A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “U. of California Considers Online Classes, or Even Degrees: Proposal for virtual courses challenges beliefs about what an elite university is—and isn't,” outlines the first real effect of the Commission on the Future of the University. According to the Chronicle, “Administrators hope the online plan will ultimately expand revenue and access for students at the same time. But the plan starts with a relatively modest experiment that aims to create online versions of roughly 25 high-demand lower-level "gateway courses." A preliminary list includes such staples as Calculus 1 and Freshman Composition.” In its effort to downsize undergraduate education, and hopefully turn a profit, the university hopes to place high-demand courses online.
While the initial project appears to be modest, this is only the first step: “UC hopes to put out a request for proposals in the fall, says Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning, programs, and coordination. Professors will compete for grants to build the classes, deliver them to students, and participate in evaluating them. Courses might be taught as soon as 2011.” In other words, faculty will be motivated to sacrifice the future of their own departments in the quest of landing a grant to re-design their classes for the Web. In fact, the UC plans to offer a great deal of cash for faculty willing to enter the digital future: “The university plans to spend about $250,000 on each course. It hopes to raise the money from external sources like foundations or major donors.” One has to wonder why the university does not simply use the $6 million it plans to raise on funding existing programs; moreover, we have to examine what kind of deals does the UC plan to offer private and corporate sponsors of these new programs. Will Apple be able to fund a new iCourse, which would require students to purchase Apple products?
We also have to question what the turn to online education will do to the quality of instruction and the reputation of the UC system. As the Chronicle article reports, most elite universities have not pursued online courses because they are afraid of losing their elite status. After all, what differentiates the University of California from the University of Phoenix is the fact that in the UC system, students are brought to the same place to study with expert faculty and researchers. Furthermore, once courses are moved online, the value of a UC degree will be downgraded.
As someone whose specialization is the use of new media for the teaching of writing, I can attest that online writing courses actually increase the amount of work for the faculty. Also, due to the high cost of technology, staffing, equipment, and facilities, these programs end up costing a huge amount of money. Moreover, online education casualizes the academic labor force as it hurts student retention rates.
None of these factors seem to affect Berkeley’s Law School dean Christopher Edley Jr. who argues that, “"Somebody is going to figure out how to deliver online education for credit and for degrees in the quality sector—i.e., in the elite sector. . . I think it ought to be us—not MIT, not Columbia, not Caltech, certainly not Stanford." Perhaps Edley should spend some time pondering why the other elite institutions are not going down this path; however, he seems intent on forcing online education down the throats of resisting faculty and students.
In a very telling moment in the Chronicle article, we find the following passage: “Building a collection of online classes could help alleviate bottlenecks and speed up students' paths to graduation. But supporters hope to use the pilot program to persuade faculty members to back a far-reaching expansion of online instruction that would offer associate degrees entirely online, and, ultimately, a bachelor's degree.” We can read this statement as positing that the grants will offer faculty a large amount of money to design their classes for the Web, and once the faculty have bought into this process, the move will be to transfer as much of the instruction online as possible. Let’s hope the UC faculty resist these bribes—I mean grants.