I wasn’t surprised when I read about the University of California System implementing a regulation that requires a minimum time of physical residency in order to earn a degree. It doesn’t matter if there are enough online courses available for someone to meet degree requirements without attending classes on campus. The University of California Academic Senate closed a “loophole” and mandated a requirement that students complete at least two in-person courses per quarter for three quarters or two semesters (one year out of four for an undergrad). Prisoners are exempt from these provisions.
Inside Higher Ed’s Susan D’Agostino interviewed the chair of the faculty senate at UC Berkeley who said, “If it’s going to move toward offering online degrees, that should be a deliberate, conscious and carefully planned decision, and that decision hasn’t been made yet.”
Of course, offering online degrees must not be the same as offering more than 100 online classes through BerkeleyX on the edX platform. It’s not like elite colleges aren’t offering online degrees. Harvard offers an online undergraduate degree through its Harvard Extension School and Penn offers an online bachelor’s degree through its Penn LPS Online division.
Ms. D’Agostino interviewed several people who believe that the UC System has “perpetuated some outdated or unsupported claims about online learning.” She quotes a letter of support for the new policy from a professor of psychology at UCLA who cites a 2016 study stating that job applicants with online degrees from for-profits receive fewer call backs for jobs. Ms. D’Agostino counters with a more recent 2021 Northeastern University study that states that “71 percent of employers perceive online educational credentials as on par with or of a higher quality than those completed in person.” The latter study is more in line with what I have experienced over the last decade in online education.
Another UC faculty objection for online degrees related to a perceived inability to conduct research while taking online courses. Jenay Robert of Educause commented “What is the subject matter you’re researching? What are the methodologies you’re using for the research? What are the objectives of the research? What are the individual needs of the students engaging in that research? You have to examine all of these in tandem.” “Some field or lab research may need to be done in person but for some research, online options may be preferable,” writes Ms. D’Agostino.
Ms. D’Agostino cites other UC System faculty members who wanted justifications for not requiring at least 50 percent of courses for a degree to be conducted in person. Furthermore, these individuals stated that they were certain that undergraduates taking courses in person often perform better than students taking classes online. Naturally, they didn’t cite any studies because the evidence does not indicate the factual correctness of their statements. Educause’s Richard Garrett stated “that kind of blanket negativity is a relic. Modalities are not inherently good or bad. The modality is just one variable.” Furthermore, comparing online adult students attending open enrollment institutions with traditional students attending highly selective institutions like Berkeley is not appropriate.
Not everyone in the UC Faculty Senate opposed the idea of fully online degrees. During the deliberations, some stated that the pandemic had changed their perceptions about online learning. One faculty member stated that “the measures were flawed because they were designed to slow down the emergence of undergraduate degree programs at UC.”
Jeff Seaman, director of Bay View Analytics, has surveyed students, faculty members, and administrators about online education for years. He stated that all three groups surveyed believe there should be more online learning going forward. His overall comment about the new policy is spot on.
“If you wanted to create a policy that would specifically disadvantage to a greater extent students with financial concerns, and therefore the need to be working, students who have caregiver responsibilities, and therefore the need to take care of parents, children, and siblings, or students who are remote and in rural areas, and therefore can’t easily get to campus, this policy perfectly targets those vulnerable groups.”
One point that no one made is that teaching online courses well may require more work than teaching a large lecture class in person. My bet is that it’s more about the faculty’s preferences than putting in place a measure to protect student learning. In this instance, the Luddites appear to have prevailed.