Online Education: Proceed With Caution

Online education is an emerging issue at the University of California, with Gov. Jerry Brown and UC leadership strongly in support of moving some portion of a UC education online. At the last UC Board of Regents meeting, online education was viewed as a potentially transformational development — the modernization of a higher education system that has looked largely the same for hundreds of years. The one voice of caution was me, the student regent.

Our conversation at the regents meeting failed to address the substantial differences between online education efforts currently under way at the university. Examining those differences provides a convenient way to articulate what students do and do not support and to illustrate where this university should spend the $10 million the governor has put in his proposed budget for the development of online education at the UC system.

Online education at the campus level — as it has been developed at UC Berkeley, UCLA and other UC campuses — has been geared first and foremost toward teaching students better. Instead of having 400 students sit in a lecture hall listening to a professor speak, for example, some classes at Berkeley now allow those 400 students to view the lecture online before coming to class and then use class time working in small groups with GSIs. Homework done online presents other interesting opportunities — educational software can immediately detect where a student is struggling and provide him with additional instruction, tips and customized follow-up assignments. Data on student performance can be sent to a professor so she can track in real time where content is being learned and where it is not.

This “blended learning” model of online education has been proven at the UC system and elsewhere to result in higher student test scores and higher completion rates. Developing the technologies that make blended learning possible won’t make teaching cheaper, but dramatically lower drop rates might save money in the future as fewer students have to repeat classes.

The intent of faculty members developing online education projects at Berkeley and other UC campuses is to supplement, not replace, the in-classroom experience. And their goal is better educational outcomes, not saving money (by lowering educational costs or firing GSIs) or making money (by selling Berkeley content to non-Berkeley students). The statewide student government of the university, the UC Student Association, recently issued a statement in support of online education of this kind. I support it as well.

Unfortunately, this is not the version of online education that was discussed at the regents meeting. What was discussed at the regents meeting was a hodgepodge of goals and ambitions. The university’s online efforts would: expose people across the world with no access to higher education institutions to the wonders of higher learning; enable high school students and community college students to take online classes for credit and thus arrive at the university with credits in their pockets; put 10 percent of every UC student’s education entirely online; put two years of a UC education entirely online; and enable the university to save money or make money in such enormous amounts that it would bridge that gap between what the governor can provide in state appropriations and what the university needs to be fully funded.

The discussion was not grounded in the good work of campus-based efforts. We are left not knowing the goals the UC Office of the President, the central administration of the university, has for online education. Will the university seek to save money by providing partially or fully online classes to students or make money by providing partially or fully online classes to non-UC students? Is there any reason to expect these goals are achievable, given that elite universities nationwide are putting classes online for free? Does the university have a business model, and should we have one before we begin to invest millions of dollars?

There are benefits to using online education to make the UC system more accessible, of course. It may enable differentlyabled students, students with dependents and students working full-time jobs to take classes at locations and at times that are convenient for them. If students can come to the university with a number of credits already earned, they can spend less time paying tuition. And it may democratize the world’s knowledge and expand the economic opportunities of millions for whom a college degree is out of reach.

But in order to realize these benefits, the university must first identify what its intentions are, what values will drive it, and what its business model is. Rushing ahead without these decisions in place would not be responsible. As the UC system tries to make these decisions, we should look to our campus-based online education efforts, where we may already have all the role models we need.


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