Online education is controversial because its quality may not be on par with the traditional IRL education that guarantees the value of a University of California degree. Online education is also controversial because it is associated with cost-cutting measures and could mean less faculty jobs in the future. As a professor who is considering developing online courses, I think these two concerns warrant a full discussion.
Today, degrees acquired "on the Internet" are seen in the stale light of distance learning: shallow, facile and cheap. A resume crowned with a degree from "Internet University" does not have the same impact as a resume featuring a UC degree. Online degree holders, I fear, have a whiff of the prestige of a minister ordained by the Universal Life Church.
At the same time, it is fair to say that a large portion of the UC community's quest for knowledge is transmitted through the internet. You, for one, are reading these lines online. So it is fair to say that we share, store and draw extensive amounts of knowledge from the Internet, and that is indeed what it was invented for.
So, the question seems to be not one of location of information, but of the learning process. Online education is only as good as the methodology that it is based on. If the UC, and specifically UC Berkeley, is to develop online courses, my expectation would be that we do as good a job online as we do IRL. This is a formidable challenge, and we have to innovate pedagogical methods that achieve similar transformative experiences as those we have developed for lectures, seminars, and sections.
If we already provide students with great educations IRL, why bother trying online? The public university model is difficult to sustain financially. Apart from raising taxes, raising tuition and seeking private donations, we may be able to reduce costs by increasing the efficiency of our work as faculty, staff and students. Online courses, if done well, could help increase our efficiency like this
- Online students don't use classrooms which are expensive and empty most of the (24 hr) day
- Instructors can port their knowledge and their pedagogy to online platforms where they can serve more students at more times
- Courses can be offered when students want to take them
- Students can access course experience from anywhere in the world, removing barriers to education
- Course materials are available long after a student completes a course for reference
- Students can form effective peer groups in online learning communities beyond geographic boundaries
- University resources can be freed up for research, teaching labs, sections and small class seminars for students who have passed online courses.
Of course, it will take some serious research and innovation to develop and validate appropriate pedagogical methods for transformative online learning. For example, online courses could ask students to complete assignments and conduct field research where they already are, thus making it possible for students to learn within their existing communities.
Many other ideas are necessary. In the end, a UC online course will not look like your typical online Driver's Ed click-through adventure. A grant for $750,000 and a loan of $7 million will aid in the creation of an online education paradigm that is true to the UC's mission of excellence. If the UC does not seize this moment, someone else will, and a Cal Berkeley degree may lose value simply because the UC refuses to innovate. Let's not cling to a university model that was relevant in the 60's and has not aged well, but invent what we need now. Our tradition is to question the status quo, not to preserve a historic revolution.