Courses Go Online

With this year’s launch of UC Online, a program that allows UC students to take courses for academic credit online, the University of California is jumping on a bandwagon with some very prominent riders.

Pundits, columnists and techies alike have raved that online course offerings have the potential to transform higher education for students, faculty and casual learners. Because we are following in the footsteps of popular online education websites — MIT’s Open Courseware Suite, Stanford’s Coursera, UC Berkeley’s webcast.berkeley, Academic Earth, and Khan Academy, just to name a few — UCSD is in a unique position to reap the benefits.

While the online education programs mentioned above are catered toward their respective universities, UC Online aims to implement a program of courses across all UC campuses. Several UC campuses currently offer courses through the site, all of which are covered by students’ class tuition costs. The program’s focus is on impacted, lower-division courses: the idea is to make it easier for students to enroll in their required general education and major classes, which are normally more difficult to get into.

UCSD will be making its debut on UC Online this winter or spring, depending on the instructors’ availability. Its first offering will be a course titled Acoustics and Digital Music Creation.

Eventually, UC Online hopes to extend its program to non-UC students. But as of now, UC Online is open to all UC students, who are also allowed to enroll in courses offered by other UCs. However, transferring credits and recieving financial aid for classes offered by other UC campuses will not be a simple process, according to a page on the website for UC Online. It’s a concern that’s been voiced before. In an interview with The Week in August 2012, Jason Wingard, a vice dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, expressed the concern that online courses can lower the perceived value of an institution.

“You run the risk of potentially diluting your brand,” he wrote.

However, some of the most successful online course offerings, such as Open Yale Courses and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, have been launched without any significant brand depreciation. Carnegie Mellon received a record high of 26,431 applications last year, and Yale has not faced any significant changes in its admissions numbers.

“Our purpose is to create and disseminate knowledge to a broad range of people,” Director of Open Yale Courses Diana Kleiner said. “It is great that we can harness the power of the internet.”

Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative offers online courses and collects real-time data about student activity, which allows students to spend more time with difficult concepts via a collection of freely available videos.

“OLI courses run in combination with the classroom setting to create the best possible education for our students,” OLI director Candace Thille said.

By contrast, UC Online is designed for students who can’t get into popular classes. Although courses offered through UC Online do have instructors, students are not expected to go into a physical classroom to learn.

In 2007, researchers at Carnegie Mellon conducted a study that showed that students taking an OLI introductory statistics course with minimal instructor contact performed as well as, or better than, students in traditional classes. This comes as good news for students who find themselves in the position of having to take an in-demand course through UC Online.

Advocates of OLI and other experimental online university education programs point to their ability to increase the accessibility to education.

“Higher education can raise graduation rates and lower costs to support a greater number of students earning a higher quality education,” Thille said. “We are being asked to educate not just more students, but a much greater diversity [of them]. We need to use all our available tools to extend this reach.”

Still, Thille does not believe a website can fully replace instructor-student learning.

“Though the classroom setting is expensive, I don’t think it can be replaced,” she said. “In terms of undergraduate education, nothing beats the experience of going to school and learning life skills on top of academics. For now, Open Learning Initiative works in combination with the classroom setting in order to create the best education for our students.”

But others, such as Kleiner, disagree. She sees the advent of online course offerings as just the beginning of a larger trend.

“What we are seeing is an online movement towards shared education for all and more opportunities for higher education.”

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