The online-learning challenge

Is it about making money or making education free?


CAREERS AND ED Mixing, mashing, chatting, tweeting: This is how the University of California envisions the future of learning for what it calls a new breed of students. Also on the syllabus? Podcasting, vodcasting, blogging, and Skype.

Last week, UC was awarded a $750,000 Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, moving it one step closer to a curriculum composed of words that barely existed a decade ago. But some fear — with good reason — that online education will become a low-cost, high-return alternative to traditional instruction. And the students will be the losers.

UC's Online Instruction Pilot Program grew out of recommendations to explore online learning discussed by the UC Commission on the Future over the past two years. This spring, a subcommittee of faculty and administrators selected 29 courses to be developed over the next two years.

The pilot program is a long-term initiative to evaluate and ultimately increase the role of online education as a regular part of the UC curriculum — a chance to respond, according to the program's website, to a "transformation" in the way students learn.

The commission promotes online learning as a boon without trade-offs, a way of answering questions of accessibility, efficiency, and, ultimately, costs — and is not shy about outlining the relationship between the three. Chartered to help wiggle UC out of a "vise of rising costs and drastically reduced resources," the commission is proposing sweeping changes to California's public university system.



UC envisions a greater number of students served and increased diversity, "from Kentucky to Kuala Lampur," according to Law School Dean Chris Edley, cochair of the commission's Education and Curriculum Working Group.

Edley, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of digital learning, initially referred to online education as an 11th UC campus, promising it would offer an equivalent college experience — minus only the "keg party."

Critics were quick to condemn the plan as overblown excitement. Concerned undergraduates and skeptical faculty raised questions about the quality of online learning. Angry graduate student instructors (understandably) balked at Edley's grandiose vision of a cybercampus where "squadrons of GSIs" will serve on the "frontline of online contact" with undergraduates.

Political science professor Wendy Brown is one of the leading critics. "Personal engagement with students is crucial," she told us in a phone interview. "Real teachers don't just teach subject matter. You have to know students and where their experience and level of engagement is. I don't want them just to come out with content — I want them to come out as thinkers ... have a new way to analyze the world."

Brown said she believes that acclimating to the intellectual culture of a university — especially important in the first year — can't be achieved online. Yet first-year courses are exactly where administrators are looking to channel online efforts.

Administrators hope to relieve pressure on overcrowded gateway math and science courses, as well as freshman reading and composition. As many as 40 percent of first-year students test out of their first semester of reading and composition, indicating that the students remaining are those most in need of attention. Even so, a generous smattering of general chemistry, intro calculus, and reading and composition classes like Humanities 1A are among the pilot courses moving forward.

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