UC investing millions in new cyber studies program
The University of California will unveil its first top-tier cyber courses in January - 26 online offerings, from global climate change to game theory. At the same time, it's eyeing China and even American soldiers as potential sources of cash to pay for them.
Academically, the UC system is venturing into territory that supporters hope will be the next wave of innovation: intellectually rigorous e-classes so animated and interactive that students can't help but excel.
"Some of our courses will be absolutely stunning," said Vice Provost Daniel Greenstein, who is leading the effort. "But we're not going to just knock people's socks off. We want to identify what works."
UC's new cyber studies will serve as a research project in which the professors who created them will gather data on their effectiveness, Greenstein said. Those findings will influence the project's fate.
Economically, the online venture is equally experimental. Its most vigorous proponent, UC Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley, expected to raise $6 million for the pilot program, but attracted just $748,000 in private funds. Rather than abandon the effort, UC gave it a $6.9 million interest-free line of credit.
The plan is to repay the loan by selling at least 7,000 spots in online classes to about 5,000 non-UC students - perhaps in China, said Greenstein.
He leaves Wednesday for Beijing and Shanghai to gauge the interest of Chinese educators.
"You can imagine that a university in China might want to supplement its education with American cultural studies," Greenstein said. "Or prepare students for study in the United States."
"It's not just China," he said. "We're exploring any number of different possibilities."
Another prospect is Fidelis, a new San Francisco venture founded by ex-Marine Gunnar Counselman that bills itself as "the elite transfer college for the U.S. military." Military personnel take online classes while on active duty, preparing for transfer to a four-year university.
"We're talking to Gunnar," Greenstein said.
As online options proliferate, the ability to educate large numbers of people cheaply via the Internet is stirring a national debate about its possibilities in an era of reduced public funding.
One influential voice is Harvard's Clayton Christensen, who argues in his new book, "The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education," that shifting to cyberspace can be a lifesaving business decision for campuses buried under rising costs.
But to UC faculty who already question the wisdom of online instruction - how to prevent cheating is just one concern - the idea that it's a cash cow is far-fetched. And the fact that UC is laying out millions of dollars after promising to tap outside sources is beyond irritating.
"This is a scandal of obscene proportions" at a time when UC is laying off employees, raising tuition and bracing for more cuts in state support, political science Professor Wendy Brown wrote to the UC Berkeley Faculty Association, which she co-chairs. Her memo drew praise from colleagues.
Later, Brown also wondered why non-UC students would pay UC prices for online classes when so many are available for free - including from MIT, Harvard, Stanford and even UC Berkeley through iTunes.
UC Davis Professor Roger McDonald chuckles at the naysayers. "Academics don't like change," he said. "Certain people are convinced that we're going to become the University of Phoenix, and there's not a darn thing you can do."
70 out of thousands
Of thousands of professors employed across UC, just 70 answered the call for online course proposals despite the promise of up to $30,000 in development funds for each. A panel of faculty and administrators chose 29, of which 26 are a go.
McDonald's "Physiology of Aging" is one of them.
"Think of my course like a Kindle," he said, referring to the popular e-reader in which users can tap on links that offer definitions, explain historical references and illustrate concepts.
"I program my course to do animation," he said. "Suppose I'm talking about chemical reaction. I will actually put it into motion, showing how much energy is released from the bond as it's broken. Say you want to know the structure of an enzyme. I can link you to the National Institutes of Health right at the actual structure."
At UCLA, Professor Susanne Lohmann has taught "Ethics and Governance in the Age of Superstimulus and Supercomplexity" for years.
"Socratic dialogue is a great way of teaching ethics," she said. "But it could be better online."
Her proposal, too, was accepted.
The complex trust games played by Lohmann's students are meant to examine influences on cooperation and competition. Course logistics make it impossible to enroll more than a few dozen students at a time, at least in a real classroom. Explaining - and re-explaining - the rules alone eats up time.
But online, enrollment could triple. Students will come and go, absorbing game rules online. And the computer will randomly pair up players, another improvement.
Lohmann plans to study which group of students - online or in-class - writes better papers and demonstrates deeper insights. For better data, graders won't know which papers are from where.
"It's actually really exciting," Lohmann said.
As for cheating, UC Berkeley Professor Greg Neimeyer, whose "American Cybercultures" will premiere online next summer, tells of a student whose paper mirrored a Wikipedia article.
"Well?" Neimeyer demanded.
"But it's me who wrote the Wikipedia article," the student said, pointing to the attribution.
Neimeyer concluded that "in a world of radical transparency, cheating becomes impossible. You see who the source is, and students will refer to each other's work explicitly."
Besides, he said, "If we don't move our activities to the Internet, we'll simply be left out."