The fire that had kindled the push for online education in California public universities is cooling off, following recent remarks by various University of California officials.
At an event held by the Public Policy Institute of California last month, UC President Janet Napolitano said online education is a “tool for the toolbox,” not a “silver bullet” for the University’s funding program as it once looked.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block warned against online education in an op-ed published in the Sacramento Bee late March, saying that it may create a “digital divide” between low-income students who can’t afford a brick-and-mortar education and students who can.
Block said when low-income students are forced into online degree programs as the only affordable option, they may not receive benefits of a conventional on-campus education.
Such remarks represent a shift in attitude from former UC President Mark Yudof, who repeatedly championed online education as a way to save money and once called for about 10 percent of classes to be shifted online.
In previous UC Board of Regents meetings, Gov. Jerry Brown, an ex officio regent, also pressed the board to adopt more purely online courses with no face-to-face interaction to save costs.
Regent Bonnie Reiss remarked in past meetings that future transfer students can take remedial classes online, although Napolitano said remedial students often need teachers working in the classroom with them.
But not all regents have been as enthusiastic. Provost Aimée Dorr said at January’s regents meeting that given what she has seen so far, she thinks a purely online class is not practical.
A situation that developed at San José State University last year has also alerted many leaders about the potential shortfalls of online education.
San José State University cooperated with Udacity, a major for-profit online education platform, to create three for-credit online mathematics courses in the 2013 spring semester. The cooperation was halted in the summer of 2013 after the program’s courses had pass rates lower than about 50 percent.
Mike Uhlenkamp, a California State University spokesman, said despite the lack of success, SJSU’s experiment with a purely online education was a worthwhile one.
“We want … an online course as close as possible to a face-to-face learning (environment),” Uhlenkamp said. “It didn’t give the result we hoped for but it gave metrics that we can apply to other areas.”
Uhlenkamp also said Cal State is expecting more than 200 students this spring quarter for its CourseMatch program, which offers cross-campus enrollment in online courses for Cal State students.
Dean Florez, a former state senator and president at Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to bring higher education into the digital age, said the challenge for online education is incorporating more interaction into an online course.
“Online doesn’t have to be a camera in the back of the room filming lectures,” Florez said. “New online (education) is really an interactive process.”
Brian Linard, a computer science lecturer at UC Riverside who teaches courses online as well, said having instructors involved in online education is effective but takes a lot of work for an instructor. He said he had to deal with 800 posts in the online forum for his course in just the first week of this quarter.
“In the first week, all students have to get up to speed in a lot of technology,” Linard said. “It takes a lot of hand-holding.”
Linard estimated he is putting about 15 to 20 percent more time into an online class compared to a physical class with the equivalent number of students. Furthermore, dealing with UC Online Education and its different administrative processes makes his job more difficult, Linard said.
Students have expressed mixed opinions about online education at the UC.
Jeylee Quiroz, a third-year political science student, said while there is a possibility of an online divide between low-income and high-income students, she doesn’t think there would be a noticeable divide if both online and physical courses were to be offered at the same price.
“If online classes cost $2,000 and physical classes cost $5,000, it would create a divide,” Quiroz said. “I don’t know if it will be the sufficient divide as we see it (now).”
Currently, there is no fee difference between online classes and physical classes. However, students may pay additional course material fee charged by the campus hosting the online course.
Elizabeth Grover, a fourth-year psychobiology student, said while being able to cross-enroll in online classes from other campuses in the UC system is good, she still thinks required classes should be taken physically at UCLA. She added online courses often encourage the potential to get distracted.
“In a lecture hall, I try not to be on my phone and try to pay attention,” Grover said. “When I watch a podcast at home, I’ll have it on but I’ll be doing a lot of other things.”
Despite officials expressing a more tempered approach to online education and mixed reactions from students, the UC is continuing its efforts.
Using the $10 million in state funding it received last year specifically for online education, the UC has offered 21 system-wide online undergraduate classes in the 2013-2014 academic year.
More than a thousand students signed up for those classes at the beginning of the winter quarter, UC spokeswoman Shelly Meron. She added the UC is using online education to supplement, not replace, traditional education.
Yet, in Brown’s most recent proposed budget, the UC would not receive any funding specifically designated for online education like it did last year.
Meron said despite the lack of funding specified in the proposal, the UC is continuing to evaluate its online education program, adding that the budget process for this year is ongoing.