Young, J. (2010) U. of California Considers Online Classes, or Even Degrees Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9

This is a strange article that discusses the reluctance of faculty at the University of California to consider fully online undergraduate programs, although these are seen as one way for the system to cope with severe budget cuts. There are several strange things about this article:

  • the idea that moving programs online will save money/increase revenues. Whether or not this happens will depend on many variables, not least the business model that is adopted. However, it appears that this proposal is not part of any coherent strategic plan or overall financial strategy, but comes mainly from one senior professor with the Chancellor’s ear pushing for more online programs
  • the idea of starting with first year ‘gateway’ courses such as Calculus 1. This assumes that students will have the independent learning skills needed to succeed at studying fully online. My experience suggests that this is the wrong place to start, and that students need to be gradually introduced to online study – and Calculus in particular is a tough place to start. (However, they might want to take a look at Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium – but it’s not a distance program)
  • the suggestion that nothing will happen unless faculty approve and agree. This is like asking everyone on the Titanic to agree on whether the lifeboats should be used as it’s sinking. If U of C is in such a financial hole that it cannot continue with the same model, then a new model becomes essential. I am not arguing that this has to be online education, but if it was decided that it was, then everyone should try to make it work.
  • the failure of opponents to online learning to give due weight to research in this area. It appears any academic can believe what they like when it comes to their own teaching. No-one seems to be paying any attention to the conditions under which online learning works best. Do the research, guys.
  • and lastly, the reporter, Jeffrey Young, does not do a good job of placing this in the wider context of e-learning and online learning. For instance, a more compelling argument for U of C would be to move gradually into hybrid learning for undergraduate students, with perhaps more online distance learning in the final year, but this is not discussed – it’s either face-to-face teaching or distance, which is a false dichotomy.
  • the seems to be a solution (online learning) linked to a problem (no money) without a clear rationale or explanation as to how it’s going to solve the problem.

When I finished reading this article, I wasn’t sure I was living in the same world as the academics and administrators at the University of California. I think they should get out more (or maybe I should). Or maybe it’s just a bad article.


  1. Tony.. could you elaborate on …

    “No-one seems to be paying any attention to the conditions under which online learning works best.”

    .. by pointing us in directions on where best to start in exploring this further?

  2. I think it is just a bad article. The Chronicle is well known for its anti online education views. So it is not surprising that they run an article such as this. Like you I am skeptical that this writer characterizes the views of the University of California. This one deserves some fact checking.


  3. Good review, Tony. One other issue I had with the article (or U of C) was this notion that open content and elearning were the same thing. Simply putting content online does not make a fully online undergraduate program.

  4. Hi, James

    Thanks for asking about the conditions under which online learning works best.

    I’m not quite sure where to start in answering your question. There are several books and reports on this topic. I list some of the better ones below (especially the last!):

    Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2003). The Virtual Student: A Profile and Guide to Working With Online Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 191 pages (alk. paper) $47.00 CAN (29.00 US). ISBN 0-7879-6474-3.

    Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating London/New York: Routledge

    JISC (2004) Effective Practice with e-Learning Bristol, U.K.: Joint Information Systems Committee.

    Bates, A. and Poole, G. (2003) Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

    In addition there are various quality standards set for online learning, for example:

    Canadian Recommended e-Learning Guidelines: Eng.pdf

    I would add two other criteria that are not always in the other literature:

    online learning generally works best with students who are more mature or more experienced in learning independently, although with good course design, this can be developed while they learn online;

    and some subjects/topics are much easier to teach online than others. For instance, civil engineering can be taught online, but it requires heavy investment and good design of simulations, virtual labs, etc., which is costly and time-consuming to develop, so it is not usually done. However, subjects such as English literature lend themselves much more easily to online teaching.

    Anyone else want to add something?

    Best regards

    • Hello Tony,
      I have to disagree with you on your claim that “online learning generally works best with students who are more mature or more experienced in learning independently”. I believe that online learning would work best with students that have more experience at studying in groups. Online learning, as in any other learning method, require the student to interact with the other students and the teachers and ask questions to improve. If they are only used to study by themselves they will most likely overlook this and there would be barely any differences between attending the online courses and reading textbooks.

      Best regards.

  5. Some “Elite Universities” in other countries are offering online courses. Many students and professionals are enjoying such educational training method, particularly those who are very much busy with their work.


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