Why is UC Berkeley known as a bad college for undergrads?

Quora question:

Why is UC Berkeley known as a bad college for undergrad? UC Berkeley ranks among the top public schools in the world. Some friends got into Cal, but chose UCLA, UC SB and Cal Poly instead, because they didn’t think it was a good school for undergrads.


My response:

Currently, Berkeley uses the undergraduate program as a means to an end. In short, the undergraduate program is used to cross-subsidize the graduate program.

A good example of how this works is Berkeley’s Chem1a course. When I worked at Berkeley, I described how we might use techniques like TVI (see below) to reduce the cost of education. A member of the teaching faculty told me this in response: “Fred, we currently have around 50 graduate student instructors helping us teach Chem1a. I could teach the course next semester with 25 GSIs and there would be no difference in grades.” He had been managing the GSIs for Chem1a for years, so I believed him.

But why did Chem1a have 50 GSIs when you could obtain the same result with 25 GSIs? The answer is simple. They use the undergraduate courses to cross-subsidize the graduate program. When all is said an done, what Berkeley really wants is to be the best research university that they can be.

However, IMO, Berkeley could improve the quality of undergraduate education without having to compromise their goal of being the best research university that they can be. How, you ask, by intelligently using information technology. This would also be consistent with Gov. Jerry Brown’s request to have the UC System look for ways to reduce the cost of education through the use of information technology.

The problem is that the Professoriate is afraid that they may innovate themselves out of the job of lecturing.

Live lectures for many core courses have been obsolete for decades. The alternative is a technique developed by J.F. Gibbons (former dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering) back in the early seventies. Yes, around forty years ago. The technique is called Tutored Video Instruction, and it was described well by John Seely Brown in his famous book The Social Life of Information. You can see what Brown had to say about TVI at: John Seely Brown on Tutored Video Instruction [1]. The basic idea is very simple: replace live lectures with small study groups of students. Give them a video of the lecture along with problem sets and study questions. Also, appoint one student (and give him/her some additional training) to be the study group’s ‘tutor’ or leader.

I’ve blogged on how TVI could be used to improve undergraduate education at Berkeley and other schools. Here are a few blog posts: A Well Established Alternative To Large Lectures [2] and The High Tech Small Study Group Saga [3].The latter describes how I tried (and failed) to get a TVI program started at Berkeley in the early 1990s. I worked at Berkeley as an educational technologist from 1987 to 2007.

Footnotes

1) John Seely Brown on Tutored Video Instruction
http://innovationmemes.blogspot.com/2014/02/john-seely-brown-on-tutored-video.html

2) A Well Established Alternative To Large Lectures
http://innovationmemes.blogspot.com/2014/05/tutored-video-instruction-well.html

3) The High Tech Small Study Group Saga
http://innovationmemes.blogspot.com/2010/09/high-tech-small-study-group-saga.html

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