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Expect many more headlines like this one in the coming months. We’re guessing that throughout this pivotal moment in UC’s history, online education baton twirler Christopher Edley – the dean of Boalt Hall School of Law – would like you to not think of the following fine institutions: University of Phoenix, traffic school. Well, too late. People are getting nervous.

Having waxed panicky our due, we acknowledge that this seemingly outlandish proposal deserves a fair and cool-headed appraisal (the ball has kinda begun rolling, anyway). For the situation and the pros and cons raised so far, keep reading.

The UC Board of Regents granted informal support to a $6 million, privately funded pilot proposal that will in all likelihood launch 25-40 online courses, testing the waters for a potential full-on program wherein would-be Berkeley students from Kentucky to Calcutta could earn a UC degree. The UC would be the first research institution to offer web-based learning to such an extent.

Now, it’s no secret that the UC is in dire straights cash money-wise. Raising fees is one way to go. However, let’s just say that those in the know have a number in mind that, when reached, will send the families who are able to pay it running – why pay near-private tuition for public treatment? And, with each incremental step toward that dreaded number (the demand for public education growing all the while), a chunk of the “democratic” falls out of the sacred “democratic education” to which the UC is committed.  So there’s no question; drastic ideas are called for. Is online the way to go?

PROS: It’s cost effective. Online classes will cost somewhere between $16,000 and $50,000 each to develop and deliver. Estimates project that 25,oo0 students could be served for about $20 million. The return on this would be a now-we’re-talkin’ $180 mil. Compare this with the costs of “bricks-and-mortar” expansion: physical infrastructure to serve 11,000 students has a price tag of $1.8 billion. Crisis averted?

“… the world’s longest intellectual smorgasbord ….” All are welcome, world over. Not only does this break down the barriers of exclusivity that fee-hikes threaten to erect, but it neutralizes national boundaries as well. Those in Edley’s camp, speaking of smorgasbords, value diversity of life experience in the academic forum and see this as an unprecedented investment in colorful intellectual capital. The plan would also serve as a cordial invitation to UC-caliber “non-traditional” students who graduate community college but feel more comfortable continuing with online education than attending a university in person. The University of Phoenix and like providers currently have this market cornered.

CONS: Can web-based education truly be UC quality? Many people would argue that there is something irreplaceable about the human touch or the physical presence of a professor. Moreover, a growing body of research contends that computer-learning is inferior to regular learning on a cognitive level. Plus, what about labs? Such hurdles remain to be hashed out.

Will the value of a UC diploma be jeopardized? As much as we like to believe that the value of a UC Berkeley diploma in the eyes of future graduate schools and employers is a function of our top-notch professors and stringent admission criteria, the concern looms that rather shallower status issues do come into play. For one, there is often a perceived link between value and scarcity. This is true of precious metals and exclusive clubs of any sort; whether it is true of Cal diplomas remains to be seen. For another, the notion of online education has itself come to signify cheapness. It has a low-status history to be overcome, and UC’s reputation is at stake in the meantime.

In sum, this is a bold move, Chris, and its risks need to be properly gauged. That said, we look forward to seeing how the pilot program – if it gets off the ground – fares.

Image Source: Monica’s Dad under Creative Commons
On UC’s Risky Venture into Online Education [SF Gate]
Online Courses May Be Next for UC [Daily Cal]



Comments:


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