monopoly_money.jpgThe University of California Board of Regents expressed overwhelming support today for an experiment that involves exchanging some of the university system’s bricks-and-mortar classrooms for cyber ones in an attempt to close a projected $4.7 billion budget gap and usher higher education into the digital age.

The online learning pilot project, led by University of California at Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley Jr., would involve putting 25 to 40 of the university system’s highest-demand courses entirely online. The UC system’s extension programs currently offer about 1,250 courses online with UC credit available for 78 of them.

The online courses for the pilot project would involve what Edley called “high touch” content, meaning that participants–such as students and graduate student instructors–maintain close contact via video, chat rooms, and other online tools.

The exact course design is being developed jointly by a coalition of administration and faculty willing to act as guinea pigs in the pilot program.

At today’s UC Board of Regents meeting, regents expressed overwhelming support for the project, which Edley hopes to have off the ground this fall assuming final approval is given and funding goals are met.

“We just can’t keep teaching the same way we did 200 years ago,” UC Regent Richard Blum said.

But the issue of online learning has been contentious among faculty and graduate instructors, some of whom have said that Edley’s plan “portends a future of severely degraded undergraduate education,” according to a response to the proposal outlined by the Berkeley Faculty Association in May.

The faculty association has expressed concerns that, among other things, the project is driven by the school system’s ailing budget and will cheapen the universities’ quality of education.

“Efforts at producing high-quality online liberal arts education have thus far met with dismal financial and educational failure,” the faculty wrote in their May response to the proposal.

But today, Edley argued that although online instruction might look different from traditional classrooms, it doesn’t have to sacrifice the quality education that students expect to receive at a UC school. The question, he said, is, “Can we create a different experience that still gives us a quality of which we can be proud?”

Edley also stressed the idea of “democratizing excellence” by making education both excellent and accessible, rather than excellent and exclusive.

The pilot project, Edley said, would measure whether fully online instruction can deliver on its promises to broaden access to quality education, offer opportunities for innovative and forward-thinking types of instruction, increase campus efficiency, offer more multi-campus courses to students, and generate net revenue for participating campuses.

Classrooms are naturally evolving toward a more online setting already, Edley said. His proposal means speeding that process along by taking leadership in the direction of fully online course listings.

Only a few regents voiced concerns today about the project, but all appeared to support the idea of starting with a pilot program followed by a thorough assessment of its efficacy.

“We should approach this … like any other research project,” said Regent George Marcus, who added that he feared the move to online instruction might just be a passing fad.

Regent George Kieffer said he was less convinced the regents should support the program for the potential savings. Rather, he said, the UC system needs to evolve with the times if it is going to remain at the forefront of higher education.

The UC Academic Senate, a governing body for UC faculty, has endorsed the pilot project as long as it is funded externally and not by redirecting available funds.

Edley said there are “several irons in the fire” towards raising the $6 million in external funding necessary to get the pilot program up and running.

A fully online infrastructure would require an initial investment of roughly $20 million, which could potentially serve about 25,000 additional full-time students, he said. In comparison, adding just 11,000 more full-time students into a traditional infrastructure would cost about $1.8 billion.

Regent Eddie Island finished today’s presentation with a plea to faculty to take initiative.

“Lead this effort,” he said. “Make it successful.”

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