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UC Berkeley's first entirely online course could lead way to more classes without a classroom
22 August 2002

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Berkeley - The University of California, Berkeley, is offering its first course taught solely through the Web. And it's a gem.

"Gems and Gem Materials," an undergraduate class being taught this fall by Jill Banfield, a professor of earth and planetary sciences, is getting a trial run as cautious faculty members wait to hear what students think.

One of the 14 students who sampled the course this summer couldn't be more enthusiastic.

"The course was tremendous," said Sally Smith, a returning student who expects to earn her bachelor's degree this fall at the age of 50. "I've taken quite a few online courses, and the quality of the information provided on the Web was much higher at Cal. It was a very rich experience."

The course is being offered by the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences as EPS-2 and is geared toward non-science majors wanting to satisfy their physical sciences requirement. All the materials, from text and video demonstrations to quizzes, are accessible through the Web at Even the public can use the course materials.

Banfield and her teaching assistant do offer face time to students during office hours. And class members must show up for midterm and final exams. But the primary interaction between student and teacher is via e-mail.

Banfield found the course to be a great success at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she developed it in 1995 and wound up teaching about 400 students each semester. She even taught it for two years from Japan during a sabbatical. Since her move to UC Berkeley last year, she has planned to offer a similar course.

"I'm trying to teach students some science by capturing their interest in the beauty of gems and playing off the commercial interest in gems," said Banfield, a mineralogist who studies the role microbes play in the distribution of minerals in the Earth's crust. "Everyone buys at least one in their lifetime, and this course can help them interpret what they are buying and shows them the amazing variety of gems. There are lots of gemstones besides diamonds."

While UC Extension offers courses and even certificates through the Internet without class meetings, and various courses at UC Berkeley have major online components, until now, none had jettisoned the lecture entirely. One of the most successful Internet courses on campus, Digital Chem 1A, streams lectures through the Web and places all course materials online, but interactive in-class lectures remain a critical component.

"We haven't been very aggressive in promoting online courses, so Jill's offer to teach the gems course caught us by surprise," said physics professor Robert Jacobsen, who was on a small subcommittee of UC Berkeley's Academic Senate that reviewed the course materials and gave its approval for a test drive. "This is a wake-up call for many people."

When Banfield first offered the course at Wisconsin, she provided a parallel lecture for students who wanted it. While perhaps 15 percent of the 400 students attended at the beginning of the course, attendance typically dropped to a dozen by the end.

"In this day and age, most students will not come to class if there is a reasonable option in the course," Banfield said. "Online courses offer a good opportunity for students who are not scientifically inclined or want to learn at their own pace."

According to Wren Montgomery, the graduate student who taught the course during UC Berkeley's Summer Sessions, students had plenty of opportunities to meet with her.

"The genuinely interested students came to discussion sections and office hours," she said, "or they sent e-mail messages."

Smith, a refugee from the world and an admitted life-long learner, greatly valued her e-mail contact with Montgomery. While acknowledging that an important part of education is connecting with other students, she said that online courses allow students to learn at their own pace and fill an important niche.

"I think online courses are ideal for breadth requirements, where you want to pick up interesting information outside your major field," she said.

From Jacobsen's perspective, however, there must be a good reason for moving away from the current model, where instructors typically devote one quarter of the course's time to lectures and answering questions from students. That's the model in the nearly 10,000 classes offered at UC Berkeley this fall.

"My colleagues on the senate's Committee on Courses of Instruction felt that any change like this has to increase the quality of instruction, not decrease it," he said. "Jill showed us that the course had excellent reviews, and she is putting real effort into evaluating student response to the course."

Philip Stark, professor of statistics and faculty assistant in education technology within UC Berkeley's Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs, said the campus supports such classes, if appropriate.

"Our view is that online resources can enrich classes, and we favor anything that improves the quality of education at Berkeley. The administration wants to support faculty who desire to add online components to their classes, and we want to provide whatever infrastructure and consulting help we can to make it possible," he said. Choosing appropriate technological enhancements for courses, or whether to use technology at all, is up to the Academic Senate and individual faculty members and instructors, he noted.

"Neither the administration nor the faculty think that a UC Berkeley undergraduate education should consist of sitting in front of a computer in lieu of face-to-face contact with an instructor," said Stark. However, many of us advocate a 'hybrid' approach that uses technology in appropriate and demonstrably effective ways to supplement lectures and other direct interaction between students and instructors. As I see it, Berkeley is a research university, and this course is an experiment - it's research into teaching - to see how well the approach works."

If the gems course eventually is given final approval by the Academic Senate, Banfield wants to modernize it and perhaps develop a version for advanced high school science students. In the seven years she has taught the gems course, she has learned quite a bit about offering content through the Web, and she hopes this experience can steer other teachers toward the best designs for online courses.

That's Jacobsen's hope, too. As the University of California gears up to teach a rising tide of students, the idea of distance education has been tossed around a lot. No one yet knows how to make that happen in the most effective way.

"Changing the way we teach is a progression, we have to learn what works best and what doesn't," Jacobsen said. "If there are lessons in this online course for the larger community, we'd like to learn them. I think this has started the snowball rolling."