Univ of California Targets Aggressive Expansion of Online Ed

Crowded campuses, uncertain enrollment numbers and falling budgets are pushing the University of California to expand online course offerings. The UC-Riverside Highlander reports that the President, Mark Yudof, has set a tentative goal for making up to 10% of an undergraduate degree available online.

Programs targeted for expansion will begin with courses typically required as general education credits and other common lower-division subjects. Next, UC would work toward core curriculum classes as the process is streamlined, tested and improved.

"The finances simply no longer exist to support instruction the way we've done it," said Yudof at the January Regents' meeting.

The UC Online Education (UCOE) platform is expected to be less expensive for the University than adding brick and mortar classes with new faculty. Tuition for the UCOE offerings is already included as part of full-time UC enrollment, so there is no added cost to the student.

And online expansion may also bring in new tuition money, as students who are not already enrolled at a UC campus must pay an additional fee. Because online courses are not restricted in enrollment numbers as strictly as in a real classroom setting, it will be easier for campuses to attract outside students and deal with increasing demand.

Only 27 online courses are offered at UC campuses at this time, so the system will need to expand to meet their target of offering one-tenth of a degree in an online format. It's not clear how many subjects will transfer well to the online format, though some are natural fits — computer science courses have been among the first to make the jump.

As elsewhere, UC has heard criticism that online learning can diminish the critical personal interaction between faculty and students. Some in the UC community are concerned about what online classes will do to the standard of teaching, and those driving the project have taken that into account. Frank Vahid, a professor of computer science and engineering at UC-Riverside, has been involved in the effort. He said:

"I and many of my colleagues feel very strongly that there's no substitute for the in-person interactions that occur between a professor and students."

Many available online technologies can be put to use to keep students connected with real teachers so that they feel less isolated and can have their questions answered. Live chat is always an option, and online courses will also make heavy use of interactive documents. Such documents can be viewed and modified by anyone who has been given permission and access to them, but they remain under the professor's control and are not fully public.

It will be a challenge for the UC system to expand 27 courses to the targeted 158 by 2018, but it may be the only feasible way to keep up with student demand. Some of the regents, however, express skepticism. Student regent Jonathan Stein feels positive about the innovation itself, but points out that little can be known at this time:

"We don't know how online classes for UC students will save us money and we have no idea how potential classes for non-UC students will make us money."

But for now, with California's budget strained, it may be the only way forward.

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