Senate Source

May 2011


Online Pilot Gets New Funds Plan — and Questions


UCOP’s online education pilot project plan is moving forward, despite lingering Senate concerns about the goals of the project and a new financial model that relies on external borrowing and attracting significant numbers of non-UC students. The Academic Council recently issued a statement on the online pilot project and will continue its discussion of the implications of the new financial model at its meeting on May 25.


The Academic Council endorsed the pilot project in May 2010 with the caveat that it be funded externally. Although the Office of the President was able to secure a $748,000 grant from the Next Generation Learning Challenges grant (funded by the Gates and Hewlett foundations) and has other grant proposals either pending or in the pipeline, it has not been able to raise the full amount it estimates will be needed to fund the project. UC now plans to borrow up to $6.9M through its commercial paper program, which it expects to pay back with revenues generated by the online courses.


Senate Chair Simmons says the Academic Senate is not opposed to expanding online education. “We support the principle of using online education to expand access, and we applaud the notion that UC’s high standards will be applied to these courses,” he said. “All of the courses selected for the pilot project are examples of quality faculty bringing quality standards to innovative education, and it is likely that the Senate will approve them. However, we are concerned that the goals of the project are not clear, and that the revenue projections of the new funding model and the ability to pay back the loan depend on massive enrollments of non-UC students. Is the goal of the pilot project to increase access or to generate revenue? These goals require very different approaches.”  Simmons adds that “perhaps we should be focused on developing courses that will enhance the educational experience of UC students.”


The Academic Council has not yet taken a formal position on the new funding model. Chair Simmons says the Senate’s primary interest is to ensure that UC-level quality programs are produced. He believes the new finance model is plausible, although it may not fully anticipate all the costs inherent in the project, and may be overly optimistic about revenue potential. 


Some faculty are troubled that advocates of the project secured Senate support with predictions of $30M in outside funding that did not materialize, and by the evolving goals of the project. They fear that the funding model and the use of faculty and graduate students to teach non-UC students is a diversion of resources that could otherwise support existing programs that are struggling due to budget cuts. Faculty skeptics also point to the failed efforts of other institutions. For example, in 2008, the University of Illinois launched its Global Campus to much fanfare and similar claims about the potential of distance education to increase access to non-traditional students and generate much needed revenue. Global Campus was shut down less than two years later, after borrowing $7M from the University and attracting only a few hundred students.


At the April 27 meeting of the Academic Council, President Yudof noted that the Commission on the Future cited online education as a way to address the budget crisis. “I am looking for opportunities to enhance the financial position of the University and to strike a blow for access. I view this project as an investment. It may fail, but it could produce a substantial revenue stream and serve students who may be eligible for transfer. It’s worth a try, if done carefully. To not do it, will cede the opportunity to other universities and then that course will be precluded.”


Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Daniel Greenstein, who oversees the effort, says UCOP took the experiences of Illinois and other institutions into consideration. “Before launching this project, my staff and I surveyed a great many of the existing public and for-profit models of online education nationwide,” he said. “Acting on what we learned, we created a pilot project specifically designed to avoid the problems faced by other programs. For example, we have built the project so that it involves faculty at every step along the way – from course design to course approval and through the eventual evaluation of the project’s results.”

The 29 course proposals chosen for the project are in various stages of development. They were developed by UC faculty from all nine undergraduate campuses and represent a variety of topics in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, including Fresh Water Policy and Sustainable Water Engineering, Introductory Statistics, Classical Physics, Art, Science and Technology, and Ethics and Governance. Faculty will work with a specially formed team of instructional designers to develop the courses and put them on a common technology platform. Final implementation requires that each course complete the normal Senate review and approval process through campus Committees on Courses. Professor John Yun from the nationally-known and respected UC Educational Evaluation Center at UC Santa Barbara is overseeing the evaluation.


Vice Provost Greenstein emphasizes that the project is not a degree granting program, and is not intended to become an “11th campus.” He asserts that the original concept remains fundamentally unchanged from the proposal approved by the Senate, despite the change in funding sources. “The focus has always been a broad-based evaluation of the effectiveness of online instruction at UC,” says Greenstein, “offering core, high enrollment, lower-division courses that will be available to on-campus students as part of the regular curriculum with no extra charges and approved according to current procedures.” Greenstein says timing of the courses’ release depends on faculty’s own plans for course design and Senate approval, but that UCOP hopes to see the first few courses implemented by January 2012.


Organizers estimate that the program will break even when 5,400 non-UC students each take one course in a given year. Repayment of the $6.9M loan will be achieved when 7,100 students each take one course. Greenstein says these are not large numbers considering the number of students UC already serves online, estimates of the number of under-served students in California and other western states, initial market research, and the size of comparable efforts (e.g., summer sessions and UC Extension courses).


Further down the line, the courses will also be available to non-UC students, including community college students, for potential transfer and could become available worldwide for a fee. He says the loan made to the project with zero interest will be drawn upon only as required. He noted that his staff has identified several measurable milestones and “exit points” at which the project’s success will be reviewed. Further, any additional funds raised from third parties will mitigate the need to draw against the loan.


Greenstein says the project will assess which online technological tools work best to increase students’ learning capacity. “This is a research-based project that is examining whether and at what cost UC-quality online education can be effectively integrated into the curriculum of UC’s nine undergraduate campuses,” he says. “We expect the extensive data generated by this project will be analyzed by researchers to pinpoint how students learn most readily in the online setting.”


Greenstein notes that the project also provides an opportunity to build a common online learning infrastructure that can, foster resource sharing across campuses, and produce efficiencies in developing campus educational technology infrastructures. UCOP has initiated an RFP for a service provider to develop a common learning system environment.


On May 16, Chair Simmons, Vice Provost Greenstein, Dean Christopher Edley, UCPB Chair Jim Chalfant, and UCEP Chair David Kay will meet to identify technical and policy questions that are still pending. For example, there are questions about how systemwide courses may be approved for transfer credit. In November 2004, the Assembly amended Bylaws 170 and 180 and Regulation 544 to allow UCEP and CCGA to approve courses that have already been approved on the originating campus by the usual procedures as systemwide courses when they are offered on three or more campuses. The agenda item identified issues related to cross-campus registration, approval of courses for major or General Education credit, and teaching credit that remain unresolved. Other issues, such as selection processes for non-UC students, must be addressed before courses are offered beyond UC. Chair Simmons emphasizes that enrollment in online UC courses does not imply any guarantee of admission to UC for non-UC students.


In its review and endorsement of the project in May 2010, the University Committee on Educational Policy noted that the pilot is “a chance for UC to do what it does best – use a research-based model to investigate the level and means that online education can contribute most effectively to instruction at UC.”


Simmons agrees. “In the context of this budget crisis, faculty will have to step up and find new ways of offering a high level UC education to our students, and I think online education has a tremendous potential as part of that mix.”