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Five UCLA faculty to help forge UC's online future

Five UCLA faculty are among 29 UC-wide who have been selected to help pave the way to a digital future for the university through the Online Pilot Project, administered by the UC Office of the President in partnership with the Academic Senate. The university hopes to begin offering as many as 25 online courses by January, 2012.
Selected from a field of applicants who submitted 71 proposals for online, for-credit classes, UCLA participants include Political Science Associate Professor Kathleen Bawn, for her politics and strategy class; Statistics Professor and Department Chair Jan de Leeuw, for a class in introductory statistics; Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Yung-Ya Lin, for a general chemistry class; Political Science Professor Susanne Lohmann, for a class in ethics and governance; and Media Arts Professor Victoria Vesna of the Department of Design | Media Arts, for a class in art, science and technology.
The Online Instruction Pilot Project, which grew out of recommendations from the UC Commission on the Future as a way to continue to provide quality education in an era of reduced resources, got a boost last month with a $748,000 Next Generation Learning Challenges grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit that promotes the thoughtful use of technology in higher education.
Media Arts Professor Victoria Vesna will teach an online class in art, science and technology.
Their task now — transforming written proposals into actual online classes that incorporate lectures, interactive materials, chat and discussion boards, online exams, grading systems and more — presents a learning curve even for digital-savvy faculty like Vesna, director of the Art|Sci Center at the School of the Arts and Architecture and the California Nanosystems Institute. "My work as an artist has involved the Internet since beginning of the Web," she said. Still, creating an entire class online is something new, said Vesna, who joined pilot participants at a two-day workshop hosted in UC Berkeley earlier this year.
Also at the workshop were IT specialists and instructional designers who will collaborate with faculty on technical aspects — including members of UCLA’s Office of Instructional Development, who are working with Bawn. She will center her online class around the same curriculum she teaches in her in-person class, but minus the exhaustion of twice-a-week, 75-minute lectures and whiteboard diagrams on topics like the use of game theory and other strategies for understanding politics.
"By the end of 75 minutes," Bawn admitted, "I’m really a zombie, not at my best." She plans to reconfigure her marathon lectures into a package of concise, 10-to-20-minute modules to be professionally videotaped and edited. The format should make it easier for students to grasp and review the material, she said.
Political Science Professor Kathleen Bawn put her class in politics and strategy online.
One message that came across loud and clear at the workshop, said Bawn, was the importance of upholding UC’s first-rate academic standards. "There’s a huge concern among all involved that online courses have a high level of quality," she said. "This is not at all about reducing quality or cheapening education, but about having high standards."
Each online class will have to pass Academic Senate muster, just like any other new course, said Jim Davis, a member of UC’s Online Instruction Advisory Committee and UCLA vice provost of information technology. At UCLA, he said, the online classes "will need to be scrutinized by our senate, and the same will be true for other campuses. The senates will be preeminent in this process."
The UC Senate, in fact, originally gave the Online Pilot Project the go-ahead with the caveat that it finds no "broad evidence that the nurturing of critical thinking, the teaching of research skills … and development of community and global values can be cultivated outside the framework of face-to-face interaction between student and teacher."
UCLA Vice Provost Jim Davis, a member of the project's advisory committee, said the focus is on improving student access to high-demand classes.
"We don’t see face-to-face classes going away," Davis said. "There is no intent to move into an online university or the University of Phoenix." Rather, he said, the idea is to offer a selection of primarily high-demand, undergraduate-level classes online to improve student access, which is an ongoing challenge for some departments.
"It’s a chronic problem in political science, which is a very big major," said Bawn. "There’s always far more demand than there are spaces available in a class."
It is also hoped that online classes can help UC’s bottom line. However, given the high-tech and labor-intensive costs of developing the classes — which prompted the project to take out a $6.9 loan from the university — some people question the money-making premise. If the pilot goes well, plans are to recoup start-up expenses by making the online classes available UC-wide — Bawn’s class, for example, might be taken by students at any UC campus. The general public could also enroll, paying a class fee.
Keeping students involved in online classes — which tend to have a high dropout rate — was another much-discussed issue at the Berkeley meeting, said Bawn. "It’s easy [for students] to zone out in a large lecture, but even easier in front of a computer screen. We have to compensate for lack of physical proximity by setting up study groups and other ways to interact."
"It’s not a matter of just recording a lecture and dumping it online… but a completely different dynamic," said Vesna, adding that "a well-designed online class can deliver information in a more engaging way than a lecture. Holding students’ attention is a challenge even in a regular class, she pointed out. "Students pay attention to class lectures as much as they can, but they might be taking five other classes and have a lot of deadlines."
Faculty are also concerned about maintaining contact with students — so much so that both Vesna and Bawn plan to schedule occasional mandatory class meetings at certain "critical points" in the class schedule, such as the first week of the quarter and as students approach midterms and finals. And class discussions appeared to pose a potential problem to Bawn, who said, "I pride myself on the high interaction in my classes." Yet when she checked class rosters from recent lectures, she discovered that "it’s a surprisingly small number who interact." Online interactive forums, she said, might actually prompt more students to participate who otherwise feel too intimidated to speak up in class.
And while professor-student face time will necessarily decrease, Bawn said that the online approach "might enable me to spend more time getting to know my students as human beings instead of my just lecturing." Similarly, Vesna said that rather than serving primarily as the lecturer while her teaching assistants interact with students, an online class will turn it "the other way around," giving her more latitude to connect with students.
As for faculty workload, neither Vesna nor Bawn believe that will lighten with online teaching. 
"It’s a lot of work to put lectures together and get them online," Vesna said. "You can get away with much more just adlibbing in a lecture." She also anticipates being more available to her students. "You can’t just disconnect," she said. "You get emails, people want to Skype. … With a 200-student class, that gets overwhelming," a problem she hopes to manage with help from her TAs.
Bawn, who will devote this summer to building her class, expects even more work when she teaches her online class for the first time next spring. "There are going to be all sorts of problems that I can’t anticipate," she said.
"But that’s also how you learn, how you grow," Bawn said, adding, "I like learning too." 
Update: Read a May 6 letter from the Academic Senate to President Yudof.
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