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Much of the news surrounding the University of California system has involved whether the network of universities will be able to survive its current budgetary crisis without shrinking in size or quality. In that context, it is no surprise that Christopher Edley Jr.’s plan to use online education to expand the university’s footprint “from Kentucky to Kuala Lumpur” has turned some heads -- and churned some stomachs.

Edley, dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, has been using his position as co-chair of the education and curriculum working group for the UC Commission on the Future to advocate for an ambitious expansion of the system’s online arm that could eventually include fully-online bachelor's degree programs designed to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars.

California is not the only state eyeing online education as a way to increase access and cut costs. But while many states are looking to use the popular medium to reach adult learners or save money at non-elite institutions, the University of California is a top-shelf research university that boasts one of the country's most competitive undergraduate programs. If the system does end up offering an online bachelor's degree, it would be a big step for online education.

Edley's idea is still in its early stages and has not been adopted into any strategic plan. The University of California Board of Regents has offered only informal, preliminary support, and the systemwide Faculty Senate has approved only a pilot program for 25 to 40 low-level, high-volume courses -- not a full-blown online degree program. Still, the rhetoric and sprawling, transformative vision Edley has been pushing have been received favorably by some while eliciting alarmed responses from others.

Members of a union representing graduate student-instructors at UC, finding Edley’s plan for “squadrons” of teaching assistants serving on “the frontline of online contact” more than a little dystopic, showed up to a regents’ meeting in May wearing patches that read “Dean Edley = Class(room) Enemy.” Edley’s goals for online education at UC were primarily profit-driven, they argued in a statement, and would “undoubtedly end in the complete implosion of public higher education in the embattled state of California.” Some professors and media outlets have expressed similar concerns.

Edley says that the implosion of the system is precisely what the online program would help prevent. The law dean-turned-futurist argues that even if a combination of spending cuts and state aid keeps the system afloat through its current crisis, the system is not equipped to enroll the 45,000 additional students it would need to close its $5 billion budget deficit.

“We face an enrollment gap, rejecting more and more eligible Californians," Edley wrote recently in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle. "And a UC education likely will be decreasingly affordable, especially for the middle class… Our purpose is to advance knowledge while democratizing excellence. To do that, we must innovate.”

Edley says it is important that a pilot program affirm the quality of online courses before further stages of his vision are put into action, but he also seems to believe a future in which UC offers online bachelor's degrees is inevitable, and that the university should take steps toward doing so with all practical speed. "Eventually, there will be online credit-bearing courses and B.A. degrees in the so-called quality sector," his working group wrote in its proposal for the pilot. "...UC should be first, as soon as possible, and our ambitions should err on the side of boldness."

The Pivotal Pilot

The pilot, which could begin as soon as this fall, would have a team of professors and course designers move 25 to 40 entry-level courses from the classroom to the Web in an effort to assess the "effectiveness, cost, and sustainability of online education." Most of the UC courses that qualify as likely candidates are oriented to mathematics and the natural sciences — calculus, chemistry, physics, economics, etc. — but the system's highest-volume courses also include freshman composition, sociology, and world history.

Functionally, the pilot courses would be similar to the 78 credit-bearing courses currently offered across the UC system; only students currently enrolled in the university would take the courses, and there would be no fully-online degree track. The difference is that the pilot would focus on using the latest online teaching tools — particularly synchronous features such as live chats and videoconferencing — to replicate the quality of the in-person survey courses they would replace. As the pilot goes forward, a research team will be tasked with exploring a number of questions, including learning outcomes, cost, faculty workload, the ability to prevent cheating, and the relative effectiveness of different methods within the realm of online teaching.

While Edley's working group recommended in June that the university wrap up the pilot and interpret the data it produces "no later than fall 2011," an official response issued by the Berkeley division of the Academic Senate on July 20 described this timetable as "impossibly optimistic," noting the need for multiple trials and deliberate analysis. Edley admits now that the pilot could take considerably longer ("I personally am prone to err on the side of impatience," he says), and that he is leery of outpacing support from the faculty.

"Timing will be inevitably determined by a mixture of substance and politics," he says. "That's the way the world works."

Still, Edley says he hopes the pilot progresses as quickly as possible, and he recommended as much in a presentation last month with the Board of Regents, which has taken a particular interest in the law dean's plan for global expansion and nine-figure profits. The university could not immediately provide the details of its financial modeling, but other documents suggest that the money would come from tuition, fees, and perhaps licenses for "premium access" to course content. Daniel Greenstein, the vice provost for academic planning at UC, tells Inside Higher Ed that the revenue projections are “untested assumptions” based on “what we see out there in the world.” Testing profitability, Greenstein says, would be one goal of the pilot program.

Pockets of Dissent

On the whole, professors have supported preliminary steps toward expanding UC's online offerings. In May, the Faculty Senate unanimously endorsed the pilot program. Several campus-level faculty senates have even offered up their own courses as guinea pigs. “Advancing technology,” wrote a task force dispatched by the Academic Senate last year to study the issue, “may offer a significant opportunity that UC has yet to exploit, although it is well-positioned to do so.”

But some UC professors, like the graduate students' union, remain skeptical. The Berkeley Faculty Association — a group of about 300 professors — put out a report in May that did not condemn the pilot but voiced concerns about where Edley wants it to lead.

The association was particularly unnerved by the idea of graduate student-instructors being the “frontline of contact” with online students, as Edley put it. For some, that sort of talk evokes a model many for-profit institutions have used to keep payroll expenses low and administrative control high: have full-time faculty put together the syllabus, then hire less-expensive adjuncts to deliver it. Faculty resistance to this sort of University of Phoenix-inspired arrangement was a major factor in last year’s implosion of the University of Illinois Global Campus, a similarly ambitious online effort. (Other large online programs based at large state universities have been more successful: UMassOnline enrolls nearly 50,000 students and earned the University of Massachusetts $56.2 million last year, and Penn State University’s World Campus has garnered similar returns.)

Wendy Brown, a political science professor at Berkeley who co-authored the Faculty Association report, told Inside Higher Ed that she has no qualms with a pilot going forward. What she worries about is the way Edley has been framing it as a first step toward something larger and perhaps more controversial. Inferring from Edley's idea of graduate student-instructors forming the "frontlines of contact" with online students, Brown says she worries the law dean's proposed cyber-campus would contribute to the displacement of full-time faculty members with adjuncts — a perennial concern among traditional faculty everywhere, given the decline of tenure and the popularity of the Phoenix model. “This is absolutely part of a larger set of proposals referred to by the Commission on the Future that describe the necessity of shrinking the letter-rank faculty and increasing part-time faculty,” says Brown.

Edley says this is not his agenda at all. He says he imagines online courses as being structured just like the existing face-to-face versions they would replace: A professor develops the syllabus and delivers the lessons, and graduate assistants lead discussion groups and grade assignments, under the professor's supervision. Edley says that rather than enabling layoffs, the cyber-campus would prevent them, and might even allow the university to grow its full-time faculty in a way that it could never hope to under current conditions. “Our financial estimates make very clear that this might allow us to expand the number of 'ladder' faculty, rather than substituting adjuncts,” he says.

Other critics fear for the university's brand. "UC faculty members are skeptical now, but in the future, employers and graduate schools will be," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle in a July 18 editorial. The Berkeley Faculty Association report alluded to similar concerns about the capability of graduates who earned their degrees apart from "the academic-intellectual benefits of university culture." Both seemed to imply that a University of California degree encompasses something beyond just a sequence of classroom sessions; it also means that the degree-holder has, in a less tangible way, benefited intellectually and socially from spending years immersed in campus life.

"Tons of research" supports the thesis that the online platform itself does not diminish in-class learning in many disciplines, says John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium and editor of the Journal of Asynchronous Learning. But what about the intellectual and social growth that purportedly occurs outside the classroom at traditional colleges? How important is it, from the standpoint of a graduate's capability, and a university's reputation, that students take part in the extracurricular parts of campus culture that online education has so far been at a loss to replicate?

Edley says that question interests him, and that he wants to explore it in the pilot "if we can." But he points out that any progress toward an answer would be limited, since most students in the pilot will be currently enrolled students from the campus. Really, one would need a sample of students taking all their courses remotely. A draft prospectus for the pilot program mentions that some "fully distant" students could be studied through summer sessions and "cross-campus and dual enrollments"; but in order to get the strongest sample one would need an online bachelor's program already in place. And even then, it might be years before researchers could have any idea of the post-graduate success of fully online students relative to their on-campus peers.

Really, the law dean says, people need to let go of the idea that the two types of experience can be compared in a tidy, definitive way. "Quality," says Edley, might mean something completely different in the online world. “What will be key," he says, "is making sure we don’t define quality as replicating or simulating everything that goes on on campus, but instead ask what is fundamental to quality, and then examine the trade-offs.” This, of course, is also an ambitious research question — one that could also be hard to resolve within a pilot.

Selling The Big Picture

Edley has hardly been deterred by his critics. His working group brought an expanded set of recommendations to a June meeting of the Commission on the Future, advising that the commission tell President Mark G. Yudof to, among other things, prepare a systemwide business plan leveraging online courses to “generate a large new revenue stream” that would prop up the system’s brick-and-mortar operation. Long-term net revenue from these courses “would be comfortably into 9 figures,” the group predicted.

The manifesto-like document also notes that while an aggressive approach to building the proposed cyber-campus might come with “internal political and bureaucratic risks,” it would be the best way to “mobilize support from potential donors, the legislature, and the general public.” Edley told Inside Higher Ed that he imagines the university might like to get its feet wet by first running a fully-online associate degree program before taking the plunge on the bachelor's, but he reiterated the sense of urgency he has been trying to promote about beating peer institutions to the punch.

The Commission on the Future discussed the online manifesto at a meeting last month. “The consensus was that yeah, this is something to be moved forward — to be kept on the table when other things were taken off the table,” says Steve Montiel, a spokesman for the president’s office.

Edley’s plan won him a coveted audience with the Board of Regents this month. The law school dean took a more restrained tack in his presentation, emphasizing that fully online undergraduate degrees were “not on the table right now,” according to a copy of his PowerPoint presentation; in a slide listing things the Commission on the Future is “likely” to propose, he left off fully-online degree programs, predicting only that the commission would call for an “expeditious execution of the Online Pilot Project.” He also reiterated that faculty support would be essential to the fate of the cyber-campus, and that “large-scale deployment” would work only “if quality is achievable.”

The meeting was purely informational, and it would likely be a while before the Regents voted on any formal action related to Edley’s broader vision. But apart from one or two skeptics, the governing body took favorably to the idea of UC offering an online undergraduate degree program down the line if the pilot pans out, says Montiel. The Commission on the Future, meanwhile, would likely revisit Edley’s plans either next month or in the fall, he says. The commission will likely make its formal recommendations by the end of the year.

So all eyes are on the pilot program, on whose success any subsequent transformation of the system’s undergraduate curriculums would appear to turn. Beyond that, the question is to what extent the UC faculty -- which so far has been guaranteed final say over any online course -- would continue to support the administration if it moves forward on some of the more controversial aspects of Edley’s vision.

At a meeting of the systemwide Faculty Senate last week, representatives expressed general wariness of “the proposal to accelerate and broaden an online instruction program and to initiate planning for a coordinated approach” to a larger push for online education.

The general mood was clear, says Fiona Doyle, chair of the Berkeley division of the senate: Go ahead with the pilot — but as far as fully online bachelor’s degrees stamped with the seal of the University of California, those kids in Kentucky and Kuala Lumpur should not hold their breath just yet.

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