The online-learning challenge

Pub date April 12, 2011

CAREERS AND ED Mixing, mashing, chatting, tweeting: This is how the University of California envisions the future of learning for what it calls a new breed of students. Also on the syllabus? Podcasting, vodcasting, blogging, and Skype.

Last week, UC was awarded a $750,000 Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, moving it one step closer to a curriculum composed of words that barely existed a decade ago. But some fear — with good reason — that online education will become a low-cost, high-return alternative to traditional instruction. And the students will be the losers.

UC’s Online Instruction Pilot Program grew out of recommendations to explore online learning discussed by the UC Commission on the Future over the past two years. This spring, a subcommittee of faculty and administrators selected 29 courses to be developed over the next two years.

The pilot program is a long-term initiative to evaluate and ultimately increase the role of online education as a regular part of the UC curriculum — a chance to respond, according to the program’s website, to a “transformation” in the way students learn.

The commission promotes online learning as a boon without trade-offs, a way of answering questions of accessibility, efficiency, and, ultimately, costs — and is not shy about outlining the relationship between the three. Chartered to help wiggle UC out of a “vise of rising costs and drastically reduced resources,” the commission is proposing sweeping changes to California’s public university system.



UC envisions a greater number of students served and increased diversity, “from Kentucky to Kuala Lampur,” according to Law School Dean Chris Edley, cochair of the commission’s Education and Curriculum Working Group.

Edley, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of digital learning, initially referred to online education as an 11th UC campus, promising it would offer an equivalent college experience — minus only the “keg party.”

Critics were quick to condemn the plan as overblown excitement. Concerned undergraduates and skeptical faculty raised questions about the quality of online learning. Angry graduate student instructors (understandably) balked at Edley’s grandiose vision of a cybercampus where “squadrons of GSIs” will serve on the “frontline of online contact” with undergraduates.

Political science professor Wendy Brown is one of the leading critics. “Personal engagement with students is crucial,” she told us in a phone interview. “Real teachers don’t just teach subject matter. You have to know students and where their experience and level of engagement is. I don’t want them just to come out with content — I want them to come out as thinkers … have a new way to analyze the world.”

Brown said she believes that acclimating to the intellectual culture of a university — especially important in the first year — can’t be achieved online. Yet first-year courses are exactly where administrators are looking to channel online efforts.

Administrators hope to relieve pressure on overcrowded gateway math and science courses, as well as freshman reading and composition. As many as 40 percent of first-year students test out of their first semester of reading and composition, indicating that the students remaining are those most in need of attention. Even so, a generous smattering of general chemistry, intro calculus, and reading and composition classes like Humanities 1A are among the pilot courses moving forward.

Craig Evans, professor of mathematics and chair of the course committee for calculus, echoes Brown’s concerns. “I don’t think it’s impossible to make this work, but I think it would be very, very difficult,” he said. “Part of what we do as teachers is applied psychology, things like checking in with students and keeping up morale, in addition to teaching classical mathematics. It’s hard to see how to convey that in an online course.”

Robert Anderson, faculty representative to the Board of Regents and professor of economics and mathematics, agreed that there is “something important about being on campus for four years, rubbing shoulders with students and faculty.”

And when short-term goals — taking pressure off overcrowded introductory courses — are met, what comes next?

The academic senate approved the pilot program on the condition that the necessary funding — as much as $7 million — come from outside sources. With the exception of the $750,000 NGLF grant, that money hasn’t materialized. The university has borrowed money from internal sources; half of that will be directed toward infrastructure development, according to Anderson.

With money-saving rhetoric underlining every stage of the program’s development and millions to be invested in online infrastructure, how will UC officials avoid the temptation to simply use online learning as a revenue source — regardless of what academic benefits pilot program researchers find?



The answer is: they won’t.

In a post on the Berkeley Blog last summer, Edley attempted to allay fears that an online program would eliminate campus learning by assuring that future online pupils would be “new, tuition-paying, UC-eligible students we otherwise wouldn’t have the room or resources to serve. And any net revenue would be plowed back into supporting the on-campus program.” In this model, off-campus students would be cash cows milked for the additional revenue they could produce.

Though the committee has delayed visions of an entirely online degree since then, crucial questions regarding a long-term trajectory remain: Would online students pay the same price? Would they be accepted exclusively for online matriculation? Would their degrees be identical?

Nobody knows, but already the pilot program is relying on projected revenue from off-campus students to help recoup some of the borrowed $7 million, according to Anderson.

Keith Williams, Edley’s cochair on the commission’s education and curriculum working group, confirmed that UC is planning to offer newly developed classes on a per-credit basis to students enrolled at UC and others.

According to Williams, these new courses will offer full course credit — and the full price tag. Pricing was made consistent with brick-and-mortar courses, Williams explained, to avoid causing UC students to make a tough decision: either pay full price for an on campus course or save money by taking a less desirable online course.

And yes, conveniently, offering the courses at full price does generate revenue to be reinvested. (Williams balked at the phrase “skimmed off the top.”)

Now that the pilot program is underway, administrators are treading more lightly around its money-making intentions. But for a reminder of the project’s origins, one need only look at the commission’s recommendation to up enrollment quotas for nonresident students — a recommendation slated to be met next year.

The commission’s final report explicitly calculates the amount of money ($12,000) that can be generated for each Californian replaced with a nonresident student, stating “each 1 percent increase in nonresident students would generate almost $1 million” — a dubious maneuver at a time when the university claims it must expand online education to meet the shortages of space for its own residents.

The culture betrayed by this vision of UC education is clear — one in which educational models are constructed according to business practices.

Despite the pilot program’s rhetoric of innovation and breakthrough, it’s not the first to fuse Internet with education. Brown is quick to note that despite her criticism of the pilot program “[she] is not a Luddite.” She described to us how the faculty is increasingly making use of online educational aids.

Many professors choose to broadcast their lectures online, allowing students — and anyone else for that matter — to virtually peek in on a lecture, either live or with a delay of hours or days.

Currently, more than 40 UC Berkeley lecture halls are fitted for video and/or audio recording. Thousands of transmissions, from biology to history, have been uploaded to iTunes and YouTube (see sidebar).

Although webcasts are highly popular with students — and students are undoubtedly the main priority for the program — people are tuning in from all continents, according to Benjamin Hubbard, who runs the webcast program.

For Hubbard, webcasts “[broaden] the window of access to all the scholarly activity on campus. We are fortunate in that we are public university, so first and foremost we have a mission of community service and making this content freely and publicly available matches this mission.”



Recognizing the enormous challenges of decreased accessibility and increasing cost, a growing consortium of educators and researchers are building momentum and developing a vision for a truly public online educational program.

Lisa Petrides, president and founder of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, calls herself a “public education fanatic.” She told us that the instead of using online teaching as a money-maker, schools can adopt a principled, egalitarian approach.

Petrides is a signatory of the Capetown Declaration, a manifesto for the open education movement. The declaration calls for collaboration that cuts across institutional lines; for the use and promotion of free educational resources; and for policy support for open education.

“You start to have this pedagogical collaborative community that can use resources in this way, changing how we teach and how we learn,” she said. To take analogy for computer software, Petrides says her movement is akin to the open source movement.

Now there’s an innovative approach to online education — with its eyes on the future, not its pocket.