U. of California Considers Online Classes, or Even Degrees

Proposal for virtual courses challenges beliefs about what an elite university is—and isn't

May 09, 2010

Online education is booming, but not at elite universities—at least not when it comes to courses for credit.

Leaders at the University of California want to break that mold. This fall they hope to put $5-million to $6-million into a pilot project that could clear the way for the system to offer online undergraduate degrees and push distance learning further into the mainstream.

The vision is UC's most ambitious—and controversial—effort to reshape itself after cuts in public financial support have left the esteemed system in crisis.

Supporters of the plan believe online degrees will make money, expand the number of California students who can enroll, and re-establish the system's reputation as an innovator.

"Somebody is going to figure out how to deliver online education for credit and for degrees in the quality sector—i.e., in the elite sector," said Christopher Edley Jr., dean at Berkeley's law school and the plan's most prominent advocate. "I think it ought to be us—not MIT, not Columbia, not Caltech, certainly not Stanford."

But UC's ambitions face a series of obstacles. The system has been slow to adopt online instruction despite its deep connections to Silicon Valley. Professors hold unusually tight control over the curriculum, and many consider online education a poor substitute for direct classroom contact. As a result, courses could take years to gain approval.

The University of California's decision to begin its effort with a pilot research project has also raised eyebrows. The goal is to determine whether online courses can be delivered at selective-research-university standards.

Yet plenty of universities have offered online options for years, and more than 4.6 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall-2008 term, notes A. Frank Mayadas, a senior adviser at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation who is considered one of the fathers of online learning.

"It's like doing experiments to see if the car is really better than the horse in 1925, when everyone else is out there driving cars," he said.

If the project stumbles, it could dilute UC's brand and worsen already testy relations between professors and the system's president, Mark G. Yudof.

As the system studies whether it can offer quality classes online, the bigger question might be this: Is California's flagship university system innovative enough to pull online off?

Going Big

The proposal comes at a key moment for the University of California system, which is in the midst of a wrenching internal discussion about how best to adapt to reduced state support over the long term. Measures to weather its immediate financial crisis, such as reduced enrollment, furloughs for staff and faculty members, and sharply rising tuition, are seen as either temporary or unsustainable.

Administrators hope the online plan will ultimately expand revenue and access for students at the same time. But the plan starts with a relatively modest experiment that aims to create online versions of roughly 25 high-demand lower-level "gateway courses." A preliminary list includes such staples as Calculus 1 and Freshman Composition.

UC hopes to put out a request for proposals in the fall, says Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning, programs, and coordination. Professors will compete for grants to build the classes, deliver them to students, and participate in evaluating them. Courses might be taught as soon as 2011. So, for a current undergraduate, that could mean the option to choose between online and face-to-face versions of, say, Psychology 1.

The university plans to spend about $250,000 on each course. It hopes to raise the money from external sources like foundations or major donors. Nobody will be required to participate—"that's death," Mr. Greenstein said—and faculty committees at each campus will need to approve each course.

Building a collection of online classes could help alleviate bottlenecks and speed up students' paths to graduation. But 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, a bachelor's degree.

Mr. Edley believes demand for degrees would be "basically unlimited." In a wide-ranging speech at Berkeley last month, Mr. Edley, who is also a top adviser to Mr. Yudof, described how thousands of new students would bring new money to the system and support the hiring of faculty members. In the long term, he said, online degrees could accomplish something bigger: the democratization of access to elite education.

"In a way it's kind of radical—it's kind of destabilizing the mechanisms by which we produce the elite in our society," he told a packed room of staff and faculty members. "If suddenly you're letting a lot of people get access to elite credentials, it's going to be interesting."

'Pie in the Sky'

But even as Mr. Edley spoke, several audience members whispered their disapproval. His eagerness to reshape the university is seen by many faculty members as either naïve or dangerous.

Mr. Edley acknowledges that he gets under people's skin: "I'm not good at doing the faculty politics thing. ... So much of what I'm trying to do they get in the way of."

Suzanne Guerlac, a professor of French at Berkeley, found Mr. Edley's talk "infuriating." Offering full online degrees would undermine the quality of undergraduate instruction, she said, by reducing the opportunity for students to learn directly from research faculty members.

"It's access to what?" asked Ms. Guerlac. "It's not access to UC, and that's got to be made clear."

Kristie A. Boering, an associate professor of chemistry who chairs Berkeley's course-approval committee, said she supported the pilot project. But she rejected arguments from Mr. Edley and others that faculty members are moving too slowly. Claims that online courses could reap profits or match the quality of existing lecture courses must be carefully weighed, she said.

"Anybody who has at least a college degree is going to say, Let's look at the facts. Let's be a little skeptical here," she said. "Because that's a little pie-in-the-sky."

Existing research into the strength of online programs cannot simply be applied to UC, she added, objecting to an oft-cited 2009 U.S. Education Department analysis that reported that "on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction."

"I'm sorry: I've read that report. It's statistically fuzzy, and there's only something like four courses from a research university," she said. "I don't think that's relevant for us."

But there's also strong enthusiasm among some professors in the system, including those who have taught its existing online classes. One potential benefit is that having online classes could enable the system to use its resources more effectively, freeing up time for faculty research, said Keith R. Williams, a senior lecturer in exercise biology at the Davis campus and chair of the UC Academic Senate's committee on educational policy, who stressed that he was speaking as a faculty member, not on behalf of the Senate. "We're supportive, from the faculty perspective, of looking into this in a more detailed way," he said.

A National Context

While the University of California plans and looks, other public universities have already acted. At the University of Central Florida, for example, more than half of the 53,500 students already take at least one online course each year. Pennsylvania State University, the University of Texas, and the University of Massachusetts all enroll large numbers of online students.

UC itself enrolls tens of thousands of students online each year, but its campuses have mostly limited those courses to graduate and extension programs that fully enrolled undergraduates do not typically take for credit. "Pretty pathetic," is how Mr. Mayadas described California's online efforts. "The UC system has been a zilch."

But the system's proposed focus on for-credit courses for undergraduates actually stands out when compared with other leading institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale University. Both have attracted attention for making their course materials available free online, but neither institution offers credit to people who study those materials.

Mr. Mayadas praised UC's online move as a positive step that will "put some heat on the other top universities to re-evaluate what they have or have not done."

Over all, the "quality sector" in higher education has failed "to take its responsibility seriously to expand itself to meet the national need," Mr. Greenstein said, dismissing elites' online offerings as "eye candy."

In what he called a "first-mover problem," elite public universities have resisted following a trend associated with community colleges and for-profit institutions.

"A move online could be seen as an admission that you're moving downscale," he said. "Nobody wants to move downscale in this viciously competitive environment."

But the class of universities moving online is creeping increasingly upscale. In April, Cornell University's online subsidiary—a for-profit venture that began about a decade ago and offers noncredit certificates aimed at professional development—announced that for the first time one of its programs would come with Cornell credits that could be applied to other degrees.

That came as the University of Southern California announced it would create a virtual version of its highly ranked master's program in social work. And Jack Welch, former chief executive of General Electric, hopes to spruce up the for-profit sector with a new online M.B.A. program at Chancellor University.

But these are all niche graduate programs. UC faces a potentially harder challenge in gaining approval for core undergraduate courses.

Even Mr. Edley isn't sure the project can be pulled off.

"What I fear," he said, "is that the coalition of the willing among frontline faculty who would like to pursue this idea will be stopped dead in their tracks by the bureaucracy."