Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
|UC Berkeley chemistry professor Alexander Pines, a long-time advocate of online instruction, is one of the faculty participating in the development of courses for the pilot project. Pines is developing Chemistry 1A and 1B classes with colleague Mark Kubinec.|
By Susan Sward
The University of California has been awarded a $748,000 grant by the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) program for a unique online instruction pilot project aimed at making a major contribution in this field.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation provided the funding through the NGLC program, which is led by EDUCAUSE, a non-profit group seeking to promote the thoughtful use of technology in higher education.
Project leaders said the NGLC award is a real honor in light of the intensity of the competition for the funding: UC's project was one of 29 chosen from more than 600 grant requests.
"In the face of declining state support, UC must find a way to expand access while enhancing quality,'' said Christopher Edley Jr., dean and law professor at UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law and co-leader of the project. "Can technology, and specifically online technology, be part of the solution at a world-class university?
"No institution is in a better position to answer the question through research and innovation,'' Edley said.
The NGLC award was announced today (April 7), coinciding with UC's decision to make a loan to the project to cover its initial costs. In addition, UC will continue to seek external funding, and any amount obtained will be applied to reduce the amount of loan funds supporting the project.
The announcement of the new funding is the latest milestone for the project, which has been in the planning stages from more than a year and a half. The award comes two months after a peer review committee selected 29 UC faculty to develop the UC Online Instruction Project's (OIPP) first courses. More than 70 professors had applied to participate in the project.
"Our project is unique because of its scope — involving many disciplines and a diverse student body on nine undergraduate campuses,'' said Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for Academic Planning, Programs and Coordination and co-leader of the project with Edley. Greenstein added that the project is also unique because it is research-based and faculty-led.
"We seek to determine if online instruction can be integrated effectively into the undergraduate experience available at a leading university. Great universities exist to develop and evaluate ideas, and that's what we are doing here,'' said Greenstein.
The faculty's courses will come from all nine undergraduate campuses and will involve some cross-campus collaborations. The courses will include introductory statistics developed by a three-campus team; a writing course proposed by a three-campus team; a course on ethics and governance developed by a UCLA professor; and a course on water policy proposed by a UC Santa Cruz professor. The NGLC grant will provide funding for 10 online courses whose material will be made freely available to the public. Which courses are selected to receive the NGLC funding will depend on the course design and on when faculty are available to develop their courses.
The first project courses will be offered to enrolled UC students during the 2011-12 academic year.
Although UC has offered thousands of fully online courses, most of these courses have been through UC Extension for transfer credits. In this project, undergraduate students will receive full UC credit for online courses.
Here are some of the ways the project will be different than the efforts of other universities and colleges:
- Research data. Because students on all nine undergraduate campuses will be working in the same online learning environment designed by the project staff, this will be the largest study of its kind of how college students learn online. Because the courses also involve many disciplines, researchers will have a basis for comparison among the humanities, social sciences and sciences.
- Assessment and evaluation. During the course, assessment tools embedded in the coursework will collect data on student progress, providing professors with immediate feedback and enabling them to make immediate adjustments in response to students' learning needs.
- Interactivity. Faculty will work with campus instructional designers to build courses aimed at being as interactive as possible — leapfrogging the current online instruction model, which typically centers on videotaped lectures. Students taking project courses will find a variety of approaches, including chat rooms, discussion boards, interactive online course materials, virtual faculty office hours and course sections conducted by TAs online.
In late February, the participating faculty met in Berkeley for a two-day workshop where project staff talked about learning outcomes and the common learning environment that will be used by the project's online courses.
The excitement felt by many at the conference was obvious. Daniel Garcia, a UC Berkeley computer scientist, said it is wonderful that he will be able to know immediately whether his students are grasping the material he teaches.
"Right now, in 90 percent of courses you have no idea of whether the students are getting the material until the mid-term, and that's too late — it's eight weeks in,'' Garcia said in an interview.
"If the faculty are able to get feedback about how their students are doing on a certain learning goal and can adjust their courses dynamically — wow, that's revolutionary!" Garcia added.
Sarah Eichhorn, assistant vice chair of undergraduate studies in the UC Irvine math department, who will be developing an introductory online math course, said in an interview that she thinks many of her faculty colleagues "are interested to see the results'' of the pilot project. "They see the convenience and good use of resources for this particular course, so they are willing to give it a try.''
Eichhorn said the goal will be to make her course material "dynamic and interesting.'' The audience for this course "is largely students who may not like math so just giving them a dry presentation wouldn't be effective.''
She also praised the project's research approach: "We are all researchers and we like the fact this project isn't just about developing a course. The project has a research component as well.''
Those speaking at the conference included John Yun, an associate professor of education who is director of the UC Educational Evaluation Center at UC Santa Barbara. Yun will lead the assessment-evaluation piece of the project alongside Keith Williams, a senior lecturer in UC Davis' Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior who played a central role in launching the project, and Mara Hancock, UC Berkeley's director of educational technologies, who has led the technological efforts of the project.
In group discussions, several professors — including UCLA assistant chemistry professor Yung-Ya Lin, who won an outstanding teaching award in 2009 — stressed that they want to keep the vibrant quality of their courses when they build their online coursework.
Some professors who have experience teaching online courses said that they have considerably more contact with their students in the online venue than they do in large lecture courses.
Greenstein, co-leader of the project, told the assembled faculty that he considered them the "volunteer army" of ambassadors who will work diligently to develop excellent online courses.
He said he owed them a real debt of gratitude for their willingness to participate in a project that seeks to help UC map its way in the realm of online education.
In the past, several major universities have initiated online programs, and the results have not been uniformly positive. Projects often ran into problems when they failed to gain faculty support or developed large infrastructure and programs without sufficient student demand for the courses. Greenstein said prior to starting the project, he and other UC staff did extensive research into what worked about undergraduate online courses and what didn't, and he added that the project has been designed to avoid previous pitfalls.
At UC, online education has been endorsed by the university's Commission on the Future, which called on UC to "continue timely exploration of fully online instruction for undergraduates."
The California Legislative Analyst's Office also has urged exploration of the online instruction option, concluding that such instruction would make coursework more accessible to students who "otherwise might not be able to enroll due to restrictive personal or professional obligations.'' The office also stated such instruction would enable students to take courses offered at other UC campuses, would permit campuses to increase enrollment without requiring more infrastructure and would make possible statewide academic collaborations.
"Taken together,'' the LAO stated, "we believe that these recommendations would help the state make use of distance education in a more effective and coordinated way, thereby enhancing residents' access to a high-quality and cost-efficient higher education."
As soon as the first project courses are developed and ready to be offered to UC undergraduates, project staff will post announcements in campus newspapers and elsewhere alerting students wishing to enroll in the online courses.
Susan Sward is a freelance writer in the UC Office of the President.