In 2010, in the midst of the state’s continued divestment from the University of California and no end to tuition hikes in sight, UC administrators hatched a plan that would bring in much-needed revenue and put the university at the cutting edge of online education.
Now, three years and millions of dollars later, the UC’s online education program — separate from the online classes UC campuses have offered enrolled students for years — has barely taken off, causing Gov. Jerry Brown to complain at November’s UC Board of Regents meeting that the university was falling behind in online education.
The criticism prompted the regents to schedule a two-hour presentation from UC Online at their Jan. 16 meeting. In preparation for the meeting, online education experts, founders of MOOCs like Coursera and Udacity, politicians and faculty from state universities met Tuesday at UCLA for a national conference on the future of online education. At the symposium, which was sponsored by the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, the speakers debated the place of online education. If enough students enroll, online classes can be cost-effective for universities, as well as allow students who might otherwise not attend college or who are unsure of their major to dabble in courses they’re interested in.
But even with its $4.3 million marketing campaign, the highly interactive courses UC Online offers has so far only attracted one person — a high school student looking to take a precalculus class — since it first started a year ago. UC administrators expected the program to appeal to students who wanted to take UC-quality classes for credit but could not be on a physical campus, such as people in China or in the military. With a price tag of $1,400 or $2,400 for non-UC students, depending on the class’s duration, the program had the potential to be lucrative.
But since other top universities like Stanford, MIT and Harvard began giving away their online courses for free as MOOCs, the UC’s model is losing viability. MOOCs have exploded in popularity in the last year, potentially making the UC’s current system obsolete, even though UC Online offers significantly more interaction with professors and fellow classmates than most of the major MOOCs.
Though changing the university’s approach could be difficult at this point, it is not impossible. UC Berkeley signed up in July with edX, a MOOC provider from Harvard, although there are no financial benefits to the campus. For now, UC Online is focusing on students already enrolled at the university in an effort to help reduce the cost of attending. And on Monday, officials were notified that four more non-UC students had enrolled.