Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.
The University of California system is looking into implementing online classes through the UC Online Instruction Pilot Project. The project, created at UC Berkeley, will be implemented UC-wide March 2011.

The UC Online Instruction Pilot Project will allow individual faculty members to propose an online course for the project and decide how the class should run. How exams will be proctored and how grades will be given depends in large part on the faculty members.

Jessica Fiske-Bailey, assistant vice provost for Undergraduate Education, mentioned that technology could help the UC reach more people.

“As state funding gets limited and costs increase, [the UC system] feels a great responsibility to provide accessible education,” Fiske-Bailey said. “There is a real commitment to provide education to people.”

According to the UC Online Instruction Pilot Project’s website, the project will test whether online instruction can use technological tools to give undergraduates educational opportunities comparable to the quality classroom instruction offered at a UC.

Students will be able to take a course from the comfort of their own dorm room or favorite coffee shop, rather than an overcrowded lecture hall.

“If you have a virtual classroom, you may not be limited by location space,” Fiske-Bailey said. “The theory behind it is that you won’t be limited to taking classes at the location you’re located in.”

UCSC students who cannot get into a class because it has reached its full capacity can instead take it as an online class at another UC. For example, if a legal studies class is already full at UCSC, but not at UCLA, a student can instead take it online from UCLA.

Sophia Zeng, a UCSC third-year, was unaware of the efforts the UCs are making to introduce online classes, but thinks that online classes are a great idea.

“[Online classes will allow] students who want to get ahead in their education or even students who don’t want to leave their house or dorm room to receive [an] education,” Zeng said. “It might even encourage students to ‘attend’ class without physically being there.”

Jim Phillips, director of Learning Technologies at UCSC, mentioned that the university’s system is currently a hybrid, with a combination of online web-based tools and in-class experience.

This new project will make UCSC’s current system available online — with virtual classrooms where students can interact with other students and the professor, Phillips said.

However, certain hands-on classes will not be available online. These classes range from chemistry labs to studio drawing courses.

Ideally, the project will allow students to see the lecture online, as the professor is giving it. Also, students will be able to key in questions during the online lecture. All lectures will be available on demand after the official lecture date.

Although other institutions have already implemented programs like this successfully, there are some concerns that have yet to be addressed.

Zeng worried that online classes might not work for all types of students.

“Online classes could be [disadvantageous] for people who don’t have strong self-motivation and negatively affect a student’s ability to develop punctuality or good study habits,” Zeng said.

At the recent regents meeting at UCSF, Regent Eddie Island advocated for distance education as a way to save money. He questioned whether this form of education was being looked at seriously as an alternative to increasing student fees.

“There is no reason to use distance learning when the student fee pots remain available,” Island said.

Opponents of the program are concerned that the loss of personalized instruction may affect students and faculty members negatively, if not planned out well.

Zeng, an environmental studies major and education minor, said that if online classes are not planned out right, the inability to meet new people and friends in these kind of classes would be detrimental to the overall college experience.

“Online classes should be introduced. However, [the UC system] needs to realize that there will be positive and negative outcomes with such classes,” Zeng said. “This situation depends on each person’s learning ability and pace.”

Phillips, director of Learning Technologies, does not doubt that the UC system will have online education.

“We will have online education at the UCs,” Phillips said. “It’s just a question of if it will happen now or later.”

If the project succeeds, students will be no longer restricted by classroom location, but will instead have a virtual classroom they can access from any location in the world, Fiske-Bailey said.

“The world is so much bigger than we thought,” Fiske-Bailey said. “Our location should not limit us.”