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The California State University System on Friday released new documents describing its plans for a centralized online learning hub, moving the system closer to its vision of a top-flight virtual campus while drawing skepticism from some faculty.

The portal, called Cal State Online, will serve as a gateway to all virtual courses offered by the system’s 23 campuses. The goal is to increase capacity at California State, where massive budget cuts have coincided with a rising demand for higher ed degrees. System officials hope a centrally administered approach to online education will enable the university to enroll more online students and turn away fewer qualified applicants.

Cal State Online will not outsource course development or instruction to outside providers, focusing instead on promoting existing online courses being offered by individual campuses and encouraging California State faculty to develop new ones, according to the current plan.

The system is planning a “beta test” for the portal in the fall, followed by a full launch next spring. The long-term goal, according to the new documents, is to “enroll over 250,000 students over the next several decades." (The document does not indicate how many online students it hopes eventually to enroll at one time.)

While California State cannot be called a pioneer in distance education, its moves could have national significance. With more than 400,000 students, the system is the largest in the United States. And its online strategy, as well as the parallel efforts of the University of California, could serve as a test of whether a massive public higher ed system under extreme financial duress can use online education to expand access, streamline costs, and keep its faculty happy all at the same time.

Cal State Online on Friday posted an open letter to the university system from Ruth Claire Black, the recently appointed executive director of Cal State Online, along with a draft request for proposals (RFP) indicating what kind of services it plans to provide to students and faculty.

“The goal of Cal State Online is to create a standardized, centralized, comprehensive business, marketing and outreach support structure for all aspects of online program delivery for the Cal State University System,” says the draft RFP. In the open letter, the executive director offers assurances that “participation is optional” for each of the system’s nearly two dozen campuses, “all programs participating in Cal State Online are subject to the same approval processes as an on-campus program,” and “online courses will meet or exceed the quality standards of CSU face-to-face courses.”

Meanwhile, faculty members who develop and teach courses for Cal State Online will get extra pay and “will be recognized in the retention, promotion and tenure process where appropriate,” writes Black. The online administrators will respect current union agreements with respect to intellectual property  

California State faculty have been suspicious of the system’s efforts to expand its online strategy, and for some the new documents offer little comfort.

“We have no confidence, based upon past mismanagement of our administration that such an expansive enterprise would be carried out without harm to the rest of the institution,” wrote Teri Yamada, professor of Asian studies at California State University at Long Beach and a faculty union activist, in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed, after reading the open letter and the RFP.

“For example, we have no idea how the proposed online programs through Cal State Online will undercut funding that the 23 brick-and-mortar campuses now receive from their already established online programs run through colleges of extended education,” Yamada continued.    

But Jim Postma, a professor of chemistry at California State University at Chico and chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, advised his colleagues against prematurely thumbing their noses at Cal State Online. Postma, who is one of three faculty members on the Cal State Online board, says the effort to centralize the university’s online offerings does not imply any changes that would threaten the interests of its faculty.

Despite occasional rumors among faculty that portentous administrative decisions had been made without their input, Cal State Online “is just now defining what it’s going to be,” says Postma. “I do feel like we’re at the table and have the ability to help shape it,” he says.

In an interview, Black emphasized that Cal State Online will not be hiring outside instructors to teach courses, nor will it be empowered to circumvent existing union agreements with regard to existing faculty. “My goal is not to ‘replace’ anybody,” says Black. “My goal is to add services and [to] augment” campus offerings.

Postma says his mild reaction to the implications of Cal State online has caused some tension with his more polemical colleagues. At the last meeting of the California Faculty Association board leaders,  “I was somewhat awkwardly put in the position of defending [Cal State Online],” Postma says. “I’m not a big fan, but I know it’s not the devil incarnate or anything.”

System officials hope that centralizing its online program administration will help California State catch up to other large public university systems, such as Penn State University and the University of Massachusetts, that long ago assimilated online learning by routing individual campus efforts through a central hub. Penn State World Campus and UMassOnline are now running healthy surpluses.

“We’re about 10 years behind everybody,” said F. King Alexander, president of the California State University at Long Beach. “We’ve never put our heads together and said, ‘How much stronger could we be if we were unified on this front?’ ”

Alexander estimated that the Long Beach campus turned away more than 40,000 qualified applicants last year. The capacity issue is endemic across the system, he says.  

In the future, Cal State Online could conceivably form partnerships with other state institutions’ online arms that would make it easier for spillover students to take equivalent courses with other public universities and then seamlessly transfer the credits to California State, Alexander said.

“What we’re not going to do,” he added, “is partner with existing for-profit universities to utilize their courses.”

Another thing California State is not currently planning to do is outsource to a state-endorsed version of Western Governors University, a nonprofit online institution that awards degrees based solely on demonstrated knowledge and skills, rather than seat time.

The California State chancellor’s office invited Robert Mendenhall, the president of Western Governors, to give a presentation to the Cal State Online board several months ago. But Postma says he and his faculty colleagues were not keen on the idea of making the Utah-based institution, which does not use courses or a teaching faculty, an adoptive stepchild of the California State system — as public institutions in Indiana, Texas and Washington State have done.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about Western Governors,” says Black. But she says she is sensitive to the faculty concern about that particular model, and “there’s no proposal on the table to partner with Western Governors or anything like that.”

Rather than eliminating all regimentation in favor of a self-paced model, Cal State Online is anticipating a more traditional academic schedule comprising eight-week-long terms, with a universal start date at the beginning of each term.

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