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Thursday, October 28, 2021

UC explores the potential of online courses

The University of California has invited faculty members UC system-wide to participate in a pilot project that will assess the quality and aptitude of online courses.

Led by the UC Office of the President, the project allows for up to 25 courses in a wide array of disciplines at each UC campus to be developed and tested by faculty in an online format.

“The pilot is looking for a way to develop online courses that still maintains the student-faculty interaction and student-student interaction that make the UC a good place to go to school,” said Dr. Keith Williams, a senior lecturer in the Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior department and faculty associate of the project program. “It has the potential to provide other opportunities for students to get into their classes.”

The project is focused on lower division courses, namely courses that many students need to take, Williams said. The basis behind the project is to provide a means for more students to enroll in the core classes, as well as to accommodate for financial limitations in the state budget.

Part of the preliminary stages of the project is to define the key ingredients that constitute a UC-quality course and how to transfer those elements into an online format, Williams said.

“It [the format] would probably be a variety of things,” Williams said. “Taped lectures, learning modules and activities that illustrate concepts … mock laboratories that show data and ask for interpretations … The faculty is going to decide what works best.”

The objective of the project is to determine whether certain courses can be converted entirely into an online format, one without face-to-face interactions, Williams said. Courses that are entirely online could include chat rooms and video chats that take place instead of discussions and office hours.

However, a “blended” course may offer the best of both worlds, Williams said.

A blended course would deliver the content of a course online, but still provide a time for students and faculty to meet face-to-face to further discuss and analyze the material, said Liz Gibson, director of the information and education technology’s academic technology services at UC Davis.

“The content could be online … but when students and faculty meet, that time is spent in discussion of the content they learned online already,” Gibson said. “It’s an opportunity for faculty to bring their research into the classroom so students can see what they’ve learned as an application to life, as opposed to something learned in a textbook.”

A blended course is likely the form of online courses that will be seen in the early stages at UC Davis if Chancellor Linda Katehi and the Academic Senate support an online program, Gibson said. At this point, the chancellor and the Academic Senate have yet to indicate that they are interested.

However, no course at UC Davis would solely be offered online, Gibson said. There may be sections within a course offered entirely online, but there will always be at least one section offered in a classroom.

Still, some material could be better taught online, Gibson said.

“I think there are some courses that their content area is conducive to being online,” she said. “There are tools online that you can use to create a sense of community in those courses – anything from blogs, forums and chat rooms to collaborative writing through Google Docs.”

Math and statistics are examples of content that is easily adaptable to an online format, Gibson said. Students could manipulate graphs and equations through simulations that would help develop a thorough understanding of the material.

Even though the UC Board of Regents has ultimate authority, the faculty at each UC campus will decide the extent to which online courses will become prevalent at their respective campuses, Williams said.

“The faculty will decide whether [an online course] works or not,” Williams said. “Any class that is taught for credit at the university has to be approved by a courses committee as part of the Academic Senate that’s made up of faculty. If that course isn’t approved, it can’t be taught as part of the curriculum.”

Already, about 1,200 fully online courses were offered through the UC Extension program in 2009-2010, according to a UC press release. However, the courses provide transferable credit that only count toward elective credit and not UC credit that could contribute to a student’s major, Williams said.

MARTHA GEORGIS can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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