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Regents want to close budget gap by offering popular classes on Internet

The University of California Board of Regents expressed overwhelming support Wednesday for an experiment that involves exchanging some of the university system's brick-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 Wednesday'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 Wednesday, 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?"

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