January 17, 2013

Jerry Brown carries the day on online classes at UC, CSU

Gov. Jerry Brown anticipated resistance when he announced his plan last week to pressure state colleges and universities to expand their online offerings and reduce costs.

SAN FRANCISCO – Gov. Jerry Brown anticipated resistance when he announced his plan last week to pressure state colleges and universities to expand their online offerings and reduce costs.

Yet as he traveled to the Bay Area on Tuesday and Wednesday to promote online education, he could hardly have had it easier.

One after another, California State University and University of California officials leaned into their microphones to thank the Democratic governor for the relatively favorable state budget he proposed – and to express their desire to educate more students online.

"Let me be clear that we believe that the University of California can meet the governor's challenge," UC President Mark Yudof said Wednesday at a meeting of the UC's governing board.

In a political victory for Brown, Yudof said that within two months he will announce an incentive program for UC professors to develop online classes, focusing on introductory and other high-enrollment courses that can be difficult to get into because they fill up quickly. UC will establish a system to let students on one campus take online courses at other campuses for credit, Yudof said, envisioning a day when 10 percent to 15 percent of all undergraduate courses are taken online.

If successful, the effort could result in a new class of online students treated similarly to those at community colleges, with the opportunity to transfer credits to a UC campus and enroll.

"The idea would be to create another entry point to the University of California," Yudof said.

Brown, who sits on the UC board but rarely participated in meetings until November, lingered with the regents for more than six hours Wednesday, and he planned to return when they reconvened today.

The meeting follows the announcement of a pilot program undertaken by San Jose State University and an online startup, Palo Alto-based Udacity Inc., to provide entry-level courses for credit online. In a room full of television cameras with Brown on Tuesday, CSU Chancellor Timothy White cheered "an important day in American higher education."

Lobbying the UC, however, was expected to be more difficult for Brown. The prestigious system is administered independently by the regents and is subject to only limited legislative oversight. Brown acknowledged last week that meetings with regents in November were not "as productive as I would like," and even Tuesday he said that compared to CSU, UC has more "tradition, for both good and bad."

One day later, Brown's assessment had improved.

"This was a very productive meeting," Brown said after talking with regents Wednesday. "And I think what was most impressive is how enthusiastic the regents are. They all want to jump in."

George Kieffer, a regent and Los Angeles lawyer, said of any perceived conflict between Brown and regents, "I don't see it. I see we're on the right direction now and pushing this."

The positive reaction Brown received may have to do with the preliminary nature of the proposals regents are considering. Christopher Edley, the dean of UC Berkeley's law school and a central figure in UC's existing efforts online, suggested UC may not be prepared to fully embrace Brown's vision.

"I'm not sure, governor, that UC – that the University of California system of governance – is up to the challenge of leading on this issue," Edley said. "Every day we see a couple of news accounts of other institutions that are being bolder and more innovative."

Proponents of online education believe online courses could expand access to higher education and reduce infrastructure costs in the long run.

Many faculty members have raised concerns about the quality of online education. Bob Samuels, president of University Council – American Federation of Teachers, which represents UC lecturers, said it is unclear what savings, if any, online education could achieve.

The focus on online learning "is a distraction from the real cost drivers," Samuels said, listing administrative and other costs among them.

Students, too, said they are wary of online learning. Jonathan Stein, the student regent on the UC board, said "no one has asked students if they're actually interested" in online education.

Students are supportive of online efforts to supplement in-class instruction, said Raquel Morales, president of the UC Student Association, but are skeptical of an online-only model.

Sherry Lansing, chairwoman of UC's governing board, characterized the university's interest in online education as an "exploration," and she asked people to "keep an open mind."

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