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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cyber-campus v. 2.0: The Rebranding

by Tobias Higbie
UCLA History Department

What follows is a quick review and analysis of the proposals for expanded online education reflected in the "expanded recommendations" section of the UCOF materials prepared for the June 14 Commission meeting.  Recommendations 6 and 7 are on pages 86-91.  Unlike the previous calls for an 11th "Cyber Campus," these proposals call for conversion of existing UC classes/students to the online platform.

The recommendations show the hand of UCB Law School Dean Christopher Edley, especially in their frequent reach-for-the-stars rhetorical flourishes.  They assert the inevitability of online courses and degrees in "the so-called quality sector," and propose that UC aim to be the first to do so and that "our ambitions should err on the side of boldness."

Beyond this, the proposals are mostly familiar if you've been following the issue.  There will be a pilot program to develop 25-40 online undergraduate courses focusing on high-enrollment courses with high demand from community college students hoping to transfer into the UC system.  There will be a Request for Proposals from UC faculty "with stellar teaching records" who will then get course buy-outs and other support to develop the online material.  Ultimately, the courses will be taught by graduate student instructors.

Recommendation 6 calls for an acceleration of this pilot project.  Recommendation 7 calls for planning coordinated system-wide delivery of online instruction with the frequently stated caveat that this happens only if the pilot project shows that these courses can be equal in quality to regular face-to-face UC courses.  Of course the report has already declared that success in the "quality sector" is inevitable.  So, hey, not to worry, right?

A few highlights:

* They already have a plan: "UCOP Academic Planning has developed a detailed, step-by-step, draft strategy for leveraging online instruction to expand access to UC-quality courses and degrees and generate revenues through online instruction, returning revenue to support core research and teaching."  The Council of Vice Chancellors contribution to the meeting materials asks the Regents to direct the President to have the courses up and running by academic year 2013.  If you have yet to see it, the UCB School of Information is hosting the planning materials.

* One possible strategy is to peel off departments willing to partner with the University Extension (UNEX): "there would be advantages to using UNEX as the organizational base for the online instruction program, and exploring joint branding of degrees with the individual campuses."  This seems to be a way to get around campus Senate opposition.

* The push for semester scheduling across the system is linked in part to online education.  You can only get the economies of scale if all 10 campuses are on the same schedule:  "A coordinated or systemwide approach will be more cost effective in delivering educational programs which, owing to their reliance on rapidly evolving information technologies and on high-touch interaction with potential applicants as well as with enrolled students, requires scale that is not currently available and very difficult to build on a campus-by-campus basis."  The COVC report calls for system-wide semester calendar by 2014. 

* The bold vision is at least in part related to the need to convince "donors" (which may mean "investors"):  "On the other hand, a clear vision of a University-wide effort that aggressively pursues opportunities inherent in online education would likely mobilize support from potential donors, the Legislature and the general public."  Then there is the odd statement: "some portion of the Program may be funded as an unsecured loan to be repaid if a follow-on project at scale yields net revenue."  This seems to suggest they've already had discussions about this.  But with whom?

* The recommendations are vague on the form and ownership of intellectual property in the courses.  Courseware will be "'open' in some fashion."  Revenue comes not from selling the material, but "delivering" it with credit and with an instructor.

To summarize then, it seems the pilot project will move forward ASAP and planning for system-wide online courses will run in tandem with the pilot.  But what happens if the pilot shows that online courses are not equal in quality to current courses?  That question misses the point.  The purpose of the pilot is not so much to see *if* online classes are just as good, but to demonstrate that they are.  At the end of the pilot, the advocates of expanded online courses will be able to point to a rigorous vetting process that has certified that their product is in the "quality sector."

Personally, I don't think quality is the stumbling block (although they could screw it up).  With enough money they will be able to develop highly interactive online materials that might even be superior to current classrooms.  At least in my brief experience at UCLA I've noticed spotty wireless connections, insufficient classroom technologies generally, and too many rooms with peeling paint and bolted-down chairs. Compared to those classrooms, online learning might be rather refreshing.

I think financing and long-term business model are going to be a bigger problems. This is likely to be both more expensive and less profitable than they imagine/claim.  If so, it will divert existing resources to a bold new project that will not deliver access or cost savings.  So strategically, I think faculty should demand a more detailed business plan (both for the pilot and the system-wide roll out).  Who are the donors?  More importantly, who are the "investors" or creditors (if there are to be any)?  What kind of deal they're getting for their investment/loans?  How will individual campuses be compensated if courses are on a system-wide platform?  Given the lack of budget transparency within the UC, I don't imagine the advocates of this plan are ready to answer these questions.


Gerry Barnett said...

I expect UCOP has no idea what they are getting into by way of intellectual property when they make a move to on-line courses. Even the gulf in IP treatment between UNEX and core instruction is huge.

Even being "open" doesn't make it any easier, as it takes as much effort (or more) to clear rights for "open" materials as it does for proprietary stuff. Oh, did I mention TEACH Act compliance?

Whatever folks think they are going to save over classroom costs, there is a huge infrastructure and some heavy negotiation needed to replace the classroom with digital works.

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