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Dean Pushes for a Virtual UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley law school dean Christopher Edley Jr.
UC Berkeley law school dean Christopher Edley Jr.
Online-only pilot program could launch this fall

At once assertive and playfully irreverent, Christopher Edley Jr., the dean of the UC Berkeley law school, appeared before the UC Regents on Wednesday to push for the establishment of an online-only degree program.

In recent months, Edley has headed an effort to draw up a pilot program offering 25 to 40 credited courses beginning this fall. Edley said if it is approved, the goal would be to ultimately offer enough online courses to grant bachelors degrees to students who have never set foot on any of the ten physical UC campuses.

But with online education still commonly associated with for-profit companies like Kaplan University — whose educational quality has been questioned recently by people like U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, the chair of the Senate education committee — there remains substantial skepticism at the nation’s most prestigious public university system.

Even at large, top-tier public universities like the University of Illinois, UC faculty say, past online efforts stumbled soon after launch, mostly due to issues of uneven quality.

Those concerns surfaced again on Wednesday, although university president Mark G. Yudof and the vast majority of regents sounded wholeheartedly supportive of Edley’s program.

“We have to do a research project to determine the learning process and what will be omitted by using this methodology,” said regent George M. Marcus, who said that students might forgo valuable interactions with faculty and other students with the online-only option.

“You may only see a portion of the total experience,” Marcus said.

Edley, known around Berkeley for his sharp wit and loquaciousness, shot back that the online program would offer more people access to education.

“What you won’t get? There won’t be beer bashes, yeah,” Edley said. “But there will be other stuff, like you can stay at home with your kid or work at your job.”

Speaking to reporters after the presentation, Edley said he believed UC’s prestige and huge resource pool will help distinguish it from past efforts to bring courses online.

There is breadth, Edley said: The nine undergraduate campuses offer 1,250 different courses. But there is also depth — if the cyber program's administrators wanted to find “the most fabulous instructor for an introductory Chinese history course,” he said as an example, they would have nine campuses to choose from.

“We will have the world’s largest intellectual smorgasbord from which to feast,” Edley declared.

Edley downplayed concerns that the university’s devastating budget crisis — which has resulted in staff layoffs, drastic fee hikes and imposed furloughs — might also impact the project.

He has not reached the stated $6 million fundraising goal yet, but he pointed out that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a champion of the project. The governor joined Edley in meeting with major private donors in recent weeks, and Edley said he expects a “major foundation” gift to come in January.

“If we can raise $15, $20 million a year just for my law school,” he said, “there’s no reason why we can’t do this.”

He added wryly: “I’m going to spend my furlough days raising money.”

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