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UC online education
California Gov. Jerry Brown lowers his head while listening to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speak about today’s technology during a meeting of the UC Board of Regents Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 in San Francisco. Gov. Brown is pressing the University of California to bring more courses online to help make college more accessible and affordable. Brown urged university leaders to expand online education. Credit: AP Photo/Eric Risberg


That was the giddy catchword of a plan by the University of California to create an all-digital “campus” that would revolutionize higher education by providing courses online for students shut out of the system’s brick-and-mortar classrooms at a time of high demand but falling budgets.

Three years later, the Online Instruction Pilot Project has become another expensive example of the ineffectiveness—so far, anyway—of once-vaunted plans to widen access to college degrees by making them available online, including in massive online open courses, known as MOOCs.

“We spent a lot of money and got extremely little in return,” said Jose Wudka, a physics professor at UC-Riverside who previously chaired the Systemwide Committee on Educational Policy of the Academic Senate, which represents faculty in the UC System.

The project, which cost $7 million to set up at a time when the state was cutting higher-education funding, aspired to let students take courses across campuses. A UCLA student, for example, would be able to take a UC-Irvine class online.

Related: Enrollment in online courses slows, new report finds

To make the program self-sustaining, non-UC students were allowed to enroll, too—for $1,000 to $2,000 per course—and to earn academic credit.

The University of California spent $7 million to set up its Online Instruction Pilot Project at a time when the state was cutting higher-education funding.

But from the spring of 2012 through last spring, only 250 non-UC students finished a class. By then, the system had pretty much abandoned the idea of making money by targeting non-UC students—though a few classes remain available—and focused on letting UC students enroll in courses on other campuses that they couldn’t get into on their own.

The name changed, too, to the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative.

It’s another blow for a movement that promised to offer classes to thousands of students worldwide through MOOCs, which research shows have so far had extraordinarily high dropout rates and have generally cost universities more than they’ve brought in.

“There is no business model for MOOCs that makes sense,” said I. Elaine Allen, a professor at Babson College and co-director of its Babson Survey Research Group, which tracks online education. “They have not been shown to bring more students to a school, and they have incredible attrition.”

Related: MOOC bandwagon shows signs of slowing down

More than half of university administrators now agree with her, according to a Babson annual survey. That’s how many say they don’t think MOOCs are financially sustainable—twice as many as were skeptical about MOOCs in 2012.

Fewer schools are now considering the idea of starting MOOCs. In the survey, nearly half have no plans to implement a MOOC, up from about a third in 2012.

“We spent a lot of money and got extremely little in return.”

Those that do have found them very pricey.

In UC’s case, the system president’s office loaned the Online Instruction Pilot Project the $7 million startup cost, with the loan expected to be repaid by 2019. Two years later, the university swallowed the loss, and repaid the loan from money from its budget that could have been used for other purposes.

With that money, “you could have done tons of stuff,” said Diane Harley, director of the Higher Education in the Digital Age program at UC-Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education and chair of the Academic Senate committee that had oversight of the pilot project. “With all the budget cuts at the university, [it could have] provided graduate school support or given it to individual campuses to bolster their student learning centers.”

Related: MOOCs keep getting bigger. But do they work?

But defenders of the experiment said it was part of an evolution.

The courses developed through the project allowed the quick launch of its successor, the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative, “with a ready inventory of UC-quality courses,” said that project’s coordinator, Ellen Osmundson. “This has helped us meet students’ course needs across the UC system.”

UC isn’t alone in shifting funds to support MOOC-like experiments. Harvard and MIT have together invested $60 million in edX, for instance, and report that they’ve delivered 1,200 courses to more than 13 million users.

But even in edX, more than half of registrants quit after one week, though the universities say “many” take advantage of “substantial” portions of the content.

Related: Harvard, MIT: Despite low completion rates, MOOCs work

The high expectations for MOOCs have been followed by equally high-profile missteps.

In UC’s backyard, San Jose State University formed a partnership with the for-profit MOOC provider Udacity in January 2013, offering three classes for college credit and providing online mentors to encourage participation.

By the end of the semester, nearly 57 percent of San Jose State students and 73 percent of students from outside the university had failed the courses. San Jose State has since ended the program.

The University of Pennsylvania found that, on average, only 6 percent of students who started one of 16 Penn classes offered by MOOC provider Coursera finished them. That has not derailed the university’s efforts; it has 18 online courses scheduled to start this year, and is planning 21 more after that.

And new research done at MIT and Harvard confirms that disproportionate numbers of people who take MOOCs are not undergraduates, but already have college and graduate degrees. Only a quarter of those who intended to earn some kind of credit or credential for the courses actually did.

At the University of California, cross-campus enrollment is now the focus of online courses.

Just over 2,400 UC students systemwide have now enrolled in courses at other UC campuses through the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative.

As for non-UC students—and the tuition they were expected to bring—they’re no longer the objective.

“The guiding principle we followed was that first and foremost we had to ensure our matriculated students had access to the quality education they expected when they were admitted to the UC,” said Wudka. “Non-matriculated students did not enroll because there was no market for this idea.”

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