Going online to get a college degree has been championed as a cost-effective way to educate the masses and challenged as a cheapening of academia. Now, the online classroom is coming to the vaunted UC system, making it the nation's first top-tier university to offer undergraduate credit for cyberstudies.
By dislodging education from its brick-and-mortar moorings, the University of California -- short on money and space -- hopes to ease the path to a diploma for students who are increasingly forced to wait for a vacant seat in a lecture hall. Especially in high-demand "gateway courses," such as chemistry, calculus and composition.
This summer, UC Berkeley tested its first pilot course: Chemistry 1A. For one student, working as a lifeguard in San Rafael, it accelerated her progress toward a joint degree in biology and economics. Another was able to live at home in Sacramento, because she registered for summer school too late to get dorm space.
"It offers a lot of things that a conventional lecture doesn't," chemistry instructor Mark Kubinec said of the online approach. "It gives students what they need, when they need it, without a lot of overhead."
Cal's foray into electronic education, however, has critics worried about the UC brand.
This is not the trendy "open educational movement," popularized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, with its ethos of free rock-star faculty lectures in cyberspace -- with one major thing missing: the grade.
Nor is it part of the massive online curriculum sponsored by for-profit educators like the University of Phoenix, open to all comers.
Rather, it is a highly selective Web-based degree program that offers real credits, toward real degrees, using interactive software, online lab demonstrations, chat rooms, discussion boards -- and faculty "office hours" as late as 11:30 p.m.
"It is a UC educational experience, leveraging our faculty," said Mara Hancock, director of educational technologies at UC Berkeley.
The UC regents voted to support the program last summer amid great controversy.
Some faculty members and instructors worried that an online degree program could compromise the quality of undergraduate education and hurt UC's reputation.
UC Berkeley doctoral student Shane Boyle told the regents the plan was "just the beginning of a frightening trajectory that will undoubtedly end in the complete implosion of public higher education."
The UC Berkeley Faculty Association said "the danger is not only degraded education, but a centralized academic policy that undermines faculty control of standards and curriculum."
But UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law Dean Christopher Edley, who is leading the effort, persuaded the regents to try the approach. While ambitious, it falls short of his previous scheme: an entirely online UC campus.
"We can't treat UC as a precious little box," he said. "Demand is growing."
Stanford was the first university in the country to offer a full engineering master's degree part time, to distance learners. Its School of Engineering has 2,500 students enrolled in a certificate program and 250 students in a degree program, said Stanford's Jennifer Elena Gray. Many are from Silicon Valley, but others are from India, China and Latin America.
But its undergraduate school is still classroom-based.
Cal State East Bay offers online undergraduate degrees in such specialized fields as human development, business administration, hospitality and recreation, as well as master's degrees in education, recreation and taxation.
But UC officials say the system is seeking something qualitatively different.
This approach will expand student access to the university's elite faculty, who design the curriculum from scratch. The courses are graded, applicable to a UC degree. And enrollment remains exclusive.
Every UC campus except UC San Francisco will sponsor a class. About 70 faculty members proposed ideas; 30 were selected. They are now under development and will be open to all UC students across the system in 2012.
In addition to the massive lower-level introductory courses -- Spanish from UC Davis, physics from UC Irvine, politics at UCLA -- there will be experiments in upper-level, high-demand classes such as "Art, Science and Technology," and "Terrorism and War."
A team at UC Santa Barbara will analyze the results, to better understand whether, how and at what cost online instruction is effective in delivering a UC-quality undergraduate education, UC Berkeley's Hancock said.
"It is not simply putting material online and opening up access," she said. "It is about contributing to the body of knowledge around online education and identifying what is successful -- and what is not."
The online students in Chemistry 1A said they welcomed the flexible timing of Kubinec's high-quality HD lectures, broken into five-minute segments with graphics and props. They also enjoyed the online quizzes and moderated discussions.
"It was really exciting to come home from my job, eat dinner and then study chemistry," said Shivani Desai, of San Rafael. "But it's impersonal. I missed the camaraderie of coming to class, and being in the lecture hall. I don't know if it will ever completely replace the classroom."