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Monday, October 25, 2021

UC looks to online instruction to increase access and solve budgetary problems

As the result of UC’s ongoing budget deficit, administrators and faculty are looking to online instruction to expand access to courses as university space and resources diminish.

At last week’s UC Commission on the Future meeting, the education and curriculum work group recommended that online education should have a greater role in the undergraduate and graduate curricula to reduce costs and hasten student time to obtaining degrees.

Keith Williams[cq], associate professor of exercise biology and co-chair of the work group, referred to an ongoing pilot program of 40 courses to evaluate the quality and cost effectiveness of online courses. The Office of the President and the systemwide Academic Senate currently coordinate the program.

Williams said online courses could help provide increased access to UC and non-UC students and enhance their learning experience.

“It could help facilitate student progress by providing online courses, say in gateway courses that might be inhibiting student progress,” William said. “It may allow cross campus enrollment in courses that may not be offered on one campus.”

An internal poll conducted by the Office of the President revealed high student interest in online courses. Of 3,000 student respondents, 57 percent were “very interested” and 23 percent were “somewhat interested” in taking online courses that were offered at UC campuses and counted for an on-campus degree.

This is heartening news for advocates of online learning, who say education is not a “one size fits all” method. Supporters say that online courses are on par or better than the traditional classroom set-up.

Online courses can either be hybrids – part face-to-face and part online component – or be completely online with no scheduled face-to-face meetings between students and instructor.

They can also have synchronous elements, which rely on all people being connected online. Conversely, asynchronous activities involve independent study without immediate feedback from instructor or TA.

The main point of contention with online instruction has been with whether it can both provide quality instruction and recoup its high start-up costs.

Richard Walters[cq], professor emeritus of computer science, supports expanding UC Davis’ exploration of online instruction.

Having taught computer science and health informatics courses in standard lecture, hybrid and online formats, Walters said online courses could provide an answer to growing enrollment and budget deficits.

“The online delivery approach is less expensive for a number of reasons,” Walters said. “One of them being that we don’t have to worry about lecture halls, and if it’s done right the students can get the information and do it more or less asynchronously rather than synchronously. This approach also prepares students for life-long learning, something they don’t get from seat-time classes.”

However Daniel Simmons[cq], vice chair of the systemwide Academic Senate and professor of law is concerned with the high start-up costs. He also feels a reduction of face-to-face interaction amongst students and instructors would be detrimental.

“The face-to-face classroom environment gives the students an opportunity to see how the instructor is thinking,” said Simmons, who has taught an online taxation law course. “At the same it gives students an opportunity to challenge what they’re hearing from the instructor.”

The technological startup costs of online instruction are considerable. In a 2002 study titled “What Are the Relevant Costs of Online Education?” UC Davis faculty analyzed Introduction to Food Science and Technology (FST 2) in their comparison of the cost of acquiring and utilizing resources in traditional lecture and online courses.

In looking at the cost of resources acquired by the university, the results showed that the costs of instructor time, totaling $10,167, and TA time, $17,560, were parallel for the online and lecture course. Staff and programmer time totaled $23,035 and hardware and software cost $8,600 for the online course.

In comparison the traditional course spent no money on its technology costs but used $12,400 in lecture hall space.

However, Professor Robert Blake,[cq] professor of Spanish and head of the UC Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching, said the focus should be on enhanced access.

Blake teaches hybrid Spanish courses at the undergraduate level and a course called “Spanish without Walls” through the UC Davis Extension. He has also developed an “Arabic without Walls” course for UC Irvine and is working on a Punjabi course with a professor at UC Santa Barbara.

Blake said courses such as his can provide students the ability to take courses on campuses where resources are diminishing or do not exist.

“Usually when you’re dealing with technology, it requires more effort, and that’s not always going to give you cost savings,” Blake said. “More people are able to consume something they wouldn’t have before and they simply wouldn’t have been on the radar. But it’s not exactly the way the cost benefit analysis is calculated.”

In the end, Simmons said he is open to online courses supplementing lecture classes but that the UC should not expand to granting online degrees.

“As an add-on in places where they work, its fine,” Simmons said. “In the context of undergraduate education at a high quality research university, it’s not putting students in front of a video monitor.”

LESLIE TSAN can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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