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UC System To Reconsider Viability of Online Classes

At today’s UC Board of Regents meeting, officials will discuss the future of online courses — which the university has spent $4.3 million to market, despite enrolling just one non-UC student after classes first opened up to non-UC students this winter.

While the online program has drawn in roughly 1,700 UC students, the effort to offer courses to non-UC students — launched this winter — has attracted just one high school student who enrolled in a UC Irvine precalculus course. However, the UC Office of the President website states that the program — funded by a $6.9 million loan from the university upon its launch in 2010 — is expected to provide the UC with financial “sustainability” by bringing in new revenue to academic departments while offering prospective UC students transferable credits.

But the program faces competition with the rise of massive open online courses (MOOC), which include the launchings of a number of free sites such as edX — a Harvard-MIT collaboration that began offering free courses the same time the UC introduced its pricier options that range anywhere from $1,400 to $2,100 each.

UC officials have stated the new courses are carefully crafted by faculty to include settings that stimulate interaction and discussion among class members, such as Skype lectures, with such additions not seen in the free online courses of other universities.

But Student Regent Jonathan Stein said prestigious competitors create a tough playing field for the UC, adding that officials did not foresee the establishment of MOOC sites.

“The UC initiated these classes where they thought they were going to sell UC content to people all over the world for a profit. They thought that idea up before the emergence of something called MOOCs … in which leading universities like Harvard, Stanford and MIT have begun putting course information online for free,” Stein said. “It’s not clear how the UC is going to sell its content for a profit when these other universities are putting these classes online for free. It’s not working so far.”

Although the University just began offering online courses specifically to non-UC students, UC Spokesperson Shelly Meron said the university did not intend to focus the program on these students.

“I think there has been a misunderstanding in what the focus is,” Meron said. “It is, and always has been, on UC students.”

But the high expenditures poured into the program are also not necessarily efficient, let alone cost-cutting, according to Stein, who said designing classes that mimic live UC lectures is a costly endeavor.

“They also think it’s going to save the UC money. I’m skeptical of a lot of that,” Stein said. “Online education means two separate things — which in my view, have very different likelihoods of success. The first thing that online education means is blended learning environments for on-campus UC students [and] that means taking a large lecture class … and adding some computerized official online component … It’s really expensive to do this, so no one is saving a ton of money.”

A version of this article appeared on page 1 of January 16, 2013′s print edition of the Nexus.

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