The Senate Source

March 2012

 

Concerns about Online Education Project

Prompt Senate to Appoint Blue Ribbon Panel

Some see UCOE charting its own course 

 

UCOP is moving ahead with “Wave II” of the UC Online Instruction Pilot Project (OIPP). It recently solicited letters of intent for the development of additional online courses, despite lingering faculty concerns about the project, and against the advice of the Academic Council and a Senate Advisory Council to slow down.

 

The ongoing concerns prompted the Academic Council to establish a Blue Ribbon Panel to gauge the academic effectiveness of OIPP courses and to monitor the evaluation of the project by the UC Educational Evaluation Center at UC Santa Barbara.

 

Many faculty are confused by the different aspects of the online education effort. OIPP is a UCOP-sponsored project, which will assess the effectiveness of online undergraduate courses geared to UC students. It is related to, but distinct from, the UC Online Education project (UCOE), which is intended to offer online courses to a broader audience of both UC and non-UC students beginning in Fall 2012.

 

Senate Chair Robert Anderson says UCOP’s decision to move to Wave II was contrary to the Senate’s advice in May 2011 to delay the development of new courses until the initial courses had been evaluated. “The Senate is now in a position of helping UCOP do a better job at something it opposed,” he said. “But the Senate believes it is important to remain engaged in the process and to continue monitoring the development of the project closely. UCOP is doing a better job as a result of Senate involvement, but there remain questions and considerable skepticism about UCOE’s constantly evolving focus, goals, and revenue projections.”

 

Many faculty on Senate committees and the Academic Council have expressed doubts about the direction and goals of the project. Their concerns include the UCOE financial model, which relies on attracting significant numbers of non-matriculated students to repay a loan that is financing the development of the courses and the operation of UCOE and generate new revenue. Some faculty also worry that UCOE will benefit only those students who can afford to pay up to $1,400 per course, the fee UCOE expects to charge non-matriculated students. And because UC students will not pay extra to take a UCOE course, they fear that departments will have an incentive to create sections that enroll only non-matriculated students, or perhaps to accept students without appropriate prerequisites. There is also concern that large numbers of non-matriculated students in a course will diminish the educational experience for UC students. Some fear that UCOE could usurp the traditional role of faculty to oversee curriculum and dilute the opportunity students currently have for one-on-one interaction with professors and students, which are hard to replicate online.

 

A total of 24 courses are being developed for the Pilot by UC faculty from all nine undergraduate campuses, representing a variety of topics in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In January, a UC Merced pre-calculus course became the first class offered to UC students through OIPP, and five courses will be offered this April for the spring quarter. UCOP recently asked for Letters of Intent from faculty interested in developing large-enrollment lower-division online courses for Wave II, which will be delivered to both UC and non-UC students via a common technology platform.

 

The Academic Council endorsed the Pilot Project in May 2010 with the caveat that it be funded externally; however, UCOP was unable to secure enough grant support to fund the estimated cost of the project, and is instead financing the bulk of the program with $7 million borrowed through UC’s commercial paper program.  It intends to  pay back with revenues generated by the online courses. This borrowing plan, along with the other concerns, prompted the Academic Council to request the appointment of the Blue Ribbon Panel.

 

A joint faculty-administration Online Advisory Committee is providing input into the project, and the University Committee on Educational Policy (UCEP), Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), and other Senate entities are considering Senate and administrative polices and regulations for UCOE related to eligibility, admissions, and course approval, as well as how, and the extent to which, UC and non-matriculated students will be enrolled in the same sections of UCOE courses.

 

UCOE recently signed a $4 million eighteen month contract with Blackboard, Inc. to provide recruitment and other services for the non-matriculated students who will enroll in UCOE courses, and is exploring a relationship with Fidelis, Inc., a for-profit start-up that wishes to partner in marketing online courses to current and former military personnel. 

 

Chair Anderson says the Academic Council remains very concerned about some of the underlying premises behind the UCOE business plan, as well as the possibility of harmful unintended consequences. “It is still unclear to the Council why students wanting to transfer to UC would not instead take a much cheaper gateway course being offered in the community college system,” he said. “In addition, since only the Merced course is being offered right now, we will not have a significant amount of evaluation data available in time for Wave II. Council is also concerned that checking the prerequisites of non-matriculated UCOE students, especially international nonresidents, may strain departments unless additional resources are provided.” 

 

The consultation process, adds Chair Anderson, “has been quite frustrating.”

 

UC Davis faculty member Keith Williams, who is former UCEP chair and current Academic Associate to Vice Provost for Academic Planning Daniel Greenstein, is advising UCOP about academic aspects of the project, including curriculum development, course design, and Senate course review. He says that before the University can offer any online course beyond its campus of origin, UC needs to define an administrative and policy structure and process to facilitate registration and enrollment. Parts of this effort directly involve the Senate and require Senate approval.

 

Williams says organizers hope the Senate will approve the most crucial policies by May 2012 to allow UC time to market the courses and enroll non-matriculated students in fall 2012. UCOE has also requested that the Senate approve the policies provisionally, to allow UCOE to reexamine them after a year’s experience. He says UCOE hopes to establish provisional policies for the enrollment of non-matriculated students in UCOE courses that closely parallel existing divisional processes, are consistent with governance practices of the Senate, and will become the basis for permanent policies. “Most are adaptations of existing policies that apply either to campus programs or divisional senates, including those currently used for summer session,” he said. “Some will require careful thought about how to adapt them to non-matriculated students. UCOE students are being ‘admitted’ to individual courses only, not to a program, a major, or to UC. We are not trying to reinvent processes, just adapt existing ones to this program. We have much to learn about offering systemwide courses through this new structure.”

 

UC Riverside Professor and UCEP Chair Jose Wudka says protecting the rights and privileges of UC students and the quality of their education will be UCEP’s main goal in its review of the proposed structure. “The Senate will keep at the core of its deliberations with UCOE proponents the quality of education that we provide to our students,” he said. “We will, of course, work with UCOE to ensure that the enrollment of non-matriculated students does not degrade the undergraduate experience, but we are also eager to find ways to improve our quality of education through online and systemwide courses.”

 

Senate Chair Anderson has asked UCEP and BOARS to look closely at the UCOE marketing materials being provided to non-UC students to avoid unintentional suggestions of an admissions benefit that does not exist. He has also urged UCOP to proceed with caution as it negotiates a potential partnership agreement with entities like Fidelis.

 

“We support efforts to expand educational opportunities for current and former military personnel,” he said. “But we need to be sure that UCOE partners are offering prospective students good advice in making their educational choices and that their marketing claims are factually accurate. We are particularly concerned that partners not suggest that enrollment in UCOE courses is a form of admission to UC.”” 

 

The Blue Ribbon Panel will report to both UCEP and the Academic Council. It includes faculty with expertise in learning assessment and online learning. Its charge includes reviewing how different online course designs affect educational quality and whether OIPP’s structure, course development methodology, courses, and resources are sufficient to meet the project’s stated goals of measuring the effectiveness of non-traditional instructional methods. In addition, the Panel will review whether the conclusions of the self-study can be used as guiding principles for large-scale offerings of non-traditional courses at UC. The Blue Ribbon Panel is expected to report to UCEP and CCGA . In turn, those committees will report on the progress and findings of the Panel and make recommendations to the Academic Council.

 

Wudka says UCEP recommended the formation of the Panel because it felt that OIPP would benefit from having the Senate review the in-house evaluation. “UCEP realizes the potential of online education, but is also very aware of the need to determine whether this potential is consistent with the quality of education expected at the UC. The Panel will provide independent evidence of the strengths and weaknesses of the project, and will reinforce the former and hopefully provide alternatives for dealing with the latter.”

 

Williams is optimistic about the potential of online education and the UCOE project. “Online education can extend educational alternatives to UC students and increase access to UC-level classes for non-matriculated students, while simultaneously generating revenue to help departments address declining state support,” he said. “Online courses can innovate how a subject is taught and provide flexibility for different learning styles. UCOE courses emphasize a strong instructor presence and encourage student-faculty and student-to-student engagement, so that the best aspects of in-person courses continue in the online environment. The courses and project will receive a thorough evaluation so we can learn more about what does and does not work, and, through feedback and revisions, ensure the effectiveness of the courses being developed.”

 

UCSC Professor of Environmental Studies Brent Haddad teaches Introduction to Fresh Water: Processes and Policy, one of the courses approved for the pilot project that could launch as early as this spring. He said he hopes UCOE will help him reach a wider audience with his teaching, since water policy and management questions are important world-wide. He also says developing the course has been more demanding than he expected.

 

“The in-person lecture format is more forgiving, since one can supplement lecture notes with recollections and momentary inspiration,” he said. “In the online world, it all has to be laid out in advance. There also is a big opportunity to integrate visual aids, datasets, definitions of terms, and visits to other websites, which is time consuming to create and will be time consuming to maintain. The overall course content will be roughly double what my equivalent lecture course provides, which raises the challenge of directing students to the content that matters the most. There have also been a series of technical challenges trying to figure out how online live lectures will proceed (at this point, I'll be able to speak to the class and students will write questions and comments that will be visible to all); how students will show their work when writing out math problems; how submitted answers to questions will flow from the students' online environment to the grader's online environment, with comments and scores going back to the student and grades being entered into the spreadsheet; and how we will integrate images, video, datasets, and text, and bounce between the online world we are creating and the outside world.”

 

Vice Provost Greenstein says UCOE has the potential to improve time to degree, broaden access, and bring new tuition revenue into departments. He points to market research showing evidence of a large number of non-matriculated students who would be willing to pay up to $1,400 to take a four-unit lower division UCOE course for credit and who are academically similar to current UC students. The funds expected through enrollment of non-matriculated students will pay off the loan, he said. They will support UCOE, as well as the faculty and departments who get funds back for each non-matriculated student enrolled. The new revenue could help support graduate students and even cover the cost of the instructor of record. He says UCOE will offer all Senate-approved lower-division online courses to both UC and non-matriculated students during regular and summer terms. UCOE will pay departments a fee to develop each course, a royalty to the course author each time it is offered, and compensation for each non-matriculated student enrolled in the course. He says departments will determine how often to repeat the courses, and that UCOP will not retain any profit resulting from offering the courses. As with regular courses, campuses will apply varying teaching models for UCOE courses, employing either TAs or GSIs. The project hopes to achieve 3,700 non-matriculated student course enrollments in 2012-13, growing to 8,000 over five years.

 

As for why non-matriculated students will choose a UCOE course over one offered at a Community College or for-profit provider, Greenstein says quality will give UC an advantage in the market. “UC’s competitors develop their online courses through set formulas, but UCOE is encouraging a high touch instructional model with high level of instructor presence and asking departments to define what it takes to offer an effective course,” he said. “UCOE thinks the effect will be a higher level of instructor contact, student engagement, and better courses.”

Greenstein acknowledges that making UCOE courses affordable and accessible to low income students will be challenging in the short run. He said most UCOE courses will be lower division, and the reality is that one-on-one student-instructor interaction is becoming increasingly rare at the lower division level. “UCOE will provide opportunities to leverage the social nature of the Web to actually increase interactions above what happens in a big lecture class,” he said. “And the university is the ideal place to experiment with new modes of instruction.”

 

Professor Haddad says many regular UC courses are nearly online already, and that many faculty have so many resources available to students online that the students can do well in the class without the in-person experience. “Any time a student chooses not to attend lecture, they are treating their course as if it is an online course,” he said. “This is simply formalizing a behavior we are already experiencing and then utilizing the available technologies to generate the best learning environment.”

 

Haddad agrees that the online format creates both challenges and opportunities, including a new model for how to respectfully and thoughtfully engage controversial topics. 

 

“Sometimes in lecture, an opportunity arises to discuss an important issue that has people focused and upset — for example, affirmative action/UC enrollment practices, and bioethics/treatment and use of laboratory animals. In a classroom, students benefit from observing the faculty member’s efforts to think out loud and carefully choose words that accurately state their analysis and conclusions on the topic. There is a cushion of forgiveness since the exchange is oral, and the professor may not get it exactly right on the spot. The context is the trust relationship and expectations that have been built between the students and the professor throughout the quarter or semester. In the predominantly written world of online courses, there is a much higher expectation of accuracy. After all, it's in writing. It is a less forgiving environment to present partially- or even mostly-thought-out ideas, even when they are noted as such.”

 

 

Vice Provost Greenstein and Professor Williams have extended an offer to travel to campuses to meet with Senate faculty who wish to discuss the project and any concerns they may have. OIPP also offers a series of webinars on different topics related to the project, and the OIPP website includes an archive of past webinars.

(http://onlineeducation.universityofcalifornia.edu/events/webinar-series

Keith Williams

              Keith Williams