UCSC panel looks at the future of online education

With colleges around the world beginning to embrace online courses, academics and students have debated the merits and potential pitfalls of the new technology.

UCSC community members had a chance to air out some of those hopes and concerns at a panel discussion Friday at Stevenson College focusing on the value of online education at UC Santa Cruz.

Moderated by alumna Lois Kazakoff (Cowell '76), deputy editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, the panel discussion was the third in a series of discusses about online education offered by UCSC's Academic Senate.

Molecular biology major Matt Hong, a student representative on the panel, described online offerings as a highly efficient way to extend the impact of a traditional, analog class. All too often, traditional classroom offerings are inefficient because they leave no chance for recap and review and because they lock students into rigid schedules, he said.

“If I can create my own schedule of classes, it opens up time for more hands on learning including lab work,” Hong continued.

Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, and a professor of computer science at Stanford University, said free online education courses are a moral obligation that must be provided to “have nots who don’t have equal access to high quality education. We owe them a debt.”

She also said that ‘lifelong learners’ can also benefit from this technology, along with college students who would use the course not as a substitute but as a complement to high-quality classroom instruction.

But other panelists sounded notes of caution about the fact that UCSC is now one of 62 university campuses across the world that offers free online courses in partnership with Coursera, a Silicon Valley company that provides a popular platform for MOOCs, an acronym for “massive open online courses.”

Education professor Rodney Ogawa said that UCSC must be highly conscious of its reasons for using online course offerings: to provide equitable access, because of pedagogical advantages, as a new source of revenue, “or is it because all the big dogs are doing it like MIT and Stanford.”

Robert Meister, a professor in the History of Consciousness program at UCSC, cautioned UCSC against “leaping to the assumption” that online education can fill in the gaps left behind when the state government began to defund public education. He also worried about future access to online education. “I’m against any pricing model that could happen if we’re not careful,” he said.  

After Meister added that the technology could eliminate jobs for faculty, Koller said that professors had similar concerns when academic textbooks appeared for the first time.

Campus provost Alison Galloway, an anthropology professor at UCSC, said the reason to consider online platforms has less to do with cost savings and more to do with educational quality. Lamenting that she has limited time to work with students examining bones in class, Galloway said providing lectures online could provide more opportunities for "students to do intensive skeletal work with me … There are so many ways to use online education to enhance what we do.”

She also said such courses could help students get through difficult classes with a stronger sense of the material than they had if the class were exclusively in-person or exclusively online, potentially helping them pass through those courses, freeing up future seats, and saving them tuition money.