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U. of California Readies Its For-Credit Online-Course Venture

The University of California has begun to ask faculty to design and teach online courses for a pilot program that could pave the way for widespread Web offerings at the state’s most-selective public institutions.

But that doesn’t mean the UC system is ready to adopt a much-anticipated and already-controversial online degree program just yet.

The UC Online Instruction Pilot Project, run out of the university’s Office of the President, announced on Wednesday that it is looking for 25 faculty volunteers across the system’s 10 campuses to develop and teach online courses in the 2011-12 academic year. Participants will be chosen by a faculty-appointed review committee in January, and will work with Web developers and other university faculty members over the course of the pilot project. “We’re really looking for a coalition of the willing,” said Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning. “We’re asking people to work in a common environment.”

Although the university now offers noncredit online instruction, the 25 pilot courses will offer UC credit and require the approval of the Academic Senate. The courses will be evaluated by faculty members as they are being developed and taught to determine how online instruction can be incorporated into the university’s course offerings. The faculty members will be looking especially at the quality and cost of online instruction as well as faculty workload. According to Mr. Greenstein, the central question is, “Can you actually deliver education affordably online?”

The university’s announcement comes a little more than a week after the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, which advises the State Legislature, came out in support of online classes within the UC system as a way to improve access and reduce costs in the face of an expected increase in enrollment.

According to Mr. Greenstein, building up the university’s Web offerings may be one way of dealing with a growing student body at UC campuses—but it won’t be an end-all solution.

“This problem of scale is not a new problem, and we’ve been innovating to deal with it for the past two generations,” he said. Online education is just “one of the many solutions that we’re going to need to explore.”

Mr. Greenstein sees Web education as a supplement to existing programs that will allow the university to stretch its resources. The pilot program will, for instance, focus on lower-level “gateway courses”—prerequisites taken en masse by incoming students—to free up space and faculty time for higher-level courses.

“We’ll be judged on the extent that we’ll be able to cater to the top 10 or 12 percent of California high-school graduates,” both online and in the classroom, Mr. Greenstein said, not just on the number of Web courses.

Since the pilot program was announced over the summer, Mr. Greenstein said he has heard from faculty members on all sides of the issue, including many who are skeptical that online education could ever compare to classroom learning. But that skepticism is what’s driving the pilot project.

“Let’s put some more data under what could be an ideological discussion,” he said. “It’s a challenging discussion, but it ought to be a very interesting one.”

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