An Online Education

After wading through the shallow waters of online extension courses, the University of California is ready to make the leap into the deep end, beginning with the UC Online Instruction Pilot Project in January 2012. The project plans to offer up to 29 for-credit courses with the long-term end goal of expanding online instruction, allowing students to earn a UC degree exclusively online. The University of California’s planned large-scale entry into online education is an acknowledgement of online education’s potential merit, though its cost effectiveness is tempered by administrative fears of educational quality control and financial sustainability.

The cost-effectiveness of online programs versus traditional education is a definite plus in the eyes of the UC administration. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, Dean of Berkeley School of Law and program creator Christopher Edley believes that the “bricks-and-mortar model” is no longer sustainable due to the decrease in state funding and the increase in demand for education — factors that make it more difficult to provide access to a UC quality education. Provost and Executive Vice President Lawrence Pitts emphasized the program’s ability to accommodate underrepresented students whose job and family roles might not allow them to be physically present and benefit from an education on a UC campus.

Overall, online courses are cheaper than traditional courses, but good online courses require significant financial resources and time, so whether the UC pilot program can succeed financially remains to be seen. Similarly priced ventures have proven unfruitful in the past. Inside Higher Education described how the University of Illinois Global Campus “crashed and burned” in 2009 after it failed to attract a global audience — becoming a proverbial “cash cow.”

Though the University of California Office of the President has shown support by giving a $6.9-million interest-free loan to the project, private investors and grants have only contributed a single $748,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation — far short of an expected $6 million in private revenue.

There is also the question of whether students will be interested in UC online courses, considering the plethora of cheaper, readily available online classes in community colleges. According to Vice-Provost Daniel Greenstein, the program plans to pay back the UCOP loan and increase student interest by selling 5,000 of the 7,000 projected spots to out-of-state students and students in China. A heavy reliance on financial support from non-Californian students begs the question of whether this will be utilized for California students or will end up being just another budget stopgap.
 
Additionally, there was a poor show of support for an online program among UC faculty. Only 70 UC professors out of thousands submitted proposals by December 2010 to teach a course, even with a promise of $30,000 in development funds for each course. UC Davis law professor and Vice Chair of the statewide Academic Senate Dan Simmons questioned the notion that educational quality would remain uncompromising in the move to online education. Simmons flatly stated that, “People have created a set of expectations about the potential for online education that is not really there.” The UC system needs to win its faculty over with the program, lest it go the way of the Global Campus.

While these problems do exist, there is definite demand for online classes. Enrollment for online classes increased from 700,000 in 1998 to 5 million in 2007. On the other hand, the success rate for students in online courses is about 50 percent, while the success rate for face-to-face classes is 70- to- 75-percent. Reasons for the low success rate should be addressed by the Pilot Program, as should issues such as a lack of physical presence, accountability and even instructors.

Some of these issues are solved by hybrid classes, which use components of in-person and online classes and maintain steady success rates. Part of the reason for stability in hybrid courses is a face-to-face factor — students can attend office hours and interact in discussions.

To address the high failure rates, some professors such as Associate Professor at Georgia Perimeter College Rob Jenkins believe that schools should put students through an online compatibility test before enrollment to see if they would work well under such an environment.

It is arguable that some majors are better suited for an online forum than others. For instance, science classes and classes in the humanities are markedly different in both structure and testing. While there have been technological measures created to combat cheating for papers in humanities classes, no one has fully taken on the challenge of addressing potential cheating on science and math-based exams. A lack of student oversight could be detrimental to the learning process and degrade the quality of instruction.

There is no denying the potential usefulness of an online component in education if done properly. All that remains to be seen is if the UC system is indeed able to address many concerns surrounding online education this coming January.

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