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Online education seen as key part of curriculum

The University of California will expand its credit-bearing, online courses for undergraduate students in the coming years with the aim of making them a more significant part of UC's lower-division curriculum.

At a meeting of the UC Board of Regents Wednesday (Jan. 16), UC President Mark G. Yudof described the university's current and planned efforts to build a larger catalog of online courses that could make up as much as 11 percent of the undergraduate curriculum over the next five years and would allow incoming freshmen to fulfill a portion of their lower-division coursework online.

"This is not the time to be timid," Yudof said. "The finances simply no longer exist to support instruction the way we've done it. The challenge is to be strong and thrive with the new fiscal and pedagogical realities."

Gov. Jerry Brown, who had initiated Wednesday's discussion on online education, echoed those sentiments.

"There's not a luxury of keeping on the current trajectory, unless you're looking at ever-rising tuition," he said

High quality, online classes that make innovative use of technology could give UC students new ways to learn while helping to alleviate bottlenecks in high-demand lower-division, or so-called gateway classes, Yudof said.

"We should think about the day — maybe five years from now — when maybe 10 or 15 percent of undergraduate courses are taken online. That would be a magnificent opportunity to educate more students and be more efficient. This is achievable; 100 courses might do it."

Yudof announced plans for a new incentive program to encourage faculty to develop online versions of high-demand courses. He also called for a UC-wide summit this spring to develop more specific goals and timetables for building a robust catalog of such courses.

Yudof's comments came at the outset of a wide-ranging discussion about online education that touched on a variety of goals and approaches.

Current state of online ed

UC provost Aimée Dorr outlined the university's current online course offerings and explained what UC is doing to expand online education across a number of platforms.

Nearly 2,600 fully-online courses have been offered across the university system with more than 90,000 students enrolled. These include three fully-online master's degree programs and 225 for-credit undergraduate courses offered mostly through summer session and extension programs. In addition, several UC campuses have developed massive open online courses (MOOCs) — free, non-credit courses.

Credit-bearing, lower-division courses available during the academic year have the potential to offer "the greatest benefit for the greatest number of students," Dorr said. So far, 27 such courses have been developed throughout the university, both through individual campuses and UC Online Education (UCOE), a systemwide program.

The university has created the infrastructure, institutional practices and course design frameworks that should make it faster and easier to develop more of these courses.

Dorr outlined what she called a "quite plausible example" for building on existing programs.

The proposal called for developing 158 courses within five years through UCOE and the campuses. Making such a catalog of courses available to students across all UC's undergraduate campuses could enable students to take about 8 to 10 percent of the courses needed for their degree online.

Assessing costs

UC officials estimate that such a project would cost $24 million over three years, including $10 million for course design and creation, $9 million for the technical and student support infrastructure and $5 million to enable the data-sharing required for cross-campus enrollment.

Representatives of edX, Coursera and Udacity — three of the leading providers of MOOCs — spoke briefly about their approaches and their partnerships with some UC campuses. They encouraged further conversation about how UC might engage more with these initiatives.

While acknowledging challenges, Brown said he was encouraged by the ideas put forth.

"This is tough stuff and we're not going to get it done in a day," he said. "But I'm excited about what we're talking about here. And I'm very impressed that UC is leading the way here. We're not there, but we're on the way."