A California Dream: Saving State Universities With an Online Campus

Of the four universities linked originally by the proto-Internet in 1969, two of them were part of the University of California system: the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara campuses. Now, as the system grapples with a staggering budget crisis that might close institutions and forever alter what’s considered one of the crown jewels of public education, a proposal comes suggesting that salvation lies in going online.

A new cyber-campus “would have selective admissions; tuition somewhere between community college and the on-campus UC price, part-time and ‘anytime’ options and lectures by the best faculty from the entire UC system,” wrote Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the law school at the system’s Berkeley campus, in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. “Our online students might miss the keg parties, but they would have the same world-class faculty, UC graduate student instructors, and adjunct faculty.”

“UC-XI,” which is what Mr. Edley calls his vision for an 11th system campus, can be built upon social networks that connect students to instructors and to one another. Hard-to-virtualize facilities like science laboratories could be opened up at night or on weekends. And, Mr. Edley says, the faculty can step up to ensure “UC-caliber instruction and learning.”

Mr. Edley does acknowledge that there have been some failures in online education, “but none involved degree-granting instruction by a premier institution with the kind of market appeal that UC campuses enjoy.” Well, the Board of Trustees of the Illinois system, which sent its expensive GlobalCampus online project back to the drawing board earlier this spring, might disagree. And one can argue about the definition of “market appeal,” but officials in Texas and Utah, both struggling with online-education initiatives, clearly thought their institutions had a certain cachet, at least within their states. But Mr. Edley prefers to focus on more successful ventures like Britain’s Open University and the for-profit University of Phoenix.

“We’ve had decades of increasing dysfunction in Sacramento and smoldering doubts in some quarters about the value of supporting public education,” Mr. Edley writes. “Now comes the resulting surge in victims — present and future — in families and throughout the economy.”

Online learning, he concludes, could save the California dream of a top-notch education for all. The best offense in a crisis, he concludes, “is often innovation.” —Josh Fischman

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