By: Matt Calvert

Changes in the way we learn could be in store, as the University of California Board of Regents met this week and discussed the possibility of expanding the number of online course offerings available to students. Whether those changes are for better or for worse, though, remains to be seen.

The move has been advocated for by Governor Jerry Brown, and could allow new online students to take classes that would transfer to UC campuses similar to the system in place for community colleges. Some regents see an increase in online course offerings as a way to increase entry to the University of California while also providing the potential for added revenue. The UC has had to enact budget cuts and tuition increases as a way to combat its revenue problems, both of which have met with resistance from students and administrators.

Offerings are Limited, But Set to Expand

While only three courses are currently being offered online, many more are pending approval. UC President Mark Yudof says that he envisions a day when “10 percent to 15 percent of all undergraduate courses are taken online,” meaning the online course library will have to be greatly expanded. Yudof says this could be accomplished by incentivizing professors to develop online courses, especially for introductory courses that can be difficult to get into due to high enrollment. A greater percentage of middle and high school students say that online classes play a key role in their education, with 40% answering this way in 2011, up from 9% in 2008. Online classes are expanding at other levels of the education system, and colleges should take note.

Though Brown and many of Regents are pushing for this effort, it is likely to meet with resistance from faculty members and even students due to fears of a decrease in the quality of education. Student Regent Jonathan Stein emphasized the benefits of learning on campus in a classroom and warned that computerized education could be a “degradation of the UC experience.” It will be important for the UC to strike a balance between traditional classes and their online offerings or they could face pushbacks.

What Does the Future Hold?

uc-online-coursesThe reality is that times are changing, and by all accounts the UC is actually lagging behind other schools in online offerings. No one knows how much money could be saved by expanding online course offerings, but there is the potential for cost-effective learning, and at this point, everything is on the table. Should the UC choose to expand its number of free offerings along with its monetized ones, there is the potential for people around the world to benefit from a quality education. Schools such as MIT have found a way to put many different courses and course materials online for free, while still generating revenue from donations. They have struck a balance between students and self-learners but have successfully made materials available for both.

The greatest benefit from free offerings would be for those from lower socioeconomic status groups who would no longer have to worry about the cost of materials, transportation, and housing. The main limiting factor would be access to the Internet, something that Reset has previously addressed.

It is not clear yet which direction the Regents will choose to expand their online offerings in, but there is the potential for added revenue and an increase in the availability of course offerings. Other schools have shown that these two goals are not mutually exclusive, and by following their example, the UC can help address its budget issues while meeting the needs of its students and providing a service to the community.