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Newest and oldest UC campuses team up on innovative technology venture to help California students
01 October 2001

Sheryl Lichtig Wyan, UC Merced and UCB Media Relations

Merced/Berkeley - A new technology venture between University of California campuses in Berkeley and Merced is gearing up this year to make the content of UC Berkeley lower-division computer science courses available online for the first time. The effort is expected to help Merced graduate its first computer science class only two years after the 10th UC campus is slated to open in the San Joaquin Valley, and is one of UC Berkeley's most ambitious efforts in educational technology.

The project is being developed by the new Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), a partnership of four UC campuses - Merced, Davis and Santa Cruz, with UC Berkeley taking the lead. The center received its initial state funding this summer from Gov. Gray Davis and the state Legislature.

CITRIS is one of four California Institutes for Science and Innovation at UC selected last year by the governor and his advisory team of scientists and industry leaders. Each institute will receive $100 million in state funding over a four-year period, supported with additional funds from industry and private donations. Among the 13 corporate sponsors of CITRIS are Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Nortel Networks Corp. and Sun Microsystems.

As interest in distance learning heats up, course offerings at UC Berkeley's highly rated computer science department like those of other top universities increasingly have become a target of attention. But until now the department has held off in favor of more proven forms of teaching.

"All this time when people have approached us, we've said no," said Michael Clancy, senior lecturer in computer science at UC Berkeley. "We didn't see how even Berkeley's self-paced courses could just be moved over and plopped down somewhere else, without the infrastructure of graduate students as teaching assistants, experienced instructors, tailoring to suit students, and so forth. We just didn't think it would work, or be fair to students who had to take the courses. And we didn't have any way to do the research to see what it would take to make it possible."

This changed with the governor's funding of the UC technology-in-the-interest-of-society initiative. The funding will allow Berkeley, the UC system's oldest campus, and Merced, its newest, to team up and research best practices in online teaching and course creation, while at the same time producing courses that will serve the needs of the San Joaquin Valley community as UC Merced gears up for instruction.

What has quickly become apparent, say project leaders, is that when it comes to instruction one size does not fit all.

Rather than outright transfer of courses from one campus to another, the group has decided to create new technology that makes it easier to design the right course for UC Merced out of UC Berkeley's core content. In addition to the computer science content, UC Merced will receive a "course environment" with all the necessary rationale for course design as well as working alternatives to the UC Berkeley approach. Down the line, such course technology could allow other institutions to tailor a variety of courses based on the Berkeley/Merced model.

"The courses we're providing are just a tip of the iceberg," Clancy said. "What we're really bringing to bear are years and years of Berkeley's experience teaching computer science. The value added is the rationale behind how the courses are constructed."

"The collaboration of our founding faculty with colleagues from UC Berkeley will be a wonderful opportunity to initiate and build quality academic programs in computer science and engineering," said David Ashley, executive vice chancellor and provost for UC Merced. "We believe the students' experience will be greatly enhanced by these collaborations in both teaching and research."

While the future of online learning is much debated, most in the field agree great potential exists, said UC Berkeley education professor Marcia Linn, a partner on the project. "Online courses can offer value added with effective use of visualizations, explanations on demand and interactive problem solving," she said. "Ideally, online course materials free instructors to tutor individuals, mentor groups, and provide 'just in time' instruction about emerging problems."

Karen Merritt, director of academic planning for UC Merced, said that by the time Merced opens in 2004 to serve 1,000 students, these students will expect the opportunity to mix regular classes with technology opportunities. But effective distance learning does not mean teaching without teachers, Merritt said.

"We are very committed to on-site individualized support for everything we do," she said. "For any really effective online learning, it's just essential to have people available."

"Our goal is a true integration of proven classroom experiences with proven and emerging technical innovation," said Jeff Wright, dean of engineering for UC Merced, "resulting in an overall educational framework that provides students more thorough, more lasting, yet personalized experiences."

The availability of UC Berkeley's computer science courses to prospective UC Merced students at San Joaquin Valley community colleges will play a valuable role in helping students prepare for transfer to UC Merced, which will have a strong emphasis on recruiting community college transfer students.

"Some Central Valley community colleges face challenges in offering the computer science courses that meet the UC transfer requirements at this level," Merritt said. "This will help their students prepare for the major."

She said survey results show about half of San Joaquin Valley students admitted to a UC campus don't accept the offer. "Overwhelmingly the reason they decide not to go is financial," she said. "Transfer is a tremendous option which allows students to begin their higher education experience at a community college and still take advantage of a UC education."

Background on the four California Institutes for Science and Innovation:

These new UC institutes build on the University of California's established history of producing research innovations that help fuel the state's economy and its competitiveness in the global marketplace. The ideas and technologies developed by researchers at the institutes will help expand the economy into new industries and markets - and bring the benefits of innovation more quickly into the lives of people everywhere.

Opening the doors to new understanding, new applications and new products through essential research in biomedicine, bioengineering, nanosystems, telecommunications and information technology these institutes will mobilize California's top scientists and engineers, as well as help train the scientists and technological innovators of tomorrow. Additional information about the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society is available on the Internet at Additional information on all four of the centers is available on the Internet at