Editorial: The perils of online courses and how to avoid them

Lin Chai/HIGHLANDER
Lin Chai/HIGHLANDER

As Governor Jerry Brown unveiled his new budget for the state of California, which miraculously contains an $851 million surplus, University of California students waited anxiously to see if it addresses our needs. Fortunately, our fears have largely been assuaged. Governor Brown’s new budget sees some $125.1 million restored to the UC after previous guts to education funding. Tuition hikes have been staved off—for this year.

But this time, we should be paying close attention to what is included in the budget instead of what is excluded from it. One of the most touted features of Governor Brown’s proposed financial plan is the $10 million earmarked for technological enhancement and development of a large-scale UC-wide system of online courses.

We should be clear—online courses themselves do not necessarily provide poor educational quality and they should not be discarded out of hand. They would offer increased opportunities for students to learn about a wide array of subjects. If UC follows through with its current plan, students at any UC campus would be able to enroll in online courses at any other UC campus, allowing students to experience the best each campus has to offer. And it could potentially allow for the cash-strapped UC system to ensure the high caliber of a UC education continues to be available to a wide array of students.

However, for all their strengths, we are skeptical that online courses will automatically be the panacea for the UC system. There are numerous problems inherent in implementing a policy that is fundamentally reliant upon online courses. Probably the most pressing question is how students will be able to maintain a professional relationship with professors and other academic faculty, if at all.

This interpersonal connection is a vital aspect of the university experience. Some people just don’t learn well in a large lecture hall. But by visiting a professor’s office hours, students can delve deeper and seek clarification on how to integrate a multivariable equation or the significance of the gunpowder empires. Discussing a subject with a professor who actually knows your name leads to vibrant discourses that increase the student’s understanding of the world, and professors can also provide students with the opportunity to engage in lab work or community research and thereby generate information that benefits society. And should the student succeed in this position, an endorsement can be made via a letter of recommendation.

Online courses could throw this entire system of obtaining and using knowledge into jeopardy by further depersonalizing the educational experience. If the UC system is to institute any online courses, the professors who teach those courses must be willing to meet with their students—preferably in person, but a webcam or an instant messaging session would be acceptable. If holding office hours is too much for courses that are expected to have extremely high enrollment rates, students should have the option of setting an appointment instead. But in any scenario, the relationship between the student and the professor cannot be lost to the ceaseless march of technology.

Any online program needs to institute a cyber version of John Stuart Mill’s marketplace of ideas. For instance, a class could implement a forum that would require students to post a certain number of times per week. And just like teaching assistants monitor their discussion sections to ensure that comments are relevant and insightful, forum moderators should encourage thoughtful debate and enlightening conversation. The grade needs to be based not just on quantity of participation, but quality of participation as well.

Online courses are a simple way to make high quality education available to many people, but what about students who lack a computer and Internet connection? Students living away from campus will not have access to the free wireless Internet provided to every UCR-goer. Some public libraries offer free Internet access, but the technology is frequently outdated. If the class uses the latest software updates, it may be impossible to access at all for people without the latest Internet browser or hardware. And what happens if the Internet provider fails in the middle of a final exam?

To avoid this problem, UC should never require any course to be taken online in order for a student to graduate. Online courses can be an effective educational tool. But they should never supplant the traditional learning environment. Final exams should be offered at a physical location if possible so students don’t have to worry about Internet Explorer freezing in the middle of answering the second essay question.

But perhaps most importantly, the student body should be involved in the development of any online class program. If the eventual intention of the UC is to have students take 10 percent of all their courses online, students have a significant say in how these courses are developed. During the planning stages, students’ concerns and suggestions need to be listened to and acted upon. And after the courses are implemented, there needs to be a rigorous feedback system that allows students to inform developers of what worked well and what didn’t.

The online courses the UC currently offers already include some of these ideas, such as a chatroom-style discussion. But as the UC ramps up its online offerings, these features that maintain the interpersonal dimension of a traditional course must not be allowed to fall to the wayside.

There are plenty of reasons online courses are at least worth a look. And the UC regents are right to look to them for answers to the dire budget problems assaulting this revered institution of higher education. But in so doing, the regents must not forget that the goal of the University of California system is not just to provide affordable education, but a high quality one. We cannot rush to embrace the former and leave the quality of our esteemed educational system to rot.

If the regents move forward on implementation of online classes, they must ensure that in so doing they do not void the UC’s promise of quality. Otherwise, they risk ripping a core pillar from the heart of the University of California.

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