SACRAMENTO — The University of California's interest in offering an online degree is opening a new chapter in the debate over online education.
Many professors question whether the state's premier university system should tread so deeply into cyberspace, where other prestigious universities have failed and where some less selective colleges have thrived, sometimes with programs of questionable quality.
The professors are concerned that a virtual UC will waste limited resources, compromise the university's academic reputation and divert it from its primary mission of educating California's top students.
The plan's creator, Christopher Edley, dean of UC Berkeley's law school, says the opposite is true. He contends that the UC can maintain its rigor online and that doing so will allow the university to reach more of those stellar students at a lower cost.
"How do we provide access to UC quality when the state is not there for us and the student demand is growing? We need an alternative to the bricks-and-mortar model, and this may be it," said Edley, who also serves as an adviser to UC President Mark Yudof.
Edley acknowledges that his biggest hurdle is getting buy-in from the UC's academic senate, the formal voice of the faculty. That support is critical to any major changes.
Edley is kicking off the online initiative by raising $6 million from private donors to fund a pilot project. The money will be used to produce 25 to 40 online courses in subjects such as calculus, chemistry and freshman composition that typically draw huge enrollments at the lower-division level. Students at any of the UC's 10 campuses will be able to take the online classes, which may be available by spring. For the pilot, they'll pay the same as for regular classes.
Edley envisions steadily expanding the UC's Web presence: adding upper-division courses, then offering a bachelor's degree online, and eventually allowing people around the world to enroll in the virtual UC. Fees for an online degree, should one be created, have not been determined.
Making a degree available online would allow the UC to earn money that could be pumped back into the traditional campuses, Edley argues.
Expectations too lofty?
Not so fast, say many UC profs.
"Are we in the business of making money by selling services to nonstudents?" asked Dan Simmons, a UC Davis law professor who is vice chairman of the statewide academic senate. "People have created a set of expectations about the potential for online education that is not really there."
Even professors who support greater use of technology say the plan has flaws. Some like the idea of expanding online offerings, but don't think the UC should offer an online degree. Others think online curriculum should be developed and controlled by academic departments on each campus, not by the UC's statewide bureaucracy.
"I think they're looking for a one-size-fits-all model, and I don't think that's the way to go," said Cynthia Carter Ching, a UC Davis education professor.
Ching embraces online learning. She will teach an online class this spring and, before coming to Davis, taught two online classes at the University of Illinois.
In those classes, Ching and her students convened for an online lecture once a week using conferencing software. Each student took part from a computer that streamed audio and had a microphone for asking questions. Students also participated in online discussion boards where they read and posted comments about classwork.
Ching's classes were not part of Global Campus, an ambitious effort the University of Illinois launched a few years ago to create an entirely online program. It ultimately failed because of opposition from faculty and lack of interest from students.
In recent years, online learning has grown more common at U.S. colleges. In 2002, fewer than 10 percent of college students nationwide were enrolled in an online class, according to research by the Sloan Consortium. Six years later, that number had grown to more than 25 percent.
One student's view
But just because students take classes online doesn't mean they like them.
"Even with a good instructor who monitored and maintained all the online material, I'll never take an online class again," James Mouradian, a UC Davis student majoring in computer science, said in an e-mail interview. "The in-class lectures were a hundred times more valuable. You cannot ask questions to a computer and get meaningful answers."
That may just be a matter of using the right technology, say professors who teach online. Mouradian's online art history course involved logging in to watch a recorded lecture. There were no discussion boards or other formats for online interaction, he said.
UC Davis Professor Robert Blake uses live video chats to teach Spanish. The videoconferencing software allows students to break into small groups and practice language skills.
"We're dealing with students more and more who are very used to social computing. They're used to getting online and doing projects together," Blake said.
He is developing Arabic and Punjabi classes that will be available online to UC students across the state. Still, he's not sure the UC should rush into offering an online degree.
"Fortunately, the University of California has a governance structure that will allow the faculty to determine what is the appropriate way to mix these things," Blake said. "I trust my colleagues to put on the brakes at the right time and also stick their noses out and experiment."