Shrinking Cal State Online

July 22, 2014

The California State University System is replacing its distance education portal with a shared services model less than two years after its launch, as the system’s campuses decide they would rather do the work on their own.

The system founded Cal State Online in 2012 in response to dual concerns. Its crowded campuses were turning away tens of thousands of qualified applicants each year, and while many of the campuses already offered online courses and degrees, the system lacked an overarching strategy on distance education. Meanwhile, some administrators were nervously watching institutions such as Penn State University and the University of Massachusetts, which had already established online divisions.

Cal State Online, a centralized gateway to all of the system’s online offerings, could have addressed both those challenges. The system set a long-term goal of enrolling more than 250,000 “over the next several decades,” as per early plans, and found a partner in eCollege, the online enabler owned by Pearson. But many faculty members objected to the plan, saying a push for more distance education would directly compete with face-to-face instruction. To assuage those concerns, the system decided all participation would be voluntary.

But a year and a half after the first courses launched, Cal State Online features only five bachelor’s degree programs, two master’s degree programs and four general education courses. All five of the bachelor’s degree programs require students to transfer in with at least 60 credits, or half their degree, already completed.

Of the 23 campuses in the university system, only five -- Channel Islands, Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, Humboldt State and Monterey Bay -- have participated.

Now, Cal State Online is to undergo a “re-envisioning,” according to a June 13 memo to campus leaders from Ephraim P. Smith, the system’s executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer. Instead of operating as a stand-alone unit, Cal State Online will be folded into the academic technology services department of the chancellor’s office.

“The CSU believes it can be more successful supporting campuses’ fully online degree, credential and certificate programs by focusing on a shared services strategy,” Laurie Weidner, assistant vice chancellor of public affairs, said in an email. “The new model will enable the campuses to grow their online programs more successfully and in a timely manner.”

The move to a shared services model “will include a shift to a communication, consultation and services strategy for fully online campus degree programs, credentials, certificates and courses supported by opt-in shared services,” Smith wrote in the memo, which was obtained by the higher education blog e-Literate. “The Chancellor’s Office will continue to support campus degree programs currently under Cal State Online as we migrate to the next phase of support services.”

While the system is sticking with "re-envisioning," education consultant Phil Hill wrote, "Some services will continue and CSU may keep the name, but it’s the end of Cal State Online as we know it."

The system does not yet appear to have decided what the “next phase” entails. The office has formed a Commission on Online Education and embarked a “listening tour” to its campuses, and will release a summary of its findings in September. In a section of the memo titled “looking ahead,” Smith writes that the system “will consult with campuses to identify the next set of priorities to pursue systemwide strategies, services and contracts to support campus success.”

Ruth Claire Black, currently executive director of Cal State Online, “will be providing research services on the role of online innovations in education for the Chancellor’s Office,” Weidner said. Gerry Hanley, assistant vice chancellor for academic technology services, and Sheila Thomas, state university dean of extended and continuing education, will take over leadership duties.

Despite the low number of degrees offered through Cal State Online, campuses in the system are independently running more than 100 online programs, Weidner said.

That may point to one of the reasons why the system has decided to scale back Cal State Online. By the time the portal launched, many campuses in the system had already established their procedures for developing online courses and programs, said Jim Postma, a professor of chemistry at California State University at Chico. A founding board member of Cal State Online, Postma said the online arm may faced difficulties in its attempts to standardize distance education across the system and compete on a national and international level.

“I’m not convinced that the founders of CSO recognized this reality as they envisioned a very entrepreneurial enterprise for CSO,” Postma said in an email. “Also, it was never clear how the quality-control mechanisms for the curriculum which are currently established at the campus level would accommodate the CSO model.”

The system’s partnership with Pearson may also explain the lack of faculty buy-in. When the partnership was announced, the California Faculty Association, the system’s faculty union, criticized then-chancellor Charles B. Reed for “funneling revenue away from the CSU into for-profit companies’ coffers.”

The California Faculty Association did not respond to a request for comment on Monday, but its members have long criticized the role of for-profit vendors in higher education.

Pearson’s role has since diminished. Since the fall of 2013, Weidner said, campuses have been free to use the learning management system of their choice -- as opposed to eCollege’s. A spokesman for Pearson said the company continues to power courses offered through Cal State Online and provides technical support.

“For any business -- be it nonprofit or for-profit -- to succeed, it must have the three Ps: the right people, the right products and the right process,” said Kenneth Hartman, a senior fellow for the consulting firm Eduventures. “In this case, they were never able to achieve the right products, the process was not -- in spite of two years working on it -- in place... and there was tremendous uncertainty and a lack of buy-in."

Hartman, former president of Drexel University Online, said Cal State Online still should have received more time to sort out its issues.

“This decision doesn’t change the fact that the marketplace for nontraditional and traditional students is crying for high-quality online courses and degrees,” Hartman said. “If Cal State doesn’t step up to the plate and fill that void, no one else will.”

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