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Conference about online education attracts major players to UCLA

January 8, 2013 |  8:23 pm

A national conference at UCLA on the future of online college education attracted some of the biggest names in the industry Tuesday, as well as politicians and faculty leaders from state universities.

The debate focused on how online classes, particularly those offered through so-called massive open online course (MOOC) organizations, might help ease education expenses and provide students accessible education with quality at least as good as traditional face-to-face teaching. The only point of agreement at the symposium, sponsored by the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, was that some change is coming to higher education, whether revolutionary or marginal.

Speakers at the event included Daphne Koller, the Stanford professor who is one of the founders of Coursera, a MOOC that offers courses from prestigious universities for free but usually without college credit, and Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford faculty member who co-founded Udacity, another MOOC that has attracted much attention. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, UC system faculty Senate Chairman Robert Powell and Lillian Taiz, president of the Cal State faculty union, also attended.

Dean Florez, a former state senator and president of the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, said the conference was a response to Gov. Jerry Brown’s complaints in November that the UC system was moving too slowly in producing online classes. Florez's nonprofit foundation seeks to reduce education expenses -- particularly the cost of textbooks -- through new technologies. 

Tuesday’s event, called “Rebooting California Higher Education,” was timed to be in advance of next week’s UC regents meeting at which online experts are scheduled to present their ideas for the future.

 “I think this is a transformational moment in higher education,” said Koller, who added that the costs of creating and administering online classes can be kept very low per student if enrollments are large. While online classes may not become the dominant form of instruction at residential campuses, they can help reduce dropout rates at traditional schools by better preparing students in advance and allowing them to sample subjects before choosing a major, she said.

Lt. Gov. Newsom described how his preschool daughter and other children are adept at technology and will require an education different from the traditional lecture format. Change is ahead not because of cost pressures but to improve quality and access, said Newsom, who sits on both the UC and Cal state governing boards.

However, Bob Samuels, president of the union for UC lecturers and librarians, said the push for online classes was a distraction from more serious and expensive issues such as wasteful administration and high-priced athletics. Online courses will cost a lot to develop and, if done right with teaching and monitoring, are labor intensive, he said. With all the talk about MOOCs, colleges feel as if they are about to “be invaded by these outside courses,” he said.

Diana Guerin, president of the Cal State system faculty Senate, said online classes will have a role to play but cannot substitute for the face-to face experiences and learning that occur on campus as students overcome bureaucratic and social hurdles.”

A lot goes on outside the classroom that contributes to a student’s development, "like showing up at the right place and the right time,” she said, contrasting that with online classes that can be taken at any hour.

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-- Larry Gordon

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