01/10/2013 09:41 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

UC Online Courses Fails To Attract More Than A Few Students

The free classes offered through Massive Open Online Courses are a hit, but UC Online looks like a bust.

The University of California spent millions creating UC Online and launched the first classes a year ago, offering UC quality courses to current students and anyone else outside the university system. According to the Associated Press, about 1,700 UC students have signed up for one of the 14 courses offered, but they've attracted a grand total of five non-UC students, despite $4.3 million spent on marketing.

UC Online was supposed to generate revenue for the cash-strapped but highly reputable state university system. The program borrowed $6.9 million from UC with a plan to repay it by enrolling 7,000 non-UC students who would pay $1,400 to $2,400 per class. With just five students so far, that means they're somewhere near $10,000 in revenue or 0.0014 percent of what they must repay within seven years.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports the situation is creating tension between Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and the UC administration, as displayed at a Jan. 16 regents meeting:

Brown, a regent, made a rare appearance at the November meeting and compared UC to the U.S. Postal Service, "a venerable institution being upended by digital change." He urged UC to invite Udacity, a MOOC provider out of Stanford, to show UC what to do. He then turned to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and said: "There's stuff going on in Silicon Valley that will leave you in the dust."

Birgeneau, who had already signed Cal up with EdX, a MOOC provider from Harvard, retorted, "We're ahead of them. ... There's a lot happening, Governor."

Meanwhile, the free online courses have attracted hundreds of thousands of users. Coursera, a MOOC startup created by two Stanford University professors, has drawn 1.7 million users. At least 150,000 have signed up with Udacity, another MOOC venture. Potential revenues earned through MOOCs are to be determined, though. UC Berkeley participates in EdX, a non-profit, while Udacity and Coursera aim to return profits to their investors.



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