The University of California’s Online Failure

Remember California’s plan to create an all-online UC?

Back in 2010 the University of California system, wracked by state funding cuts, decided to try to raise money by offering some of its most popular programs, in calculus, chemistry, physics, and freshman composition, online. It hasn’t worked out so well.

According to an article by Nanette Asimov in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The University of California is spending millions to market an ambitious array of online classes created to “knock people’s socks off” and attract tuition from students around the world. But since classes began a year ago, enrollment outside of UC is not what you’d call robust.

One person took a class.

“It’s taking longer than we’d hoped” for the $4.3 million marketing effort to take off, admitted Keith Williams, interim director of UC Online, which is open to enrolled students and anybody outside the university.

The one sucker person who signed up was a high school girl who paid $1,400 for an online precalculus course offered through UC Irvine.

The trouble is that at the same time the UC system created its rent-seeking online program to “knock people’s socks off,” the whole world got all excited about, and signed up for, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, the college courses Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania are now offering Americans for free.

It’s pretty hard to “market” a $1,400 product when a whole lot of other places seem to be offering a pretty similar product at no cost.

California governor Jerry Brown is pretty annoyed with the failure of UC online. He apparently attended a November meeting of the UC regents (which he does very rarely) and complained that the UC system was looking like the U.S. Postal Service, “a venerable institution being upended by digital change.”

He recommended that the University of California invite Udacity, a Stanford-based MOOC provider, around to help UC figure out what to do. Brown explained to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau that “there’s stuff going on in Silicon Valley that will leave you in the dust.”

Perhaps, but there’s not really much something like Udacity can teach the UC system. MOOCs aren’t more popular than the UC courses offered online because they’re more awesome; they’re more popular because they’re free.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer