SAN FRANCISCO -- The University of California has $10 million to expand online education in the governor's budget proposal. But no one knows what the programs will look like or how much money they will save the university, if any.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who attended a UC Regents meeting Wednesday, stressed the potential of online coursework for cost savings, saying the university can't afford to continue operating as it has -- at least, not without raising tuition, which he has discouraged.
Brown also said the new educational offerings, harnessing the latest technology, would be stronger, not just less expensive. As he put it to reporters after the discussion, "What is being talked about is better, cheaper."
Some leaders have floated the idea of encouraging undergraduates to take 10 percent of their courses online, particularly for lower-division courses. Others have suggested the courses be made available to students who wish to transfer into the system. UC Berkeley's law school dean, Christopher Edley, proposed an entirely new charter campus devoted to online education, with faculty at the heart of it.
In short, the future of online education for UC could be anything. Maybe.
"What we're talking about is exploring an option and seeing if the option works," board chairwoman Sherry Lansing said. "We don't know anything, which is why these goal posts are going to be moving goal posts."
UC's campuses offer hundreds of courses online to their undergraduate students and some degree programs. But many of them are campus-specific. The UC Online Education initiative aims to change that. It has 14 systemwide online courses for its students and aims to develop about 12 more per year by pairing faculty members with designers.
The founders of three leading online education startups, Udacity, Coursera and EdX, made the case for the online programs. They spoke of the possibilities, and the need for exploration. None of them claimed to have found the answers, particularly as they relate to the bottom line. They also noted that few students -- about 10 percent -- actually complete the free classes offered without credit.
One campus leader said students do embrace the infusion of technology into their courses. But, said Sophia Armen, UC Santa Barbara's student body president, given that none of the models has yielded financial returns, the university should keep its focus on the fundamental issues: cost and quality.
"In essence, I don't think online education is the grand solution to the UC's problems," she said.
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