In an attempt to alleviate the financial effects of the ongoing budget crisis, the UC Board of Regents informally endorsed a proposal at their July 14 meeting, which would potentially grant students their undergraduate degree by taking a course load fully available online.
The program would offer courses with the heaviest enrollment on UC campuses and those that are most demanded by students enrolled in community colleges and who are planning to transfer.
Some students and professors have expressed support for the program because of what they believe is the remarkable accessibility it would offer – an advantage that they argue the formal classroom setting simply cannot compete with.
“The obvious benefits of online courses is that if you don’t have time or the means to go to class, you can still get an education,” said Ursula Barghouth, a recent graduate of UCLA who used online course offerings to fulfill some major requirements.
Michael Maher, a UC Davis professor in the Graduate School of Management, shares Barghouth’s sentiment.
He explains what he sees as the notable accessibility and convenience that online education offers and its ability to respond to each student’s pace of learning as key benefits of the proposal.
Maher also contends that online education would aid students struggling with an obligation to work long hours while also dealing with a heavy course load. The difficulty of finding transportation to school or the threat of being rejected from certain classes all make an online option seem favorable, he stresses.
“Online education enables students to learn at their own paces,” Maher said. “In a conventional class, some students are bored and want to move faster, [while] others can’t keep up. [This program] reaches out to students who have difficulty or simply cannot go to campuses to take classes at a particular time.”
However, some opponents to the pilot argue that the plan is not viable. In a piece done by the Sacramento Bee, Chancellor Katehi expressed reluctance to award degrees to students “without [them] ever placing a foot on campus.”
Fred Wood, vice chancellor of student affairs, questions the quality of a fully online degree and does not believe that it equates with a degree received by taking on-campus courses. He does, however, support a hybrid program, in which students would take a few online courses in addition to courses taken in the formal classroom setting.
“If you believe the degree reflects the benefits from experiences inside and outside of campus, you call into question whether it is the same degree or not,” Wood said.
Wood discusses the importance of interactions between students and faculty and what he sees as the invaluable experience of being in the environment of the campus. These avenues of human interaction and experience add enormously to the quality and excellence of the students’ education, he contends. However, Wood believes these advantages are forfeited when a student is learning through purely electronic media.
He also adds that students are not the only ones who could potentially be at a loss if the online program is implemented. Wood, who is also a professor of chemistry, explains that as a faculty member, he benefits greatly from interacting with students.
“It’s valuable [and] you lose so much,” Wood said. “[When talking with students], we are articulating carefully, we’re listening and we’re concerned. How will you have this online?”
Despite the contentions on both sides of the debate, Katehi points to the main concern as maintaining the quality and excellence of the university and its students. It is now a question of whether the model for an online undergraduate degree can not only educate the students, but also guarantee the quality of the education it provides.
NOURA KHOURY can be reached at email@example.com.