This spring, students enrolling in UCLA professor Susanne Lohmann's popular course on Diversity, Disagreement and Democracy — usually taught in a lecture hall — had another option: an online format that allowed them to explore key concepts through multi-player gaming.

Students explored the dynamics of decision-making in situations where individuals' real identities are unknown. The online environment enabled the students to complete more exercises, and to do so in larger groups, than was possible in a face-to-face environment, according to Lohmann.

"It was a great class," said Judson Aiken, who graduated from UCLA in June and now works in risk advisory at Ernst & Young. "It was really interesting to play these games and get these tangible, real-world results."

Lohmann's course is among the first to be offered though UC Online, the University of California's systemwide online learning program. And it epitomizes the way in which UC Online plans to use the digital environment: to teach in ways that go beyond what's possible in a classroom.

Since UC Online debuted in January with a precalculus class at UC Merced, it has offered 14 distinct courses, including four offerings that are new this fall: a class on maps and spatial reasoning at UC Santa Barbara; courses on information and on computer science at UC Berkeley; and a course at UC Riverside on the history and culture of dance. Roughly 1,700 undergraduate students have enrolled in UC Online courses since the program's inception.

A release-valve for high-demand courses

Although some colleges now offer online degrees or have posted free, non-credit-bearing courses on the Web, UC Online is focused on developing lower-division, gateway and general education courses — the types of undergraduate courses that are most subject to the pressures of overcrowding and demand.

This fall, UC Online also has begun allowing qualified non-UC students to enroll in select online courses for college credit. The program is aimed at high school students and transfer students looking to bolster their academic credentials. Up to nine courses are slated to be offered to non-UC students starting in January, including pre-calculus I and II, general chemistry, introduction to probability and statistics, general psychology and introduction to rhetoric and writing.

While UC Online courses are included as part of student tuition for current UC students, non-UC students pay fees based on in-state tuition rates of $350 per quarter unit and $525 per semester unit, amounting to between $1,400 and $2,100 for a typical four-unit course. These fees are designed to help the online program become financially self-sustaining and bring revenue to participating academic departments.

"This is a unique opportunity for anyone who is interested in advancing their education to access our world-class faculty, to earn transferable credit, and to demonstrate, upon successful completion of a course, their ability to achieve in UC-level coursework," said Keith Williams, UC Online interim director.

Taking the time to get it right

Other elite universities, such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT, have poured tens of millions of dollars into creating courses that are freely available to the general public, known as "massively open online courses," or MOOCs. But the University of California is one of the first top-tier research universities to make its undergraduate courses available online to the public for full college credit.

As such, UC Online courses are held to rigorous quality standards and must clear numerous institutional approvals before they are certified as meeting the criteria of a UC-level undergraduate course.

That process has resulted in some delays in approving courses, as university policy makers sort through issues such as proctoring and how to best manage courses that include both UC and non-UC students.

"We're trying to tackle the issue of how to translate high-caliber university instruction into the online environment in a way that doesn't just automate and mass produce courses, but actually enriches and advances learning," said Williams. "That's not a fast or simple process. But it's critical that we take it on — and that we invest the time to get it right."

Opportunities for new ways of learning

"I've taught for 30 years at UC Davis, and I really believe education is at an inflection point," said professor James Carey, whose UC Online class, Terrorism and War, is slated to be offered spring quarter to UC students and subsequently to non-UC students. "Technology is offering us new ways to deliver content that we can't do face-to-face, and deliver content in really interesting and exciting ways."

Carey's course, developed in partnership with the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, enables students to engage, through video and question-and-answer sessions, with some of the nation's foremost military strategists. Such interaction would be time- and cost-prohibitive in a face-to-face environment.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity for students to be introduced to the experts who brief the top military officers crafting strategies for the Middle East. These experts offer perspectives no one else has," Carey said.

As it develops the current model, UC Online is keeping the door open to other online instruction programs and is working collaboratively with initiatives underway at individual UC campuses that include degree-granting programs and MOOCs.

The program also is laying to lay the groundwork for enabling UC students on any campus to enroll in any UC Online course. Currently it's a cumbersome process that involves complex issues of credit articulation, financial aid and tuition disbursement.

"Online learning is by definition an evolving field." Williams said. "Our primary objective is to create dynamic, academically rich experiences that advance the UC undergraduate curriculum. How we do that best is something that we are, to some degree, still learning.

"But the University of California has always set the pace for undergraduate instruction, and we're looking to continue that leadership in an environment that is becoming more and more intrinsic to how students learn."