UC forging ahead with cross-system online courses

Under the online program, students at UC Riverside or other campuses can take courses solely on their computers.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

UC Riverside senior Matthew Emeterio was worried that he might be short of degree credits and have to delay graduation past next spring. But thanks to a soon-to-debut online program linking far-flung UC campuses, he expects to finish on time.

Starting next month, the political science major will be enrolled in a UC Davis course on climate change that he will be able to take via his computer mainly at night and on weekends, in addition to a full daytime load of traditional in-person courses at UC Riverside. He will be among the pioneers in an effort encouraging UC students to tap into faculty brainpower and curricula across the UC system while also exploring emerging online education.

“The convenience factor of it is hard to overstate,” Emeterio explained. “It gives me so much more flexibility. And being able to squeeze in those extra units gets me through the graduation requirements faster.”


The new “cross campus enrollment” is a change for a university system criticized for being too slow in adopting online courses and too Balkanized among its nine undergraduate campuses to significantly share teachers and classes.

Individual UC campuses already have offered some online classes, mainly geared to their own students and most frequently in summer. But students from, say, UC Santa Cruz who wanted to take a UC San Diego online course faced bureaucratic and technological hassles in the past, officials concede. Just finding out what online classes were offered across UC was a difficult chore, and getting approval to enroll took so much paperwork that it discouraged participation.

The new program aims to streamline the process with a central online catalog of courses and much easier registration and departmental approvals available online. Plus, administrators hope the system eventually will detail which courses fulfill requirements for various majors and minors at all the campuses.

“We’re trying to take the burden off the student and put it on technology,” explained Mary Gilly, vice-chairwoman of UC’s systemwide faculty senate, which had helped shape the new program. Although she does not expect a stampede of students into cross-campus online classes, she predicted the Internet-based courses will be useful for students stymied by filled classrooms or inconvenient schedules at their home campuses and for those interested in a specialized class taught only at one or two other campuses. “I can see it being a real asset throughout the UC,” said Gilly, a UC Irvine marketing professor.

The program is starting small, with just 11 pre-existing courses from four campuses for the upcoming winter quarter (spring semester for the Berkeley and Merced campuses, which use a semester calendar). In addition to the climate change class, UC Davis will offer elementary Spanish; UC Berkeley, psychology, probability, statistics and an art department exploration of “American Cybercultures”; UC Irvine, pre-calculus, astronomy and psychology; UC Riverside, two computer science classes and one surveying the history and culture of dance. More classes will be added and created over time, administrators said.

Enrollment numbers are not yet available, officials said. But one factor is likely to hurt participation the first term: UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego won’t join until logistical problems coordinating student registration are solved.


The new program is financed from a $10-million pool for online education and technology that the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown authorized this year for UC. Brown had criticized UC for not moving faster to adopt some online education, which he sees as a way to lower costs and improve access to overcrowded gateway courses. After some initial faculty resistance over quality issues and suspicion of commercial vendors, UC now is starting to create its own catalog of shared online classes.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by other universities and companies can potentially enroll thousands, but usually not for college credit. In contrast, the UC for-credit classes cap enrollments at between 30 and 430, and most require a weekly real-time discussion session online with a teaching assistant or professor via chat rooms or Skype, in addition to lectures and videos that students view at their convenience. To ensure honesty, most final exams will be proctored in real classrooms, either on campuses or at test centers around the state.

UC Davis plant sciences professor Arnold Bloom taught his interdisciplinary course on climate change for years in real lecture halls and then adapted it for an online version, at first mainly for students on his home campus. That took extensive work, he said, to create a series of 12-minute lectures on such topics as biofuels, economic analysis and polar animals, plus tutorials and videos that bring the material alive visually with images of dinosaurs, nuclear power plants and cloud formations. Students’ assignments include tracking the climate history of their hometown from online federal data.

Now Bloom said he looks forward to widening his audience throughout UC. Besides allowing students more access and flexibility in arranging their education, online classes help “campuses live up to their potential, particularly in a times of limited resources.”

UCLA senior Katya Lavine completed two previous online classes with a sense of Internet education’s limits. “It’s a lot harder to stay on top of the work and be motivated when you are not going physically to a class. The lack of face-to-face classes makes it seem less real,” the English major said.

But, after being locked out of traditional Spanish courses at UCLA because of overcrowding, she will fulfill a language requirement with UC Davis’ online Spanish course in the upcoming winter quarter. That will allow her to finish her degree by spring without summer school and without reducing her hours as an intern at Nickelodeon, the entertainment company.

“For me, it was definitely a good solution,” she said.