A Panel of UC Faculty and Staff came together this week to discuss the Challenges and Opportunities in the Virtual University.
The panel was moderated by Tyler Stovall, Dean of the Undergraduate Division, and Roseanne Fong, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Advising in the College of Letters & Science. Dean Stovall stressed that the forum intended to discuss the “perils and prospects” of moving courses and University functions online. “The purpose today is simply to explore, not to say it’s a great or terrible thing.”
Philip B. Stark, a professor of Statistics at UC Berkeley, has been incorporating online aspects into his courses for the past fourteen years, and his course Statistics W21 has been completely online since 2007. For him, the internet “enables you to work harder for comparable learning outcomes.”
Distance learning isn’t new – classes have been offered by correspondence for hundreds of years – and as technology has improved, videotaped lectures, remote delivery of documents, and audio/video conferencing have made the classroom experience more accessible to students off campus. One of the greatest advantages of distance learning is geographical flexibility, both for students and faculty.
Stark outlined several other advantages. For instance, material can be presented in many different modes for different learning styles. Machine grading makes innovative assessment methods possible, such as his course’s Mastery-based assessment, which allows a student to submit an assignment five times, with increasing information about how many and which questions they’re getting wrong. The software he uses is also able to generate different problems and their answers for different students. He is also able to see exactly what part of the textbook or other materials students have looked at, and can correlate that to success in the course.
But the advantages are not without costs. For Stark, the human connection isn’t always there – it’s more difficult to walk students through things online even with two-way audio/visual communication. It is not efficient in terms of faculty time. Technology issues sometimes threaten to derail the course. He also lamented that the University doesn’t always reward teaching experiments. His course reviews are lower for this course than his in-person courses, partially because the response rate is dismal.
Christopher Edley, Dean of the School of Law and Senior Policy Advisor to Mark Yudof, the President of the
UC System, has been heavily involved in the University of California Online Education Initiative, which aims to add more online courses to the UC’s offerings. Several years ago, the University conducted a study of students who were turning down UC admission, and discovered that many prospective students – especially black and Latino students – were instead choosing the University of Phoenix, an entirely online university. For whatever reason, what the UC was offering – in-person, on-campus, full-time enrollment – was not a practical option. The UCOE hopes that by delivering lower-division education online to UC and Non-UC students, it can accomplish three main goals, for three different populations:
For UC Students, to improve time to degree;
For UC Faculty, to increase revenue into departments and build capacity for on-line delivery and innovation;
For Non-UC Students, to broaden access to high-quality education designed by world-class faculty.
Edley believes that the UC system is uniquely well suited to meet the third goal in particular. While many Universities are offering more and more on-line options, what the UCOE hopes to offer is high quality, lower-division, credit-granting courses to anyone who wishes to take them. While for schools like Princeton, he says, the strategy for being elite is to be exclusive, “Our strategy for being elite is to be excellent.”
Virtual communication is good for more than just course delivery. Katie Dustin, formerly of the Office of Undergraduate Advising in the College of Letters & Science, discussed ways that office is using technology
to better serve students and to maximize staff effectiveness.
As the University has begun accepting more out-of-state and international students, more and more of these students have been unable to attend CalSO, the summer orientation program, and so have been unable to meet with advisors over the summer. The advising office responded in Summer 2011 with a pilot program enabling non-California students to use Skype for 30-minute one-on-one appointments with advising staff, and attend many-to-one presentations by advising staff using UStream, which allows the students to pose questions via text chat, while the adviser answers on video.
The pilot was a huge success, and out of the students from twenty states and eleven countries who participated, 100% reported satisfaction in a survey. In Fall 2011 the program was expanded to allow Skype appointments for any student living outside a residence hall. Although technology issues (for example, it was unavailable to students in China) have resulted in the postponement of the UStream sessions for now, the advising staff is researching replacements. In the meantime the advising office is beginning to archive videos of its workshops on its website, so students can watch them if they are unable to attend in-person, and is piloting new technologies, such as live chat on Facebook.
Overall, the panel expressed that technological and