UC online instruction pilot sparks excitement, controversy

October 21, 2011 2:27:39 PM PDT
As a small cadre of University of California faculty prepares to deliver the first online classes in a systemwide experiment, the effort is stirring both excitement and controversy among instructors and administrators.

The Online Instruction Pilot Project will launch roughly 20 to 25 online courses at nine campuses beginning in January. Faculty and researchers will evaluate the courses, and if the data suggest the courses have a positive impact on students' learning outcomes, UC will push to make online instruction a permanent part of the undergraduate experience.

The idea is to create UC-quality courses that can expand access to students while also generating extra revenue during increasingly tough budgetary times. The pilot courses are aimed at UC students, with some offered to non-UC students as well.

But leaders of the University Council - American Federation of Teachers, which represents the system's more than 3,000 non-tenured lecturers and librarians, are concerned the university's push toward online instruction could threaten lecturers' jobs and degrade the quality of a UC education.

Meanwhile, some faculty members who are developing courses for the pilot said they are excited about testing new ideas and technologies and getting more students into UC-quality classes. They don't see the expansion of online offerings as a means to cut jobs ? nor would they support such a move.

And now a battle is brewing between the lecturers union and UC officials over a new part of the recently ratified contract that deals with the online pilot, first reported by Inside Higher Ed.

What's clear is that union and university leaders will meet by January 2013 to discuss the results of the online pilot. What happens next is tricky. Union President Bob Samuels says the contract language gives the union the power to stop - or at least delay - an online instruction program if it would take away or affect lecturers' jobs.

UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said the new language doesn't change anything.

"All this does is maintain the status quo," she said. "There's no provision that lecturers can change the pilot program, slow it, stop it, whatever."

Samuels said the union soon will get together with university officials to hash out what the contract means. If they disagree, a clash looms.

"I think through that process, we might see if we're on the same page or not," Samuels said. "If we're not, I think it's going to take 'til something happens that we think breaks the contract, and we'll use ? whatever it says in the contract we can use. We might have to - I don't know - go to the court and ask for an injunction."

At UC Irvine, faculty member Sarah Eichhorn is working with lecturer Rachel Lehman to develop online versions of pre-calculus courses, which are required for students who place below a certain level in math. For many students, the courses slow down their progress toward majors in which math is a prerequisite.

The idea is to offer incoming freshmen an inexpensive and convenient way to take the course in the summer, before coming to college, Eichhorn said.

"I'm very enthusiastic about it. I really like the research aspect of the program," Eichhorn said. "It's not just, 'Let's do some online courses to make it cheaper for us to teach.' There are things that could benefit students in this format."

UC Berkeley faculty members Daniel Garcia and Brian Harvey are designing an online computer science course for non-computer science majors. The class will be an all-online version of a course that already exists in face-to-face form. Students learn not just about programming, but also about the social, artistic and economic implications of computing.

The duo already had won grants to develop and distribute the course as a model for how to teach a new Advanced Placement course, Computer Science: Principles, for high school students.

Pending various approvals, the class will be offered to UC and non-UC students alike in fall 2012 - with no limit on enrollment, Garcia said.

To help students who get stuck, the team will shoot high-definition video of the head teaching assistant as he takes the entire course, so that students can watch him "think aloud" through the concepts and problems.

Online students who tune in to the live screencast of the face-to-face class can instantly write in questions that the teaching assistant will then ask the instructor, Garcia said. All the lectures, readings, labs and homework also are accessible for free on the Internet.

"I'm completely behind the idea that we could build infrastructure that allows us to attract and teach people from around the world," Garcia said. "I want my course to be free."

Garcia also said he'll take steps to ensure UC Berkeley students in the online course get the full experience of UC's flagship campus. He plans to pair Berkeley students only with other Berkeley students for partner assignments. It would be potentially unfair to pair them up with other UC or non-UC students, he said.

Garcia envisions the course being a boon for students at other UC campuses where there is no computer science course for non-majors. A local graduate student could manage the class in person, and students could plug in to the course remotely.

But he would not be in favor of the UC system using online courses such as his to eliminate jobs. He would not, for example, want another UC campus to cut its own face-to-face course on computer science for non-majors and replace it with his online class.

"I certainly can see the fear in terms of thinking it's a way to cut jobs. I don't see this as a way to do that. I would fight against anybody trying to cancel a (face-to-face) class in favor of the online class," he said. But, he added, "I think the potential is there for abuse."

And abuse is what Samuels is worried about.

"We keep hearing these rumors," he said. "One is to hire graduate students from any discipline to man these courses. Then get a famous professor to do a lecture, put it online and then have all the interaction done by a graduate student. I think that's a very bad extension of some of the bad aspects of large classes."

Aside from the concerns about lecturers' jobs, Samuels said the union also is concerned about watering down the UC brand.

"The question is, why are students going to pay for UC if they can go to University of Phoenix? It's devaluing the thing that we're most famous for," he said.

Daniel Greenstein, UC's vice provost for academic planning, programs and coordination, said he understands the fear that some have about job security, but said the university does not want to use the online initiative to eliminate jobs.

"Change is hard, and fear is rife, especially in bad budget times, so it doesn't surprise me," Greenstein said. "We're not looking at replacing people. We're looking at dealing with the undergraduate load with the faculty we've got."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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