In 2010, before the current explosion in online classes, open courseware and numerous flashy start-ups, the UC system created the UC Pilot Instruction program with the hope of offering for-credit online classes. Two years on, the program has finally launched its first classes and is on the brink of opening said classes to non-UC students. If program administrators can get their act together, this would be a welcome move that could be tailored to help our transfer students and address the problem of impacted community college classes.
In many ways, the UC Pilot Instruction program has bucked the trend of online learning. While other universities made their classes available for free online long ago, albeit without offering credit — for example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put its first courses online in 2002 — the UC pilot program is not only late, but lacks cohesion. Within the system’s 10 campuses, UC Irvine has been part of the open courseware trend since 2006, and UC Berkeley recently joined EdX, a high-profile online education collaboration between MIT and Harvard University. Given that many of the UC system’s own campuses have put their efforts elsewhere — and especially in light of the rumor that EdX will start offering course credit — the pilot program needs to publicize itself more effectively to ensure that the various campuses don’t start negotiating online education arrangements of their own.
Not to mention that online learning is so new that it lies at the center of multiple debates about the effectiveness of the teaching strategy and the “value” of a degree when classes are democratized. Luckily, the UC pilot program avoids the second issue by specifically stating that it is a non-degree program. This is a good idea: Until scholars have a better idea of how comparable education is when delivered online and how such programs affect an institution, UC degrees should still require stringent residency requirements.
That said, online classes, and especially the move toward opening them to non-UC students, could be the solution to an inefficient transfer system. With ceaseless budget cuts, enrollment cuts and increasingly impacted classes, hopeful transfers are often stuck in the community college system for more years than necessary, simply because they are unable to take the basic lower-div requirements necessary to transfer to a UC or CSU campus. Then, once finally at a UC campus, the nightmare of transferable credit begins, leading to many transfers staying more than the planned-for two years.
The new initiative of opening classes to non-UC students should focus on alleviating this problem by having program developers work specifically to create lower-division classes that fill associate’s degree requirements. Program administrations should sign agreements with our California community colleges to let their UC-bound students take a majority of their requirements online. Not only would this avoid the tricky question of whether taking upper-division UC classes online is the same as having a “UC education,” such a move would go further toward open access and addressing the specific challenges of obtaining a UC education than simply offering classes to the general public.