Definitive answers may prove a long time in coming, but April 2011 will surely go down as a month that posed some large and essential collegiate questions--about the viability of large-scale, high-quality distance education, about the ability of the traditional university to adapt to a changing technological and economic context, and particularly, about how the answers to those first two questions figure into the future of the University of California system.
Flash back to just shy of a year ago: last May, UC leadership announced an ambitious plan for an online education pilot program that would feature for-credit/towards-degree courses for enrolled undergrads and would, in theory, increase both educational access and system tuition revenues. The cost to launch the program of 20 to 40 new courses over the next two years was estimated at $5-6 million, and to assuage concerns (naturally heightened by a context of public sector belt-tightening), university officials said they expected the program to be entirely funded by external sources. In October 2010, the California Legislative Analyst's Office released a report touting distance learning intiatives as the key means of improving access and "increasing efficiency", and UC vice-provost of academic planning and programs Daniel Greenstein (former director of the California Digital Library) endorsed the report as "educational public policy at its best."
Now jump ahead to the eventful first week of April 2011. At a major college trusteeship conference on the 3rd, UC president Mark Yudof asserted that rather than persisting in a false and ultimately self-defeating "myth" that UC can "cut [its] way to survival", the system would set an example for public universities by commiting to alternate and innovative delivery models largely predicated on distance learning. Later that week, the UC Newsroom followed up with a triumphant announcement that the Gates- and Hewlett-backed Next Generation Learning Challenges program had pledged nearly $750,000 to support the UC distance learning pilot program.
But Vice-Provost Greenstein made another, different announcement the same day: the NGLC grant notwithstanding, securing the external funding that the program required had, in fact, proved difficult--perhaps prohibitively so. Instead, Greenstein explained, the university will be borrowing at least $2 million to get the project up and running by next January, and in order to repay the borrowed money (which could ultimately run several million dollars higher than the initial $2 million), the online education plan has now been expanded to include additional offerings for students not enrolled in the UC system. This reversal on the original external funding plan (even if made by necessity) represents, in effect, a doubling down on the initial ambitious commitment to the distance learning program, and the University of California is positioning itself as both a thought leader and the laboratory host to a high stakes experiment.
In the abstract, this is hardly a bad thing, and most commentators seem to agree that incorporating distance learning into education at an elite level is an idea whose time has come. But the devil is in the details, and the general consensus on need falters at the point of implementation. The week before Yudof made his pronouncements on e-learning at the Association of Governing Boards conference, online education experts from three public universities cautioned an audience at the Sloan Consortium's annual blended learning conference about the long and tough road to profitability that optimistic distance learning intiatives are likely to face. The Sloan speakers' warnings have echoed through the academic/educational blogosphere in recent weeks, and it was against that collective conterpoint that the UC leadership made its string of April announcements.
But careful commentators are noting that the arguments made at the blended learning conference (and elsewhere) weren't against implementing distance education programs; rather, they were against regarding those programs as any sort of quick cash silver bullet for budgetary woes. The argument was pushing the long view and a healthy dose of fiscal patience: all of the evidence on e-learning suggests that the initial investment in technical infrastructure and course development will significantly outweigh early revenues. If, as Yudof contended, the university can't hope to cut its way to survival, neither can it hope to tap an easy flowing river of tuition money coursing lazily through cyberspace.
The big questions coming out of the developments of April, then, hinge on implementation. These questions abound and range from the theoretical (What is lost/gained by leaving the brick and mortar classroom for the web?) to the technical (How will student engagement be facilitated?) and of course, the financial (How will instructor compensation for virtual courses compare with that of traditional teaching?).
With its significant borrowed outlay, UC is setting itself up to explore these questions as a pioneer in the field of large-scale, high-level field of e-learning, but pioneering is a fraught and high stakes business. No one wants to see the UC distance learning program follow the failures of NYUonline and U. of Illinois's Global Campus, but as yet, it's not clear how UC leadership plan to ensure the success and sustainability of their program where others have often underperformed and disappointed.
The one thing that is clear is that the University of California will have the stage and that the whole higher ed world will be watching.