• September 5, 2015

California Dreaming: Remaking Online Education at the U. of California

Officials at the University of California system have proposed an expansion of online efforts in the midst of a fiscal crisis, in an attempt to provide for-credit courses to a greater number of students. The proposal contrasts sharply with the system's current online program:


University of California campuses currently enroll more than 25,000 students each year online. But nearly all of them are in courses that are part of graduate or extension programs; undergraduate students cannot typically take those courses for credit.

One campus, Berkeley, offers eight online classes to undergraduates during the summer. The largest one, an introductory course in statistics and probability, enrolls 500 students. Another campus, Irvine, offers a series of smaller online courses that undergraduates can take during the summer.

The Future

Short-term: A pilot project will create online versions of roughly 25 high-enrollment, entry-level courses. Here's a preliminary list of those courses (or course series) and their average annual enrollments, systemwide:

Calculus 1-3


General Chemistry 1-3


Physics 1-3


Freshman Composition 1-2


Biology 1-3


Macro and Micro Economics


Introductory Psychology




Organic Chemistry 1-2


Spanish 1-4


World History 1-3 and Survey


Cultural Anthropology


Introductory Sociology


Multivariate Calculus I


Western Civilization 1-3






U.S. History 1-3




American Government & Politics


Accounting I


Introductory Astronomy


Linear Algebra


Differential Equations


International Relations


Long-term: Supporters hope to use the pilot program to persuade faculty members to back a far-reaching expansion of online instruction that would offer associate degrees entirely online, and, ultimately, bachelor's degrees.


1. 7738373863 - May 11, 2010 at 10:38 am

Unless UC is willing to create a substantial online library to facilitate student research, or to restrict its online student base geographically so that every online student has access to a UC-system library, a number of the intermediate social sciences and humanities courses on this list, e.g., world history, US history, and international relations, will be impoverished significantly owing to a lack of the sort of background reading materials normally used in producing essays and term papers. Completing the underclass curriculum by taking courses that require only examinations, textbook-based papers, and participation in discussion groups will diminish the UC brand and impede the progress of the students in such a program, thereby disadvantaging them in relation to peers who complete their underclass education on campus.

2. mollie_f - May 11, 2010 at 11:11 am

Online databases, InterLibrary Loan (seems to me that California was a pioneer in sharing print resources throughout the state), and ebooks will more than meet the library requirements for "intermediate social sciences and humanities courses on this list." Even in face-to-face courses, students have been relying on such resources for years--even at elite institutions.

3. michael_porter - May 11, 2010 at 12:06 pm

I agree... access to library resources will not be a problem unless the university libraries themselves refuse to provide more appropriate resources in formats that are suitable for online learning. Students overwhemingly rely on the ability to access resources online and remotely, it's time that libraries redefine their mission and get on board with the vision of their respective university.

4. lisa_l_spangenberg - May 11, 2010 at 01:04 pm

The idea of moving all English 2 and English 3 classes online is stupid in the extreme. First of all, while to a naive administrator who doesn't have a technical background, or experience teachin composition, it seems like a no-brainer. Writing classes online! It's great! They'll do most of their communication in writing!

Except the students in English 2 (those who have failed the Calfornia Subject A exam) and English 3 (freshman comp) lack the skills to be able to write well enough online to function. English 4, intro to lit, sure, you could do that online; even the sophmore surveys for English majors, the English 10 series.

Moreover, the burden on faculty in terms of time for English 2 and English 3, as you try to explain complex ideas about syntax and grammar and structure to students will go up exponentially. And of course, UC will want to pay them less for online instruction than for classroom instruction.

Finally, I note that while video conferencing works fairly well on a campus with a fiber-optic background, recent computers, and tech support, your average student using consumer broadband is not going to have a clue about what OS they're using, whether or not they have sufficient RAM, etc.

Many students have five year old computers and no money for software. This is another way of making it easier for the richer and harder for the economically disadvantaged.

I suppose I was prepared for this when UCLA cancelled Writing Programs, who not only had professional experience composition and rhetoric faculty, they provided amazing pedagogical support for the English graduate students--which begs the question--who is going to provide pedagogical training for these online comp teachers? You've removed the ones with the experience in teaching composition with technology from the roster.

5. akprof - May 11, 2010 at 03:16 pm

Actually, the idea that this is going to save faculty salary money is questionable - my experience in teaching on-line courses is that it requires an inordinate amount of time on the part of faculty.

6. 22286593 - May 11, 2010 at 03:42 pm

How will the employers and graduate schools make sense of the following degrees?


B.A. University of California, On Line.

7. 11272784 - May 11, 2010 at 05:26 pm

There is only one possible answer, 22286593; the degree MUST read:
B.A. University of California.

There is no excuse for considering a degree earned online from one earned face-to-face. What's important is not HOW you earn the degree, but whether you have demonstrated the competencies required.

Yes, it's a different experience - but it does not yield an inferior result. IF you label any degree as 'online", there must be a reason you're singling it out - and that reason is obvious: you consider it to be a second-class degree.

I don't know about your institution, but ours doesn't have any second-class degrees! All our online and distance degrees carry exactly the same titles as degrees earned on campus. And that's the way it should be.

8. eric_gates - May 11, 2010 at 05:30 pm

OK, with respect to math, here is a dare (and no, I am not kidding):

1) Have 1000 students who placed in take a Precalculus course at UCI in a lecture hall, with TA's whose english is questionable from faculty wgho are harried (but caring!).

2) Have another 1000 students who placed in take the ALEKS Precalculus course with one teacher administering the course.

Hold all other variables constant.

Then, test them all and measure outcome vs. costs. Tick tock, the future is waiting.

9. cybrarian_ca - May 11, 2010 at 05:34 pm

Libraries do not "refuse" to provide materials in electronic formats. However, many publishers of textbooks and other books used for courses do not allow for library licensing of the books. I'm a chief librarian at a large college, and my library has nearly 100,000 e-books, along with thousands of online journals. But when it comes to required course materials, we run into a problem. We tried an initiative to provide required course books in online versions, as textbooks are expensive, and much of our student body comes from families making under $60,000 a year. We were unable to get the publishers to allow us to license the books our professors wanted to use in their teaching for multiple users. We got replies from flat-out "No way" to "Well, you could buy a user license for every student in the class, every year." That's patently ludicrous. When you buy a book for the library, the library owns that book, and it doesn't matter who checks it out - the book, once returned, is available to someone else. Publishers have made e-books available in similar ways, but when it comes to required texts, they lag well behind. Online education is going to keep growing, and I don't see a problem with libraries supporting it with all the supplementary research materials. But I sure do still see a problem with providing required texts. Until publishers get on board, students will have to continue to purchase books.

10. rivenhomewood - May 11, 2010 at 05:49 pm

When did the UC system start offering Associate degrees? I was not aware they had any Associate programs - those are generally the province of California's huge Community College system.

"Long-term: Supporters hope to use the pilot program to persuade faculty members to back a far-reaching expansion of online instruction that would offer associate degrees entirely online, and, ultimately, bachelor's degrees."

11. fuller11 - May 11, 2010 at 06:39 pm

The savings are in real estate. If my children took online college courses, they would be able to stay in our house, hence no need for additional living spaces. Further, the more classes are online, the less classrooms have to be built and maintained. There are also fuel savings whereby students drive less miles to centralized campuses. I imagine less driving equals less road maintenance in the long haul. The economic savings to society are potentially very large. Colleges will have to figure out how to deliver a good service for learn-at-home students just as businesses have learned to deliver services with work-at-home employees.

I think the real threat for teachers is as follows. When I went to medical school one hour of lecture time was spent on the anatomy of the hand. This occurred each year in all 100 or so US medical schools. However, the anatomy of the hand hasn't changed much recently. It would be very easy to record 10-20 professors one year at various schools. Let students choose which lecture they wanted to watch. Pretty soon, students will opt for the top 3-5 lecturers. Next year, don't have any live lectures only last year's recorded ones. Annual cost savings, approximately 150 hours per year of anatomy professor time (30 min prep). Select 15 anatomy lectures and the US saves one FTE of anatomy professor time. There are many lectures around the country that would fit this model. Are professors ready to compete to have their lectures "chosen" nationally by students? If not, get ready because that's where we're probably going.

12. gd_sam - May 13, 2010 at 09:09 am

There are currently already online college credit courses available, all of which have been accredited or recognized.

The University of California is taking a much-needed step that other "elite" universities will also eventually take. One of the biggest challenges will be ensuring that each course is high-quality and that the professors are properly trained and prepared to teach online.

13. 212944 - May 19, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Anyone who seriously believes online education is inherently less rigorous than face-to-face instruction is either uninformed or fooling him/herself. Designed well, an online course can be just as rigorous, rich and interactive as face-to-face instruction in most subject areas.

However, the key phrase is "designed well." That takes resources, including buyout of faculty time for training, hiring enough qualified faculty to keep sections to a reasonable student-to-faculty ratio (which should be much lower that the 80+ large lecture face-to-face courses we see now on most campuses), strong instructional design support and strong student service support. And I am not even talking about the technology costs.

UCal is finally seeing the future of education. The physical campuses will not disappear. Most students will actually combine face-to-face courses with online courses toward their degree. Students will continuing to advise one another about which faculty are poor at teaching, regardless of where and how they teach.

The big difference is students are expecting online to be an option now. And if it is not, they will (and already are) enrolling elsewhere.

If UCal is serious, this won't really save money. But it may very well save the system.

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