College Online: Virtually the Same? –


You’re an undergraduate at a select university. You spend much of your time on campus, attending class, talking with professors and peers. You maneuver daily through a sea of backpacks, bombarded by student groups trying to woo you. You sport a college sweatshirt emblazoned with your campus’s slogan and mascot.

What if that weren’t the case? What if you could graduate from an elite university without every stepping foot on campus — if instead, you had merely to open your laptop?

Online Master’s programs are already well-established. But many colleges are now testing the waters in online undergraduate studies. While the University of Illinois works toward offering equivalent online and hybrid Bachelor’s degrees, the University of California is testing what it hopes will be the premiere online program for undergraduates this fall.

The University of California will debut just 20 to 30 courses this semester, most of them large lecture classes like Biology I. But it hopes to beat out Ivy League schools by becoming the first to develop an elite-quality undergraduate program, using the university’s best faculty and the latest technology and social media.

The program will be modeled off the 1,250 online courses the school already offers through U.C. Extension, most of which are geared toward graduate and non-traditional students. Similarly, Harvard Extension offers more than 150 such courses — one-fifth of which are taught by Harvard faculty — as part of its Distance Education program.

While a virtual classroom may be a better fit for the more independently-motivated student, there is no lack of student discussion and the exchange of ideas — you just post them on a message board instead of raising your hand, according to Alexander Ritchie, a now-graduate who took an U.C. Extension online course on the History of Islam for undergraduate credit, before transferring to University of California, Berkeley. He was able to enroll in the course at his leisure and was given six months from the start date to complete it.

For the U.C., financial necessity may truly be the mother of innovation. But it’s also “the obvious next step” in making higher education more globally accessible and affordable, said Daniel Greenstein, the system’s vice provost for academic planning, programs and

While other online programs exist at other large research universities, he said no one has successfully created a program at the scale and quality that the university has as its goal.

“The University of Illinois (at) Springfield is not Berkeley,” Mr. Greenstein said in an e-mail, before adding, “I am not an elitist snob.”

The University of Illinois Online, which comprises three campuses and enrolled 11,000 students in 2009-10 academic year, focuses on graduate degrees but also offers online Bachelor’s degrees in fields like English, History and Economics. It succeeded the failed University of Illinois Global Campus, an attempt at a virtual campus that entered its “final death throes” in 2009, according to Douglas Brewer, interim director of continuing education at the University of Illinois.

A recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education , noted there is some concern that a lack of faculty participation and the possibility that online courses which fail to make the quality mark could dilute the university‘s brand could threaten the University of California’s plan. But U.C. leaders say they plan to do extensive studies after this semester’s pilot, and online degrees would be “way downstream,” according to Mr. Greenstein. More information about the U.C.’s plan can be found here.

Meanwhile, at the University of Illinois, administrators are “trying to get rid of the barriers and blur the lines” between online and a
face-to-face degrees, Dr. Brewer said. Whether a student takes all on-campus courses, all online or a blend of the two, the hope is that
the degree will be the same.