Online Courses – For Free or For College Credits?

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Two years ago, the University of California system entered the world of online learning with a project called UC Online. Now, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, UC Online is struggling to survive.

UC Online was designed to offer several benefits to the UC system’s 234,000 students across 10 campuses, “But the project has fallen behind schedule in providing those benefits,” says the Chronicle.

“In April 2011, The Chronicle reported that the pilot project would seek to offer up to 20 undergraduate online college courses by January 2012. But only six courses were offered last spring, and eight are available this fall. As of now, students are only able to take online courses offered through their home campuses.” Due to technology constraints, these students will not be allowed to enroll in courses from other campuses until 2014.

UC Online differs from startups like Coursera, where anyone can take online courses for free. Whereas Massive Online Open Courses might offer only a certificate of completion, but no college credit, UC students earn actual credits that can transfer between institutions and add up to a degree. In return for course credit, UC Online plans to charge tuition.

“The online effort will face its toughest test this winter [2012],” according to The Chronicle. “That’s when it will first open its virtual doors to students not already enrolled at a University of California campus.” In order to meet expenses, UC Online will need to enroll 3,000 non-UC students before the end of the year – a goal that seems unattainable.

Taking a step back, we might look at UC Online as a cautionary tale for the entire online education industry. For more than a few years, the world of higher education has been split between two camps.

Over in one corner, Coursera and the other innovators have promised a revolution for free, while insisting that credits don’t matter. As long as thousands of students acquire the knowledge they want, who needs credit?

Meanwhile, in the other corner, traditional degree-granting universities go on jealously guarding the market value of course credit. And they don’t have any qualms about raising the price on those credits year after year.

Thus, we could look at UC Online as an experiment. If somehow UC Online persuades thousands of people to pay for their online courses, it would imply that credits hold a financial value. But if students do not flock to UC Online, then perhaps credits are not worth the cost of tuition. Perhaps many people prefer knowledge for its own sake and would prefer not to pay. We’re excited to see the results.


Since I wrote this article back in October 2012, the University of California has decided to pull the plug on UC Online. As many predicted, the reason UC Online failed has a lot to do with the fact that the UC system was charging tuition for courses that are available elsewhere for free.

Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael is a regular contributor to the Ashford University blog.

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