Over the last few years, the University of California has built its use of online education to provide students with expanded opportunities for learning, more flexibility and, potentially, a quicker path to a bachelor's degree by improving access to classes they need to graduate.

At the same time, UC has established a framework that will make it easier and faster for academic departments to develop credit-bearing online courses as part of the general undergraduate curriculum.

"Our aim with online learning is not to remake the landscape of higher education, but to continue our mission of serving our students by providing a world-class education," said systemwide provost Aimée Dorr, who will highlight UC's efforts to grow online instruction at Wednesday's (Jan. 16) meeting of the UC Board of Regents.

"Doing that means addressing a core challenge: how to develop online courses that offer ample instructor interaction and the same kind of rich academic experience that students receive in the classroom," Dorr said. "Our focus is on developing those kinds of high-quality courses as a way of giving our students new avenues to fulfill academic requirements in the lower-division, core classes that are most subject to overcrowding and demand." UC's approach is notable for its emphasis on incorporating online instruction as an integral part of the undergraduate curriculum.

Not a one-size solution

UC faculty also have explored other options for online education. Programs run the gamut from fully-online master's degrees to participation in massive open online courses (MOOCs) — free, non-credit bearing courses open to all who enroll.

"There are a variety of needs online courses can help serve, and there is no single solution for achieving all of those objectives," said Keith Williams, UC Online Education (UCOE) interim director. UCOE is a systemwide program to develop lower-division, gateway courses, in partnership with faculty from each of the campuses. "The university and its campuses have been active across a spectrum of approaches," Williams said.

In the 2011-12 academic year, UC campuses offered some 2,500 online courses with about 90,000 enrollments. These included 116 credit-bearing undergraduate courses, 13 of which were part of UC Online Education; four online master's degree programs; and hundreds of online extension classes.

Last summer, UC Berkeley joined edX, a not-for-profit MOOC enterprise founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. UC San Francisco and UC Irvine have joined with Coursera, a for-profit MOOC enterprise. The heads of these two organizations and the head of Udacity, another for-profit MOOC enterprise, will participate in the regents' session on online education. Because their courses award no academic credit, they do not help students progress toward a degree. But providers such as Coursera, edX and Udacity — and UC itself — are exploring whether these courses ultimately could be incorporated into the mainstream college curriculum.

Individual UC campuses have developed a number of credit-bearing courses at the undergraduate and graduate level. Santa Barbara, Davis and Berkeley have developed programs to foster the creation of such offerings.

As of fall 2012, UC Online Education had enrolled more than 1,700 students in its inaugural year. At least 20 new courses are expected to be added by fall 2013. Officials say the foundation is in place to support a growing catalog of faculty-developed online courses, through UCOE and campus programs.

The question of money

The university is exploring ways online education can be made financially self-sustaining and potentially generate new revenue. Officials note, however, that it remains to be seen whether online education can develop into a reliable funding source. All higher education institutions delving into online instruction today are grappling with the same uncertainty.

Early efforts to fund UC's online efforts by enrolling non-matriculated students in select online courses for a fee (the per-unit equivalent of in-state tuition) have not progressed as quickly as hoped, officials say. The option still is under exploration as part of a larger effort to identify a successful business model.

Officials assert, however, that the program has met its main goal: developing high-caliber, credit-bearing undergraduate courses that have been well-received by students and faculty.

Quality first

"In the development of online instruction, quality has to be the top priority," Williams said. "For UC Online Education, that has meant maintaining a certain degree of student-instructor interaction that is high compared to many online offerings. It has also involved instruction that takes advantage of the latest technology to present information in new ways: through multi-player gaming, simulations, videos, guest chats by industry experts and other means."

In addition, the program is working to establish a simple system for cross-campus instruction, enabling students to enroll in online courses at any UC campus. The new system would address issues of data-transfer and instructor funding, and would create a sorely-needed infrastructure to support other programs, such as study abroad, that rely on cross-campus enrollment.

Incorporating an evolving learning method into the delivery of a world-class education is something that takes time, officials say.

"We know online instruction has tremendous potential, but there is no ready-made recipe for success," Dorr said. "The only way to do this is to do it thoughtfully, with faculty involvement and student feedback, trying a variety of approaches to see what works best."