Why UC needs to support online instruction

By James R. Carey

As one of the 27 original awardees in the systemwide program UC Online designed to assist faculty in adapting existing courses or develop new ones for online instruction, it is unsettling for me to continue to read the news articles that either focus exclusively on UC Online’s shortcomings and failures, or slant the information in a way that obscures the positive aspects of the overall program.

For sure, UC Online suffers from a variety of frustrating problems including those that were unforeseen, some that were self-inflicted, others that are institutional and still others related to early-stage ventures. Of course, the biggest problem and the one that attracts most of the media attention is the challenge of how to repay the multimillion-dollar internal loan with much of it having gone to marketing rather than to infrastructure or course development.

The original idea was to attract large numbers of non-matriculating students willing to pay $1,400 per four-credit course (actually a bargain relative to the $5,300 Stanford charges for equivalent online accredited courses).

Having failed to find external sources of funding for the project, UC leadership faced the choice of either borrowing funds internally (which they did) or risk UC and its 250,000 students being left in the online movement dust. The decision by UC administrators to move UC Online forward was not only about generating online classes. It was also about learning efficient methods to develop them, identifying best practices for teaching different types of course content and disciplines online, finding out from students what works and what does not, and positioning UC to benefit from as well as contribute to the sea change occurring in university instruction.

A good example for this last point involves the Massive Open Online Course movement, first started at Stanford two years ago, but now spread to scores of elite universities across the country. MOOCs (as they are called) are free, non-credit-bearing, automated online classes where, due to large scale and zero cost, students have no contact with instructors or teaching assistants and their performance is either auto- or peer-assessed.

UC benefits from the MOOC movement because, once a campus signs on, its faculty can join hundreds of colleagues from other top universities in offering their courses online as outreach to large numbers of students. While doing so they will not only be showcasing to the world their courses, programs, departments and campuses via the MOOC platform, but also creating accredited online versions of the course for UC students and joining ever-expanding networks of faculty worldwide who, through the exchange of ideas, concepts and strategies, are transforming university instruction.

A more immediate benefit to UC of the MOOC movement is that it strengthened the legitimacy of online instruction by decoupling the delivery method (i.e., online) of a class from the institution that offers it. This has been a major sticking point for many of my UC colleagues who associate online instruction with for-profit colleges. They are more willing to consider the potential merits of online instruction at UC when faculty at Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Penn are offering MOOCs.

Interest in MOOCs among UCD faculty and, by extension, in prospects for offering their own online courses at UCD, was evident by overflow attendance several weeks ago at a presentation by one of its pioneering figures, Stanford professor Daphne Koller. Interest in situating UCD at the forefront of the movement in online instruction within the UC system and beyond is reflected in the fact that more of the original online projects (six of 27) supported by UC Online are based at UCD than at any other UC campus.

These UCD-based online courses include writing, Spanish, the physiology of aging, linear algebra, global climate change and terrorism and war, the last of which will be offered in collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

It is doubtful that UC will recover from non-matriculating student fees the borrowed funds that were used to support the UC Online program. But in light of the speed with which the instructional revolution is moving, as well as the recent urgings by Gov. Jerry Brown that UC “deploy teaching resources more effectively,” his encouragement for UC to consider offering credit by exam for courses taken through a MOOC, and his offer to make $10 million available for creating more online courses, it is equally doubtful that UC would have ever recovered the credibility that would have been lost had its decision-makers not found a way to move forward with UC Online or a program like it.

— James R. Carey, a professor of entomology at UC Davis, is one of the pioneers in the UC Online project, a universitywide program implemented in March 2011 to explore the merits of online instruction. He offers the “Terrorism and War” online course in collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. This is one of more than two dozen UC courses — and one of six at UCD — that transitioned to online versions.

Special to The Enterprise

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