Where's UC Online Now and How Will We Get Our $7 Million Back?

by Wendy Brown, Outgoing Co-Chair, Berkeley Faculty Association

On July 16th and 17th, The New York Times featured stories on the launching of Coursera, a blockbuster online higher education project emerging from a spectacularly successful Stanford experiment two years ago.

Still in the early stages of development but already reaching hundreds of thousands of learners, Coursera promises to disseminate academic knowledge for free to anyone with access to a computer. The courses are not offered for credit although certification of completion is available. This “impediment” (which reminds us that online learning is not a direct substitute for classroom learning) does not seem to be one. Millions around the world are registering for fall 2012 Coursera courses.Many elite universities have signed on to Coursera, including Princeton, Stanford, Penn, Duke, Hopkins and a range of publics, among them Illinois, Michigan and Virginia. The University of California (with the exception of UCSF) is notably missing from the list of participating universities.

Where is UC? As you will recall, last year Berkeley Law School Dean Edley borrowed $7 million from UCOP to launch a UC for-profit online higher ed project, one that he promised would lead the way in the elite higher ed market, reap hundreds of millions of dollars for the university AND produce social justice as it extended a UC education to those who could not afford to leave home. Many of us were skeptical at the time, though our concerns were largely brushed aside. Edley also promised to raise private funds for the pilot exploration of this project. When this fundraising effort failed, he turned to the depleted coffers of UCOP to finance the pilot, claiming that it was a loan which would easily and quickly be repaid. (Why, one might ask, would UCOP fund something that major foundations, with their fingers on the pulse of online higher ed, would not?)

As Coursera and other elite online endeavors sailed the winds of open sourcing and brought ever more universities and constituencies on board, the UC online project kept shifting course. Would it provide a wholly online UC degree as Edley initially hoped? Or would it provide UC lower division courses to UC students so the University could enroll more students without expanding physical campuses or hiring more faculty? Or would it sell UC-branded courses to non-UC students (as the pilot project has done)? Would it be a substitute for, a supplement to, or a commercialized knock-off of a UC on-campus education? Would it sell the courses at the price of on-campus tuition or at a substantial discount? If the former, how would it compete with cheaper or free courses and if the latter, how would it make money? The question of when and how campus Senate committees would be involved in authorizing courses and credits was also constantly shifting and deferred.

Fast forward to the present. Dean Edley is not out front on this project any more. In fact, his leadership role appears nowhere on the UCOP website devoted to the project; he is listed only as a member of a faculty oversight committee. And UCOP Vice Provost Daniel Greenstein, Dean Edley’s partner in developing and promoting the project, has left UC for a position at the Gates Foundation.

Now in charge of UC Online is Keith Williams, a lecturer in Physical Education and Biology at UC Davis whose office is at the Hickey Gym.

So, who is responsible for repaying the $7 million loan that Edley and Greenstein got from UCOP to fund the pilot? When students renege on their loan payments, the Federal government garnishes their wages, should they be lucky enough to have any. When a department overspends its annual budget, available funds for the following year are reduced, and heads may also roll. But when an online pilot project doesn’t make its payments, what happens? Who is responsible? Who or what pays?

Shouldn’t we be able to see the loan repayment schedule for UC Online? And is it possible that we should stop throwing good money after bad, fold UC Online, sign on to Coursera, and get back to the important business of protecting what remains of UC on-campus instruction?

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