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UC online courses fail to fulfill promise

UC Online's interim director, Keith Williams, shows off the attributes of the courses, which the University of California needs to sell outside the system. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/Chronicle photo

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From page A1 | January 09, 2013 |

By Nanette Asimov

The University of California is spending millions to market an ambitious array of online classes created to “knock people’s socks off” and attract tuition from students around the world. But since classes began a year ago, enrollment outside of UC is not what you’d call robust.

One person took a class.

“It’s taking longer than we’d hoped” for the $4.3 million marketing effort to take off, admitted Keith Williams, interim director of UC Online, which is open to enrolled students and anybody outside the university.

What UC didn’t know in 2010 when its best minds conceived of selling stellar, UC-quality courses online for college credit was that other great universities like Stanford and Harvard were about to start giving theirs away for free. The phenomenon, called Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, caught fire in 2011.

Hundreds of thousands of students have signed up for courses from cryptography to entrepreneurship. By contrast, UC’s approach snagged one high school girl who paid $1,400 for an online precalculus course at UC Irvine and four units of UC credit.

To be sure, UC has carefully developed some of the most interactive, multifaceted online education available, with 1,700 UC students taking 14 classes that premiered a year ago. These are apart from the 250 undergraduate and graduate-level online classes that UC has offered enrolled students for years. Developed by faculty, the new courses undergo rigorous peer review and allow students to interact with professors and fellow students alike, Williams said.

By contrast, the free MOOCs offer little contact with professors, and students themselves often evaluate classmates’ work. The financial benefit to universities remains unclear.

Even so, in today’s MOOC-laden landscape, UC is seen as a laggard.

Digital change

Gov. Jerry Brown recently expressed that view, prompting the UC regents to schedule a two-hour presentation of UC Online to explain itself at their meeting on Jan. 16.

Brown, a regent, made a rare appearance at the November meeting and compared UC to the U.S. Postal Service, “a venerable institution being upended by digital change.” He urged UC to invite Udacity, a MOOC provider out of Stanford, to show UC what to do.

He then turned to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and said: “There’s stuff going on in Silicon Valley that will leave you in the dust.”

Birgeneau, who had already signed Cal up with EdX, a MOOC provider from Harvard, retorted, “We’re ahead of them. … There’s a lot happening, Governor.”

The governor thrust himself into the debate because he envisions cost savings in online education. UC did, too. But its project has lost money so far. After raising just $750,000 from a foundation, UC Online took out a $6.9 million loan from UC. It has spent more than $5 million, with most going to a marketing company. And now that MOOCs are stealing UC Online’s potential clientele, UC may rethink its plans.

High expectations

But changing midstream will be tough. UC Online has to pay back the loan in seven years and expected to sell 7,000 classes to non-UC students for $1,400 or $2,400 apiece, depending on each course’s duration. China was thought to be a lucrative potential source of students, but few expressed interest. The U.S. military also fell through.

“This is not a recipe for success,” observed Richard Garrett, an online education expert at Eduventures, a consulting company. “UC’s in this gray area of offering neither free courses nor conventionally high-priced (undergraduate) degree programs online.”

Tuesday, online education experts and university leaders met at UCLA for a conference on how the systems should make the best use of their online assets.

In a demonstration of UC Online, Williams powered up professor Jacqueline Shey-Murphy’s online course “Dance Cultures and Context,” which attracted more than 120 students last quarter at UC Riverside. Shey-Murphy introduced the class on video, with the syllabus and calendar at left. Students joined in “synchronous discussions” — a chat room — each Friday.

The class is about the culture of dance forms from hula to hip-hop and features videos of such dancers as Earl “Snakehips” Tucker, an early 20th century Harlem icon, and books on-screen. Students write blogs, convene in groups online, and can email the professor or attend office hours via Skype.

“Students also have to dance once a week — even if it’s in their bathroom with the door closed,” Williams said.

UC leaders say they will focus online efforts mainly on students already enrolled at UC, in hopes that such classes will help them zip through school more quickly and cheaply. Yet on Monday they got some encouraging news: Four more non-UC students had signed up.

— Reach Nanette Asimov at nasimov@sfchronicle.com

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