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The University of California System, after five years and millions of dollars spent, is asking for more time and money to get its systemwide online education initiative off the ground.

The 10-campus university system began to seriously consider a centralized approach to online education in 2009, as California faced a multibillion-dollar deficit that led to budget cuts, layoffs and tuition hikes across the state. Online for-credit courses, administrators believed -- and to some extent still believe -- could alleviate some the system’s access issues and create a new source of tuition revenue.

But five years later, California’s economy has rebounded, and the exigency to go online and do so quickly has diminished. As a result, UC has changed its course, choosing to focus on high-demand online and hybrid courses developed at one or more campuses to benefit students across the system.

The shift was perhaps best summarized by Janet Napolitano, the former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security who became president of the university system last September. During a talk organized by the Public Policy Institute of California this March, Napolitano played down the importance of online learning.

“I think there’s a developing consensus that online learning is a tool for the toolbox where higher education is concerned,” Napolitano said. “That it’s not a silver bullet the way it was originally portrayed to be.”

Napolitano’s remarks contrasted with the rhetoric of Governor Jerry Brown, who has aggressively pushed online education in California. Yet Brown, too, is partly responsible for the changing priorities at UC.

In his budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, Brown proposed a $20 million earmark for UC and the California State University to invest in online education. Although Brown later vetoed that requirement, the two systems went in separate directions. Cal State decided it would replace its online arm with a shared services model, while UC pledged to spend the funding as originally intended, breathing fresh life into its online education initiative.

While some faculty members described the moment as a “restart,” Shelly Meron, a spokeswoman for the university, said the system’s approach has evolved, but not shifted. “I think the guiding principle for UC has been: What do we need to do for our undergrads?” she said.

After exploring how best to unify its campuses’ online offerings, the system in 2010 endorsed a proposal by Christopher F. Edley Jr., then-dean of the UC-Berkeley School of Law. It launched the UC Online Instruction Pilot Project, which later became the centralized UC Online Education in the Office of the President, and set a goal of producing up to 20 fully online undergraduate courses by the 2012-13 academic year -- and perhaps, one day, fully online degrees.

The goal soon proved optimistic. After failing to attract private funds, the system borrowed (and later repaid) $6.9 million to support the initiative. By January 2013, 13 UC Online Education-supported courses had launched, enrolling only 1,700 students.

In comparison, the UC campuses on their own offered more than 2,500 online courses to more than 90,000 students during the 2011-12 academic year, according to a January 2013 progress update from the system’s committee on educational policy. Most of those courses, however, targeted adult learners.

January 2013 also brought news of the $10 million earmark. In anticipation of the funds, the Office of the President then founded the Innovative Learning Technologies Initiative that March. The initiative funds online high-demand courses such as General Psychology and Writing and Rhetoric and aims to introduce some flexibility, Meron said. If a student can’t fit a campus-based course into his schedule, he can elect to take it online, knocking out a requirement instead of lengthening the time to degree.

Since its soft launch this January, the initiative has offered 23 courses and enrolled about 2,500 students. During the 2014-15 academic year, the number of courses will increase to 60 (though some will be taught more than once).

Based on those results, some staff members in the Office of the President are growing confident that, after five years, the system is close to establishing a centralized approach to online education. The initiative’s $10 million appropriation was renewed this year, and Ellen Osmundson, the project coordinator, said the system will “make a case for ongoing funding.”

“There is growing student awareness. There is growing faculty awareness,” Osmundson said. “On the campus level, there is a movement toward looking and thinking about this as a very viable opportunity and a very viable option for students.”

There are still many academic and technical hurdles standing in the way of widespread adoption, however. For example, it took until last November before the system piloted electronic cross-campus registration. Previously, it could only be done in writing.

More importantly, only about 100 of the 2,500 students enrolled in an online course offered by a different campus, which Daniel M. Gross, associate professor of English at UC-Irvine, said presents the “perennial struggle” between campus autonomy and centralization.

While students always receive unit credit for taking online courses offered by a campus other than their own, each individual department has to approve those courses to count toward major requirements.

The cross-campus enrollment portal therefore includes the following disclaimer: “It is essential that you check with your department for credit approval for [general education] and/or major requirements prior to enrolling in a cross-campus course.”

And since the campuses may organize their curriculums differently, Gross said, a student taking the first course in a sequence from a different campus could end up missing some information or find it overlaps with a later course.

“Campuses very much want to have ... final decision-making power when it comes to giving credit for courses,” Gross said. “I think that it’s very much a process, and it’s not a completed process yet.”

Individual faculty members, meanwhile, control whether their courses should be available for cross-campus enrollment. They also decide whether students outside the system can take the courses, which is handled through the UC Online portal. The website features largely the same lineup of courses as the cross-campus enrollment portal, but has been reduced to a separate point of entry for students not already in the system.

For its next request for applications, Osmundson said, the system will encourage courses that involve inter-institutional collaboration. “That’s one of the ways to accelerate the course credit process,” she said.

Anthony J. Tromba, a professor of mathematics at UC-Santa Cruz who has helped create several online calculus courses, said he was not discouraged by the fact that few students outside UC-Santa Cruz have taken the courses.

“Things take time to take off,” Tromba said. “You need to get the information out there. Many students in the UC and even many advisers in the 10-campus system are not aware that this cross-campus enrollment system exists. It takes time.”

The cross-campus enrollment initiative is also limited by its ability to scale. A course such as Introduction to Writing & Rhetoric is limited to one section of 18 students -- an effort to make it more appealing to those who can’t physically attend the face-to-face version.

During the Evolve California Higher Education conference in January, Keith R. Williams, the interim director of UC Online Education who stepped down in June, said faculty members’ vision of a UC education “maybe hasn’t been as accepting of online courses in the past,” but that it, like the system’s strategy, is changing.

“The faculty right now don’t believe that a fully online degree is what’s ready for UC at this time,” Williams said. “Whether that will evolve or how it will evolve, we’ll see, but they really believe in the education that has been provided and maintaining at least a part of that as we go forward.”

Some faculty members are more pragmatic.

“Nobody is saying that it’s going to solve the problem, nor are we saying that online courses will take over the University of California,” Tromba said. "It will live or die not by the opinion of any individual or any group of individuals. It will live or die or flourish depending on how good it is and how people respond to it. Whether you like or do not like online education is irrelevant.”

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