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Thursday, May 30, 2024

UC receives loan for online course pilot project

During the first week of April, UC was approved for a $6.9 million loan that can be used to pay for its Online Instruction Pilot Project (OIPP).

The loan is being provided to UC through the UC Strategic Investment Program (UCSIP), which was established by the Chief Financial Officer Division of the UC Office of the President (UCOP) in 2010, according to the program’s website. The program offers internal loans to UC campuses.

“The loan is up to $6.9 million, and I say ‘up to’ because it’s not really a loan where we get the whole lump [sum] in one transfer,” said DoQuyen Tran-Taylor, pilot program manager. “It’s more like funds that we can draw down upon as we need it.”

Through UCSIP, the office of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is able to offer these no-interest loans to support cross-campus collaborations, like the OIPP. It is considered an internal loan because it is being provided through the office of the CFO. And because it is an internal loan, students’ tuition will not be affected.

“The Strategic Investment Program is something that enables the university to go and move forward with initiatives [in] cross-campus collaborations that otherwise wouldn’t be able to move forward,” said UC spokesperson Steve Montiel. “This program makes it possible for the university to [fund] very promising initiatives.”

Although the loan allows for up to $6.9 million to be borrowed, there are plans to seek additional external funding so that the full size of the loan may not be needed, said Kirk Alexander, program manager of Academic Technology Services, in an e-mail interview. The fact that $6.9 million is available doesn’t mean that all of it will be needed.

“Our aim is to continue to raise foundation and other gift funding to offset the need to draw upon the loan,” said Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for Academic Planning, Programs and Coordination, in an e-mail interview.

And as this loan allows the pilot project to proceed according to its planned timeline, the first online courses are still set to be offered on time, Alexander said.

UC recently received a $748,000 grant from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) program, and any other grants that UC is awarded will reduce how much needs to be pulled from the loan.

A proposal for a $1.3 million grant for OIPP was recently submitted to the National Sciences Foundation, Tran-Taylor said. The university hopes to hear back from the foundation sometime this summer.

The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Spencer Foundation are two other organizations that are being actively looked into.

How long it takes to pay back the loan depends on how much is taken out of it. This in turn depends on how much external funding UC receives; as more funding is made available, the less needs to be borrowed. It should take five to six years to pay back the loan, Tran-Taylor said.

“It’s a question of at what point does the [pilot] project no longer become a pilot project and just becomes something that the university does,” Tran-Taylor said. “But I don’t think that we’re looking to borrow any more than that [$6.9 million] because we’re hoping that this project will become self-sustaining in the future.”

Similar to already-existing extension programs at UC’s undergraduate campuses, non-UC students would be able to enroll in these online courses for a fee. These fees would go toward funding the project and paying off the loan.

“The big challenge with online instruction is in how we select the appropriate type and level of technology. And that is not a straightforward choice,” said Hemant K. Bhargava, associate dean of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, in an e-mail interview. “Worse, there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. Not all technological solutions work well, and even a ‘good one’ may be appropriate for one course and terrible for another.”

This means that there is a risk that UC could spend millions of dollars on online technologies and not get the desired return because the wrong approach was chosen, he said. The big question is whether UC should be an early adopter of this technology – and be a risk-taker – or let other institutions try it out first, and then employ the technologies that work well.

“Given my understanding of UC budget and the state/evidence of online instruction, some caution is appropriate,” Bhargava said. “Yes, there are many examples of high-quality instructional experience through technology. But that is not the same as saying that the quality was achieved at a (substantially) lower cost than the alternative, traditional format.”

TRISHA PERKINS can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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