05/12/2010 05:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

U of California Resuscitates the Master Plan

Yesterday the University of California made a groundbreaking announcement that has the potential to break the tuition cost crisis and finally deliver the crucial benefits of higher education to millions of Americans and to tens of millions who demand it and deserve it around the world. They are putting $5 to $6 million into a pilot project to create online versions of courses with an eye toward eventually creating completely online degree programs.

More than one in four US college students already take at least one online class. So why is this an important announcement?

Because a public university system is declaring that it will innovate its way out of recession, and even more importantly, that it will not cede the banner of innovation to the for-profit sector that is encroaching more and more on public higher education's territory.

"Somebody is going to figure out how to deliver online education for credit and for degrees in the quality sector--i.e., in the elite sector," Christopher Edley Jr., dean at Berkeley's law school, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. This is exactly what I call for in DIY U.

And it's not just any public university system that's doing this, but the largest public university system in the country and the global template for mass higher education for over fifty years.
Clark Kerr's Master Plan in 1960 introduced the idea that higher education would be a massive, state-run, open and democratic, publicly accessible resource for all.

I interviewed CSU Chancellor Charles Reed, and he told me flat out, "In the more than forty years that I have been involved in higher education and politics, I have never seen an economic meltdown such as the one that we are currently experiencing," and, "This is the end of the Master Plan for Higher Education in California."

These new online classes have the potential to bring the Master Plan back from the dead, by expanding access once again beyond the straining borders of the UC campuses.

It's not going to be an easy road ahead. There are politics involved and much resistance to change within the university. There are serious design challenges too. Beyond basic overhead savings of the physical classroom, online doesn't necessarily mean cheaper or more accessible.

In order to improve learning quality while keeping costs down at the same time, it's not a matter of uploading a bunch of lectures to YouTube. Online courses have to be designed carefully, using open educational resources and the latest Web 2.0 tools. The National Center for Academic Transformation offers detailed course redesign templates.

Duplication of effort has to be avoided, which means faculty should collaborate on course content.

Assessment should be automated where possible, and software used to enhance learning where appropriate.

Designing for peer teaching, discussion, and evaluation over social platforms, as the 2Tor platform does for USC's School of Education, is another path to save faculty time while improving learning outcomes and student engagement--a real win-win.

Student participation should go beyond papers and exams to the creation of online portfolios, blogs, and wikis that are open to the web, so they can demonstrate their knowledge to the world. Innovative online professors have also engaged students in updating the course content as part of their assignments, so the courses get better each time they are taught.

The University of California has seized a tremendous opportunity. All of these changes in how higher education are delivered are necessary, if not inevitable, and it's extremely heartening to have one of the nation's best public universities take them on. I wish them the best of luck.