July 28, 2014

New developments in online learning across the University of California system – and the implications for us all

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The University of California system

The University of California system

To, K. (2014) UC Regents announce online course expansion, The Guardian, UC San Diego, undated, but probably February 5

The University of California system continues to struggle with providing a system-wide approach to online learning. This is a report of decisions made at a UC Board of Regents meeting on January 15.

The California public higher education system

The UC system consists of a number of publicly-funded Tier 1 research universities such as Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis and Irvine, spread across a very large state. Altogether there are 10 campuses with nearly 250,000 students. In addition, the California State University system, with 23 campuses and nearly 450,000 students, operates mainly at undergraduate level, although many campuses also offer masters and Ph.D. programs. Lastly there are 72 community colleges, with 2.4 million students, focusing primarily on vocational education and training.


First though a little background, because what the UC Regents are trying to do – create economies of scale by sharing online undergraduate courses across the different institutions – is really important in terms of productivity and effectiveness. A number of other jurisdictions or state-wide systems, such as the University of Florida, and here in Canada, the province of Ontario, are trying to do something similar. Many institutions have had online graduate programs, but these new initiatives are focusing on online undergraduate education, which for many institutions is a new development. Even more controversial is the idea of sharing courses, so that a course developed at one campus will automatically be accepted for credit in another.

UC Online

In January 2012 the Regents set up UC Online after a two year pilot. This program now offers 11 courses for cross-campus enrollment, so it’s pretty modest. More importantly, not all of the UC campuses are participating in this endeavour. For instance, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara have decided not to participate in the program because of issues around student admission and enrollment.

The Innovative Learning Technology Initiative (ILTI)

This is a new initiative launched in early 2013, helped by grants totalling $10 million that Governor Jerry Brown allotted to the UC and to the California State University systems in July 2013, to offer more undergraduate courses online with an emphasis on high-in-demand and prerequisite classes, i.e. extra money specifically for online courses.

At the recent Regents meeting three critically important decisions were made:

  • the establishment of a cross-campus enrollment webpage, i.e. one-stop shopping for potential students
  • funding for an additional 30 courses to be created
  • the development of an approval process for cross-campus course credit.

Under the ILTI, the regents intend to create 150 credit-bearing online and hybrid courses by 2016. Presumably these will be in addition to ones already on offer from the individual campuses themselves. (In 2011-2012  UC campuses individually offered over 2,500 online courses, with more than 90,000 enrolled students.)

Online courses without human interaction?

One major reason for anxiety within the UC system is the pressure from the governor:

Brown continues to urge for a complete absence of human interaction in online courses. “You say you need human touch — I say, maybe you don’t need it,” Brown told the The Daily Californian on Jan. 28. “The barrier here is the human software, the human thought that we’re putting into the technology.”

Politics and economics

What’s pushing the governor’s support for automated online learning is the large state debt accumulated over many years. California had massive current account deficits preceding and following the recession in 2008. Governor Brown is now able to project a small surplus on operating costs, but only because of massive funding cuts to the post-secondary education system over the last few years. However demand from students has not gone away, so the pressure for a low cost way of providing undergraduate education is a political and economic necessity for Brown.


First, I am more than 1,000 miles away, I don’t work in the system, so I don’t have all the information I need. But the big picture seems to me to be clear, and the implications are much wider than the just for the state of California.

The three decisions recently announced by the Regents are essential first steps to creating a more coherent approach to online learning in the UC system, or elsewhere. However, in terms of the overall UC system, the number of new courses being funded through the ILTI initiative is tiny. The real drive towards online learning is coming from the individual campuses themselves, and it would make more sense to try and co-ordinate these activities than to add a further layer on to an already large and complex system, particularly a layer that is directly funded from the governor’s office and politically driven, with all the risks that are entailed.

Nevertheless we are already seeing other state or province wide public higher education systems moving in this direction and we will see more. There are possible economies of scale to be gained from sharing at least content across high-demand, standard foundational programs, and students need the flexibility to take online courses from different campuses in the same system without unnecessary barriers. It seems absurd to me that UC San Diego would not accept credits for online courses taken from UC Davis or vice versa – they are all part of the same system. This doesn’t mean to say it will be easy. It will need cross campus agreement on combinations of courses for particular programs, and some common admission standards between the campuses, if that doesn’t exist already. While this involves some work, though, it is not rocket science (come to British Columbia to see how this is done, via the BC Council on Admissions and Transfer).

Much more worrying are the political aspects. I am sure Governor Brown will find many distinguished computer scientists and California-based companies such as Coursera and Google who will tell him that university teaching can be fully automated – but they are wrong. They do not understand how learning takes place. Someone needs to get the message through to Governor Brown that the research on online credit-based learning shows clearly that for high level learning, student and instructor interaction is essential, as well as student-student interaction. So you run a real risk then of poor quality outcomes if you try to automate online learning, at least given the status of artificial intelligence now and well into the future. At the same time, there are opportunities for economies of scale, but mainly on the transmission of content side and sharing of courses and programs.

This leads to my last point. None of this will be satisfactorily resolved without some clear vision for California’s public higher education system. What we are seeing is tinkering around the edges, without a clear picture of what the goals are other than cutting cost. What kind of system does California want for the future, and where does online learning fit within this vision? For instance, does it want to be the best public post-secondary education system in the world – which it could well be – or does it want a mediocre, low cost public system with the private institutions carrying the heavy load in research and status? Only when Californians make up their minds on this will we see a coherent system-wide strategy for online learning in California.



  1. Thanks for this article Tony. I am a resident of California, and you are correct that there is a need for a coherent strategy , a system-wide strategy where university systems ‘talk’ to one another. This seems a long way off unfortunately, even the systems with the schools academic departments don’t talk to one another. For example, students must submit two different sets of admissions applications when applying to teachers college at a California State University Northridge.

    I have three college age children, and even though my daughter was accepted into UC San Diego last year, she chose another private college for various reasons, but the two primary: 1) to be able to graduate in four years, 2) small classes taught by the professors not T.A.s. She now is a freshman in a good, (but expensive) private university in CA.

    Also, the very fact that institutions can ‘opt out’ of a state wide program is a barrier to cohesiveness, one where the student loses out. And finally Jerry Brown’s comment is disturbing — that teacher’s are not needed in online learning. Look at the dismal results from San Jose State University’s pilot with Udacity; a perfect example of why instructors are needed to support land guide the student towards learning.

    Thanks for the informative post!

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