The online-learning challenge - Page 2

Is it about making money or making education free?

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PHOTO BY JULIE ENG, CITY ON A HILL PRESS

Craig Evans, professor of mathematics and chair of the course committee for calculus, echoes Brown's concerns. "I don't think it's impossible to make this work, but I think it would be very, very difficult," he said. "Part of what we do as teachers is applied psychology, things like checking in with students and keeping up morale, in addition to teaching classical mathematics. It's hard to see how to convey that in an online course."

Robert Anderson, faculty representative to the Board of Regents and professor of economics and mathematics, agreed that there is "something important about being on campus for four years, rubbing shoulders with students and faculty."

And when short-term goals — taking pressure off overcrowded introductory courses — are met, what comes next?

The academic senate approved the pilot program on the condition that the necessary funding — as much as $7 million — come from outside sources. With the exception of the $750,000 NGLF grant, that money hasn't materialized. The university has borrowed money from internal sources; half of that will be directed toward infrastructure development, according to Anderson.

With money-saving rhetoric underlining every stage of the program's development and millions to be invested in online infrastructure, how will UC officials avoid the temptation to simply use online learning as a revenue source — regardless of what academic benefits pilot program researchers find?

 

CASH COWS

The answer is: they won't.

In a post on the Berkeley Blog last summer, Edley attempted to allay fears that an online program would eliminate campus learning by assuring that future online pupils would be "new, tuition-paying, UC-eligible students we otherwise wouldn't have the room or resources to serve. And any net revenue would be plowed back into supporting the on-campus program." In this model, off-campus students would be cash cows milked for the additional revenue they could produce.

Though the committee has delayed visions of an entirely online degree since then, crucial questions regarding a long-term trajectory remain: Would online students pay the same price? Would they be accepted exclusively for online matriculation? Would their degrees be identical?

Nobody knows, but already the pilot program is relying on projected revenue from off-campus students to help recoup some of the borrowed $7 million, according to Anderson.

Keith Williams, Edley's cochair on the commission's education and curriculum working group, confirmed that UC is planning to offer newly developed classes on a per-credit basis to students enrolled at UC and others.

According to Williams, these new courses will offer full course credit — and the full price tag. Pricing was made consistent with brick-and-mortar courses, Williams explained, to avoid causing UC students to make a tough decision: either pay full price for an on campus course or save money by taking a less desirable online course.

And yes, conveniently, offering the courses at full price does generate revenue to be reinvested. (Williams balked at the phrase "skimmed off the top.")

Now that the pilot program is underway, administrators are treading more lightly around its money-making intentions. But for a reminder of the project's origins, one need only look at the commission's recommendation to up enrollment quotas for nonresident students — a recommendation slated to be met next year.

The commission's final report explicitly calculates the amount of money ($12,000) that can be generated for each Californian replaced with a nonresident student, stating "each 1 percent increase in nonresident students would generate almost $1 million" — a dubious maneuver at a time when the university claims it must expand online education to meet the shortages of space for its own residents.

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