Courtesy of UC Online

To alleviate increasing demand for classes, UC Online has created a technological gateway to higher education. On Oct. 31, Interim Director of UC Online Keith Williams adjoined a Q&A conference call among the UC campus newspapers for an exclusive virtual tour of the online module. Initially reserved for UC-enrolled students, course offerings became available to the public in early October.

“We’re trying to replicate the quality of [the UC] educational experience that might come in the classroom but by doing it in a way that’s particularly conducive to doing it online,” stated Williams. “So I think the goal is to use the innovative technology that’s available and allow those to be effectively changing the way it is done, but still getting the same type of things across.”

Branching out beyond the traditional UC learning experience, Williams said the introduction of online courses will expand accessibility for both UC and non-UC students. University online classes are aimed at alleviating high demand, yet Williams referred to the gradual inclusion of online upper division courses. The program currently offers 14 courses, with a total of 35 in development for the UC system.

Starting spring 2013, two additional classes will be included in UC Riverside’s online course listing. Introduction to Latin American History and Introduction to Computer Science will be joining Dance: Cultures and Contexts—the current fall 2012 online course taught by dance professor Jacklynn Shea Murphy.

Through systemwide collaborations, UC Online will allow enrolled students to take multiple courses on a multi-campus level. “One of the benefits that I think that has come from this systemwide effort is that there is now a group of people involved in technology…that get together in a [discussion] meeting and talk about things that are working well and things that are not. I think it’s helping to create people on the campuses that have experts that they didn’t have before.”

In an online class, faculty members engineer an independent online module, which caters to their own course-specific material. Students are periodically challenged throughout the lectures with multiple choice questions or opinionated polling, similar to the use of clickers commonly used in classrooms. Course feedback will be beneficial for both the instructor and the student to monitor the overall pace and effectiveness.

Live discussion sessions encourage student participation in an interactive learning environment within a virtual classroom. Student-course responsiveness is measured through course-long surveys and collaborative work. Mandatory attendance will be monitored by the teaching assistants. Course tabs are labeled along the side of each course to facilitate online navigation. Students can use the side tabs to check their class schedules, review the course syllabus, post assignments and participate in discussion sections synchronously.

Through the Adobe Connect system, office hours and discussions will involve interactive tools such as a live chat session, document sharing, a whiteboard for writing and drawing, and a separate box for downloading files. Application features such as the etherpad will enable students to create interactive online study groups through a shared document, similar to a Google document. Due to limited bandwidth, the Adobe program currently limits the entry of about 20 students in live discussion sessions.

“Online gives them a little different opportunity for assessment of a students’ work than in the traditional day of doing classes [and] instead of having two midterms and a final, there are typically a lot more assignments that are smaller,” Williams said. To counteract plagiarism or cheating, Williams noted that each examination period is unique to the designs of the instructor. Possible options may include online web proctoring or the creation of in-person proctoring centers. For currently-enrolled UC students, identity verification is confirmed as part of each campus database, while online programs are often utilized to detect plagiarized work.

According to Williams, UC Online obtained an initial start-up loan of $6.9 million from the University Office of the President (UCOP), which funds self-sustaining education enterprises and collects percentage on all earned revenue. Thus far, only about $5 million has been spent on the UC Online module. The initial loan will be paid back over a seven-year period.

Additional funding came from the Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC) and the Gates Foundation, which provided the program with a $770,000 grant.

The program hopes to acquire more funds from the enrollment of non-matriculated students and by applying for additional grants through the National Science Foundation.

“This project is based on a fundamental assumption that we will be able to enroll students who are not currently UC students, and they will be paying fees that are comparable to the tuition that UC students take…for the courses that are there,” he said.

Though financial aid is currently unavailable to non-UC students, Williams and other administrators will attempt to obtain funding from sources such as the UC Online Academy funding programs for high school students. Also, UC-enrolled students may take online classes under their current tuition. Still considered a new program, the UC Academic Senate will most likely discuss the limitations of overall course enrollment.

From a marketing perspective, the UC Online module may need to rival the introduction of massive open online courses (MOOCs), free online classes with unlimited scalability in terms of student-teacher ratio. With “pure interaction, but no authoritative figure” in a professional sense, Williams referred to the MOOCs as non-competitive, due to the differences in direction.

“We’re using a group at UCSB with those educational evaluations as a research focus and they’re doing a two year study of the courses that we’re offering,” stated Keith who emphasized an involved evaluation process. Student participation in surveys and focus groups will provide greater insight for areas of improvement and encourages more expedited course modifications.

According to a preliminary report conducted on the first six classes offered by UC Online, 70 percent of the students who were enrolled in the courses gave the program favorable reviews.

“The students thought that they were getting a good learning experience,” explained Williams. “They liked the type of courses that were there.”