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California's two most powerful state politicians have taken a gentler approach in their push for public institutions to get creative with inexpensive and efficient degree offerings.

Gov. Jerry Brown and State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the Senate's president, this year included a $50 million fund for “innovation” in the state's budget. The legislation created an award program that seeks to fund ideas that bubble up from California's public universities and community colleges.

Winning proposals, according to language included in the budget, will increase degree production significantly, allow more students to earn bachelor’s degrees within four years, and ease transfer through the state’s three public higher education systems.

The award fund is a shift in approach for the two Democrats, particularly compared to the failed online education bill they backed last year.

Last year’s online proposal from Steinberg would have created a state-funded, low-cost online course pool for students attending public institutions. Massive online providers and other unaccredited institutions would have been able to participate. Faculty groups and others pushed back hard, arguing the idea was heavy-handed and would outsource public education to unproven, for-profit companies.

“I’m not sure how prepared he was for the overwhelming, united opposition,” said Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges.

Steinberg amended the bill. A later version would have offered faculty members at public colleges a grant to teach online courses. But even that softer concept was officially dropped in August. Steinberg’s spokesman said then that his boss would wait to see how the three system’s online programs developed before the state stepped in again.

California’s 112 community colleges proposed an idea to build on an existing centralized online hub, which is dubbed the California Virtual Campus.

Late last year the state chipped in $16.9 million to turn the campus into a “one-stop” statewide portal, where students can take online courses from participating community colleges around the state. The Foothill-De Anza and Butte-Glenn districts are managing the grant.

Officials from Foothill-De Anza said the goal is to dramatically increase the number of online courses -- with accompanying academic support services -- so more California students can earn associate degrees and transfer to four-year universities.

David Morse, an English professor at Long Beach City College and president of the two-year system’s Academic Senate, said the home-built online “exchange” is a much better solution than outsourcing.

He said MOOCs have their uses, but “credit instruction wasn’t one of them.”

The forthcoming portal, however, gives faculty members more freedom to build quality courses, Morse said. “In the long run it could improve online education across the state.”

The University of California and California State University systems also are working to further develop their online offerings, thanks in part to nudges from Governor Brown. But the two systems are headed in different directions.

UC is using $10 million from the state to create more high-demand online and hybrid courses. Cal State, however, opted to replace Cal State Online with a shared services model, meaning the online portal will be folded into the system’s academic technology services department.

'Beyond California'

California is relatively flush these days, thanks to its economic rebound. That means the state’s Democratic-dominated government can afford to be both less prescriptive and more generous.

Even so, Brown and Steinberg appear committed to encouraging the use of technology to improve degree production, including with the new award program.

The state’s Department of Finance, which is managing the awards, has said online learning will likely be among the proposals that get funded. Brown and other state policy makers created a seven-member committee to pick winners, including members from the governing boards of the three statewide systems. Applications are due in January. State officials said each award will be at least $2.5 million, meaning there may be up to 20 grants made.

The program is seeking new ideas --  they will only consider those started this year -- and long-term commitments. And it is encouraging some unconventional thinking.

For example, the budget language said colleges should try to help students transfer through the system by “better recognizing learning that occurs across the state's education segments and elsewhere.”

That means trying promising ideas from beyond California, said Dean Florez, a former state senator and majority leader who was named to the committee this week.

“It’s an opportunity for the systems to look outside their borders,” he said.

Florez said he is interested in applications that feature remedial math reforms, more online access or competency-based education. Some California institutions are already granting credit based on competencies, he said, such as through use of tests from Excelsior College or the College Level Examination Program (CLEP).

“Credit granted by exams that test a student’s competency or prior learning on a subject from self-directed study can be a strategy that helps reduce a student’s time to degree completion and lower costs,” Florez said in an email.

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