Online education: notes from the field

A colleague shared the following priceless reflections, a letter to Chris Edley from July 28:

Dear Dean Edley:

I’ve been following with interest what you’re saying in the press about UC online education.

I teach Statistics N21, the first online course at Berkeley to be approved by COCI [the UCB faculty Committee on Courses of Instruction].  It was approved in 2007.  I’ve been teaching it for four years, this year to 400 students. The current syllabus is here:

Statistics N21 a gateway course: probably one of the first 10 you would want in your pilot. It satisfies major requirements for several departments, and is a “hurdle” course for intended Business majors.

The online course comprises an interactive textbook (SticiGui: that has Java applets to illustrate key concepts, examples and exercises that change when the page is reloaded so that students can get unlimited practice with the material, machine-graded assignments scored using a mastery model, videorecorded online lectures, online and in-person office hours, a discussion board, etc. Every student gets a different version of the online assignments.  The final is administered in person.  Most students take the final on campus, but about 85 will take off-campus proctored finals this summer, in several countries.

SticiGui has been used at other colleges and universities to teach statistics classes and to teach methodology classes in economics (at CUNY) and political science (at Bard).

But it also has interactive chapters and machine-graded assignments suitable for general education classes: Reasoning and Fallacies, Categorical Logic, Propositional Logic, and Set Theory. It has been used to teach linguistics and logic classes at UCSC and SJSU.

The infrastructure, applets, and so on that I have built could be adapted most easily to teach introductory courses in mathematics, economics, demography, sociology, and similar fields.  But I think it would take a considerable amount of work–years of careful attention from devoted faculty–to develop pedagogically sound, interactive content worthy of UC.  Even to build a more advanced statistics class using the same plumbing would take a solid year of full-time work.

It has taken about 8,000 hours of my time over 13 years to develop (what I consider to be) pedagogically effective interactive content and assignments. The materials wouldn’t have worked well as an online-only course for at least the first 5 years of development.  I used it to teach hybrid classes while I was developing it, starting in 1997.  Work continues: I’m building a searchable database of lecture “clips” on individual topics, edited from my webcast lectures.  The clips will also be linked to the text where the topics are introduced, and to the glossary.

Tailoring material and pedagogy to online media and creating and honing effective, interactive, online content  is quite challenging.  It requires subject-matter knowledge, teaching experience,  careful writing, programming skills (I’ve had to learn Java, JavaScript, XML, CSS, and Perl-cgi), seemingly endless debugging on different operating systems, and lots of user testing with students–many cycles of iterative improvement.   Accessibility, especially for blind students, is an issue that must inform design and the choice of technologies and standards.  Technical maintenance is demanding as web standards and browsers evolve.  Developing and supporting a first-rate online course is not easily subcontracted or delegated to GSIs or technical staff: It requires a great deal of faculty attention.  And it is not fast.

In a large-enrollment course like Statistics N21, ensuring that students have up-to-date browsers before the class starts and providing technical support during the first week or two of class are virtually a full-time job. (Those are jobs that GSIs and technical staff can help with.)

The “bandwidth” of online instruction is lower than face-to-face instruction: it takes longer to convey the same information, both from instructor to student and from student to instructor.  One side effect is that online office hours are less efficient than in-person office hours, so more office hours need to be offered.  Online courses therefore need correspondingly more staff, even before factoring in technical support.  To hold online office hours at times that are convenient for students in, say, Taiwan, requires working odd hours.  For reference, here is the office hour schedule for N21 this summer:

I’d be happy to talk to you about what was involved in developing Statistics N21, the resources required to teach it, and what would be needed to do something similar in other disciplines.



Philip B. Stark | Professor of Statistics | University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-3860 |  |

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

8 thoughts on “Online education: notes from the field”

  1. I'm sure this is right (and I know Phil, he is one smart guy), but it leads to another question: why should developing this be a one-man (or even one-campus) show? Taken over all of UC there are a lot of statistics professors; even if only 25% of them contributed, the final product would appear much faster. I agree that online course development is not easy, but perhaps that means that it needs to be done by teams rather than individuals. This will be difficult, even now, when people are not physically in the same place; and it runs very much against the way most of us in the professoriate like to operate. But I think that figuring out how to encourage this kind of collaborative development may be essential to making the large investments needed to go online well.

  2. When did we decide that creating good stable jobs in education was a bad thing?

    And no offense, but why would *anyone* expect educational innovation to come from a law school? I think they should heal themselves first.

    And this idea that people's computers are going to work the way they're supposed to, even most of the time? That's a fantasy, pure and simple. (Well, maybe if everyone switches to Macs, but even then I have my doubts.)

  3. I hate "hurdle" courses. This is the kind of crap that I hope online education will force departments to remove. It's such a waste of money, time, and can hurt a student's GPA for reasons that are only remotely connected to the dept.

  4. > Tailoring material and pedagogy to online media and creating and honing

    > effective, interactive, online content is quite challenging. It requires

    > subject-matter knowledge, teaching experience, careful writing, programming

    > skills (I’ve had to learn Java, JavaScript, XML, CSS, and Perl-cgi), seemingly

    > endless debugging on different operating systems, and lots of user testing

    > with students–many cycles of iterative improvement.

    Out of curiosity, what happens to great (or even just good) teachers who don't have the facility or the desire to become computer programmers or web developers? Who understand mathematics at a deep level but have zero ability in graphic arts?


  5. I guess they do what I do whenever I need help with a difficult task because I'm not smart enough or lack skills: ask for help from collaborators, staff, students, the internet…I can't write a paper, or teach a single session of a class, without help from other people either one-way (books, etc) or in partnership. For example, I'm going to point my students this fall at Philip's textbook; some day I may be able to do him a service, maybe not, but it all works out pretty well at least in my experience.

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