive university credit this summer and fall, without leaving the comfort of their homes.

Professor Jill Banfield's decision to teach Earth and Planetary Studies 2: Gems and Gem Materials solely on the Internet has generated debate among students, faculty and university administrators over the merits of online learning.

The course, which Banfield said was "developed for nonscientists as an outreach method," is also available for free to the general public.

Though other courses at UC Berkeley employ online lecture notes, discussion forums and assignment submissions to supplement course curricula, none are completely Internet-based.

Proponents say online courses cut costs and add flexibility. Without required attendance, students can take the course at their own convenience.

"It's really great for people who can't show up for class," said Professor Americ Azevedo, who teaches an introductory computer course, which also offers online learning.

Students also save money on books. Banfield said that if students took her class within a traditional classroom structure, students would have to purchase expensive color format textbooks. Instead, class material is scanned and put online.

Critics said, however, online courses impair online learning and foster cheating. They argue that because students in Internet-based courses take quizzes online, cheating is easier.

"Cheating is already an issue," said Professor Robert Jacobsen, a member of the Academic Senate Committee on Courses. "You hand in a piece of paper, you hand it in on a computer-mechanically, it's very similar."

Banfield said her online quizzes account for a minor part of the overall grade. Students must take the class midterm and final exam on campus with identification and signature checks.

Some students said they find Internet-based learning impersonal.

"You lose a lot of interaction with the professor when you take a class online," said Alexander Niehenke, a UC Berkeley junior who took Azevedo's course.

Some university administrators said online classes also lack a social element that is important in the learning process.

"Passive learning simply doesn't work," said Alix Schwartz, director of undergraduate academic planning.

Azevedo, who helped establish the CyberCampus of Golden Gate University, said classes only offered online may alienate students.

"The socratic method is key to learning," Azevedo said.

In Azevedo's computer class, students formulate exam questions to post online, chat over the internet via an instant messaging interface and may watch lectures live from their computers but still have the option of attending lectures in person.

Out of the 100 available course spaces in Session A this summer, 14 students enrolled. Only one student has enrolled in the course for the fall semester out of the 100 spaces.

The Academic Senate Committee on Courses plans to use student response and academic rigor to measure the success of Banfield's course.

Last spring, Banfield convinced the Senate Committee on Courses to approve the course, based on past successes at the University of Wisconsin.


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