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Many institutions allow residential students to dabble in online courses as they work through their schedule of face-to-face classes. The California State University System takes that offering one step further, presenting full-time students at all of the system’s 23 institutions with the option to enroll for free in one online course per semester at another Cal State institution.

The system has allowed residential students to take one free online course per semester at other campuses since 2013 -- and more than 2,400 students have taken advantage, according to Mike Uhlenkamp, interim senior director of public affairs. The provision was codified in California state law in 2015. But the pool of online courses was more limited, and the institution didn’t advertise this option as widely as it will now, Uhlenkamp said.

Cal State students can now access the full range of online courses with CSU Fully Online, a database launched Wednesday. The option is available to students who have completed at least one semester and 12 credits; achieved a GPA of at least 2.0; and paid the full-time tuition price.

More than 3,000 online courses, both upper and lower level, are available on the database. Nearly all of the system's existing online offerings are accessible through CSU Fully Online, with the exception of a few specialized courses that require an internship or in-person interaction. Each course on the database will have dedicated space available for students from other institutions.

The goal is for students to have alternatives when required courses don’t line up with their busy academic schedules, or to expand options for courses within a particular discipline.

Systems in Hawaii, Illinois, Nebraska, New York and Texas already offer course-sharing opportunities. The California system's offering differs in that it's limited to the system's residential students, and it requires no additional charge to students.

Institutions within the Cal State system use several different learning management systems, and each institution's LMS is a little different from the next. The institution doesn't expect these differences to cause confusion, Uhlenkamp said.

Students can only enroll in online courses from institutions that share the term schedule (semester or quarter) of their home institution. Two Cal State institutions -- California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and California State University at San Bernardino -- operate on the quarter system, which means students at one can only take online courses from the other.

The CSU Fully Online website includes a self-test for students wondering whether online courses will be their preferred mode of learning.

Cal State plans to promote the initiative on social media and on the websites of individual campuses. Every student portal will have links to CSU Fully Online, and campus advisers will undergo professional development to ensure they can fully explain the program to students.

The announcement comes as Cal State undertakes a broader initiative to double its systemwide graduation rate by 2025. Other efforts toward that goal include ending placement exams and sending excess applicants from one institution within the system to another, expanding opportunity for those who previously would have been denied admission.

Howard Lurie, principal analyst at the research firm Eduventures, thinks the option is in line with what prospective students want: more access to a wider range of courses. “They’re listening to the market,” Lurie said.

The long-term test, he said, will be whether the institution can improve access to high-enrollment on-campus courses by offering alternatives for excess students.

Russ Poulin, executive director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, thinks the system would be well served to offer its full complement of courses to students who aren't enrolled at one of the campuses full-time. The system currently doesn't have the administrative setup to allow students who haven't already paid tuition at one institution to enroll in online courses from another, according to Uhlenkamp.

Shawn Miller, director of learning innovation at Duke University, sees CSU Fully Online as an opportunity to improve upon a failed effort from 2U in the early 2010s to promote online course sharing. Semester Online, as it was known, attracted insufficient enrollment and experienced administrative challenges in attempting to create a new consortium. Miller thinks this attempt is more likely to succeed.

"At a state institution, to have so many options, it makes a lot of sense," Miller said.

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