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California State University unveils 'radical' plan for online courses

  • August 1, 2013

By Katy Murphy
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group

This fall, for the first time, students in the nation's largest public university system will be able to take courses offered online at any of the system's campuses -- regardless of where they attend.

A program announced Wednesday by the 23-campus California State University includes more than 30 courses approved for systemwide consumption, from Elementary Astronomy to the History of Rock and Roll.

This means a student from San Francisco State can sign up for a microeconomics course taught at CSU Northridge, while students from that Southern California campus can learn all about American politics from a professor who teaches in San Francisco.

"It's radical for our system," said Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for CSU.

CSU's new cross-campus course option is just the kind of experiment Gov. Jerry Brown has been prodding California's public colleges and universities to try, arguing that smart use of technology could help more students get into and through college. It was funded from $17 million in additional state funding originally earmarked for online education initiatives, Uhlenkamp said.

Meanwhile, the University of California is spending $10 million to develop dozens of such courses, along with a cross-campus online enrollment system for UC students.

While no fan of the online classes he has taken at San Jose State, saying the experience has felt like a chore, senior Eric Yam said having that option beats the alternative: not being able to take a course you need to graduate.

"You don't want to spend another year there because of one class," he said.

CSU students will, for now, be limited to one course per term that is offered at another campus, in addition to any online offerings taught by their college's own professors. They will also need to take a class taught on a similar academic calendar as their home campus; some of the CSU colleges are on the quarter system, while the others have semester terms.

Notably missing from the colleges' fall enrollment planning is a controversial online education bill introduced this spring that drew fierce faculty opposition. Proposed by Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, as a way to help students get the courses they need to graduate on time, SB 520 would have created a pool of online classes that would be accepted for credit at any community college or public university in California -- including some created by unaccredited online education providers such as Coursera.

Announced with fanfare this spring, Steinberg's legislation has been put on hold until next year.

"This bill has prompted a real debate, and now we have the segments coming out with their plans," said Rhys Williams, a spokesman for Steinberg. The senator is "waiting to see how the plans develop," he said.

But it was the promise of additional state funding, not pending legislation, that set CSU's latest online initiatives in motion, UC and CSU spokespeople say. It was hard for CSU to find the money for such projects during the state budget crisis, Uhlenkamp said, "when the reality was we needed to keep the doors open and the lights on."

The latest CSU experiment is sure to have its glitches in a system with nearly 400,000 undergraduates, but it is long overdue, said Rafael Hernandez, associate dean for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at CSU East Bay, who has taught the popular History of Rock and Roll class online.

But Hernandez said he expects these changes will happen far more smoothly than the proposal outlined in Steinberg's online education bill. That, he said, it "wasn't going to do anything but cause an immense amount of headache and bad will among the faculty."

Cal State's list of systemwide online classes now available

To ease the path for students struggling to get into popular classes, the California State University system is making a host of courses available online to all CSU students statewide.

The classes' details and registration instructions are online at


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