CSU rolling out online undergraduate program

  • October 29, 2011

By Nanette Asimov
Chronicle Staff Writer

Everyone's getting into the game.

Just weeks before the University of California unveils its first array of online courses for undergraduates, California State University is polishing up CSU Online - a cyber-school expansion that will begin with a $50,000 pledge from each of its 23 campuses, a cross-your-fingers plan to get $20 million from the state, and a nearly hired director to oversee it all.

"Online is increasingly the medium," said John Welty, president of Cal State Fresno and head of the committees developing CSU Online and searching for its new director. "It's a beginning step for the CSU to expand its options. We'll be available statewide and beyond the state."

The idea is to begin a marketing effort in February aimed at enrolling and graduating far more than CSU's current 412,000 students - and eventually make money, according to draft documents for CSU Online. The documents offer no estimates of how much money or how many new students the venture might net for the university.

But like UC and other campuses across the country that envision expanding with computer-delivered degree programs, CSU sees potential applicants as anyone with a computer, a brain and a buck.

"Online doesn't know geographical boundaries," Welty said, noting that veterans could be one lucrative source of new students because the federal government pays for their education under the GI Bill.

The university already offers 63 fully online degrees, mainly master's degrees. Just 19 are for undergraduates, such as a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Cal State Chico or a bachelor of science degree in business administration from Cal State East Bay.

Welty's committee concluded that CSU has barely begun to take advantage of what the technology could offer.

Consultants hired by CSU let their imaginations roam in July, envisioning a dozen online strategies, from "CSU for Life"- designed for the "incredibly large and educationally sophisticated prospective consumer group" of older Baby Boomers - to "CSU Accelerator," catering to existing CSU students willing to pay a higher price for online access to overcrowded courses. Some of that new revenue should go to financial aid "to eliminate the risk that students with financial means may graduate quickly, while those without the means cannot," wrote consultants Katz & Associates.

In the end, Welty's committee decided on a multiyear rollout for CSU Online, to begin next fall with expanded master's-level programs and systemwide access to undergraduate courses now offered at eight campuses.

Other details - including approval of a nonprofit that will manage CSU Online - will be up to the new director, to be hired in November.

Faculty members, meanwhile, are worried.

"The biggest fear is what quality control mechanisms will exist in this online setting," said Jim Postma, chairman of the Academic Senate.

Faculty members, who talk of the "Walmartization" of CSU, wonder whether they will have a chance to create their own online curriculum as UC faculty are doing - or whether CSU will buy off-the-shelf courses from publishers as many community colleges are doing.

"It's a wee bit threatening that there's this online initiative," Postma said. "It's made people feel, 'What am I, chopped liver?' "

Cheating is also a concern. A skeptical Facebook page created by the California Faculty Association links to a story from the online newspaper Inside Higher Ed about a study suggesting that students cheat more in online classes because, well, they can.

In August, Faculty Association leaders brimming with questions about CSU Online asked to meet with the committee but were irritated when told it was too early in the process.

"I respectfully ask for your patience," Executive Vice Chancellor Ben Quillian wrote Teri Yamada, an Asian Studies professor at CSU Long Beach.

"I deeply understand the importance of patience," Yamada replied. "Unfortunately, I believe that our concern is more the issue of trust."

Meanwhile, about a half dozen online courses developed by UC professors will debut at UC campuses in January - far fewer than the expected 26. But Vice Provost Daniel Greenstein, who is leading the effort, said the others will be ready over time.

Greenstein said he is pleased that CSU is expanding its online courses. But he said it is "absolutely vital to listen, hear and talk" to the faculty, and to heed the lesson of the University of Illinois' "Global Campus."

The university's online division opened in 2007, spent $7 million, and projected an enrollment of 70,000 by 2018.

But curriculum was shoddy, and faculty - ignored and overruled - didn't buy in.

By 2009, it closed.

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