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U of California Resucitates the Master Plan

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I happen to be in California, and doing an event at UCSD tomorrow, which makes it amazing timing for me to learn that yesterday the University of California made a groundbreaking announcement that has the potential to break the tuition cost crisis and finally deliver the crucial benefits of higher education to millions of Americans and to tens of millions who demand it and deserve it around the world. They are putting $5 to $6 million into a pilot project to create online versions of courses with an eye toward eventually creating completely online degree programs.

More than one in four US college students already take at least one online class. So why is this an important announcement?

Because a public university system is declaring that it will innovate its way out of recession, and even more importantly, that it will not cede the banner of innovation to the for-profit sector that is encroaching more and more on public higher education’s territory.

“Somebody is going to figure out how to deliver online education for credit and for degrees in the quality sector–i.e., in the elite sector,” Christopher Edley Jr., dean at Berkeley’s law school, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. This is exactly what I call for in DIY U.

And it’s not just any public university system that’s doing this, but the largest public university system in the country and the global template for mass higher education for over fifty years.
Clark Kerr’s Master Plan in 1960 introduced the idea that higher education would be a massive, state-run, open and democratic, publicly accessible resource for all.

I interviewed CSU Chancellor Charles Reed, and he told me flat out, “In the more than forty years that I have been involved in higher education and politics, I have never seen an economic meltdown such as the one that we are currently experiencing,” and, “This is the end of the Master Plan for Higher Education in California.”

These new online classes have the potential to bring the Master Plan back from the dead, by expanding access once again beyond the straining borders of the UC campuses.

Of course, anyone who has read the book or this blog knows it’s not going to be an easy road ahead. There are major faculty politics involved and much resistance to change within the university. (Although the usual rap on faculty politics is that they’re vicious because the stakes are so low, in this case the stakes are high: we’re talking about nothing less than transforming teaching and learning.)
More interesting from my point of view are the serious design challenges involved in making online courses taht are actually an improvement on the old lecture model. Prof. Wiley compares online to classroom teaching to horse polo vs. water polo–you can’t run the same plays in the pool.

Beyond basic overhead savings of the physical classroom, online doesn’t necessarily mean cheaper or more accessible.

In order to improve learning quality while keeping costs down at the same time, it’s not a matter of uploading a bunch of lectures to YouTube. Online courses have to be designed carefully, using open educational resources and the latest Web 2.0 tools. The National Center for Academic Transformation offers detailed course redesign templates.

Duplication of effort has to be avoided, which means faculty has to collaborate on course content. That means giving up some of their perfect autonomy within the classroom in favor of peer review.

Assessment should be automated where possible, and software used to enhance learning where appropriate.

Designing for peer teaching, discussion, and evaluation over social platforms, as the 2Tor platform does for USC’s School of Education, is an even greater challenge. But I think it can be sold as another path to save faculty time while improving learning outcomes and student engagement–a real win-win.

Ideally–and this is more about quality than cost, exploiting the full potential of teaching over the Internet–student participation should go beyond papers and exams to the creation of online portfolios, blogs, and wikis that are open to the web, so they can demonstrate their knowledge to the world. Innovative online professors have also engaged students in updating the course content as part of their assignments, so the courses get better each time they are taught.

The University of California has seized a tremendous opportunity. All of these changes in delivery of higher ed are necessary, if not inevitable, and it’s extremely heartening to have one of the nation’s best public universities take them on. I wish them the best of luck and I look forward to discussing this with UCSD professors tomorrow!

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