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UC proposes plan to grow online curriculum

University of California undergraduates would have dozens of rigorous new online courses to choose from over the next few years, under an initiative proposed by UC leaders that would give students greater flexibility in progressing through their studies.

Gov. Jerry Brown has earmarked $10 million of his proposed UC budget to use technology to increase access to high-demand courses for UC students. Under a plan developed by UC faculty and administrators, the university would use those funds to develop a robust inventory of courses that could be offered across the system.

The initiative responds to a growing public interest in exploring online education as an avenue for accommodating rising enrollment, while being careful to ensure that new technologies are used in a way that advances rather than diminishes student learning.

Building on existing base

"We are not starting from scratch here," said Bill Jacob, vice chair of the UC Academic Senate. Altogether, UC campuses offer more than 250 online courses to their students, including undergraduate, graduate and summer offerings (although only summer session courses are routinely and conveniently available across all campuses). Many more courses use Internet-based tools as part of hybrid classroom instruction.

"We are always looking for new ways to engage our students, and to the extent that this can be a powerful tool for advancing learning, many of our faculty have been eager to use it," Jacob said.

Crafted with input from students, faculty and campus leadership, the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative (ILTI) would give faculty broad latitude to propose and develop courses, but would require that classes be offered on multiple campuses for multiple years and have the backing of their departments and divisions.

Based on a competitive review process, ILTI will award faculty funds, and technical and infrastructure support to develop courses in high-demand subjects, particularly those which fill quickly and are required for undergraduates to meet general education requirements or move on to more advanced coursework. Proposals can encompass both fully and partially online — also known as hybrid — instruction.

Without mandating specifics, ILTI will prioritize development of classes in areas where students are likely to be best served by having an alternative, online option — whether that be introductory and prerequisite classes, or popular upper division courses that often are oversubscribed.

Broadening course access

UC is distinct from California's other public universities, which face serious challenges in their ability to give students timely access to the classes they need to graduate. The majority of UC students graduate in four years, and undergraduates report continued satisfaction with their ability to get the classes they need.

Still, there are areas of the curriculum where offering students a fully or partially online option could accommodate a greater number of students or make it easier for them to get the classes they want. 

"We are not taking a cookie-cutter approach," said UC Provost Aimée Dorr. "ILTI is grounded in the priorities of faculty in determining how best to teach their students, and the campuses in defining the areas of greatest need."

The plan also calls for the creation of a hub that would facilitate exchange of student data across campuses, with the aim of piloting some cross-campus enrollment before the end of the 2013-14 school year. The initiative also will develop a centralized listing of online courses that will make it easy for students to see what and when classes are available, and what requirements each course would fulfill for them.

Officials stressed that developing the program as planned depends upon secure funding from the state.

They also cautioned that UC would oppose legislation that mandates development of specific courses or partnerships with outside providers.

"This is based on a coalition of the willing. No instructor will be required to teach an online course, nor will any student be required to take one," said Jacob. "This has to be a program to develop, design and implement these courses in a way that students and faculty are proud to have been part of."