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Just a few years ago California's community colleges were dealing with a serious capacity problem.

The state’s financial crisis led to budget cuts for the two-year college system, which meant fewer students could enroll on campuses. During that time, roughly 600,000 students were turned away by the 112 community colleges.

While the system's capacity woes have eased as state money is flowing again, the community colleges have turned to online courses to prevent shutting out students in the future.

The California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative will debut this fall.

Unlike typical online class systems, the OEI is a collaborative program that allows students to register and participate in online courses across multiple colleges. So if a student needs a course that is overbooked on their home campus, they can go to the exchange and take that same course online at another college that isn’t at capacity. The program also provides online counseling to students.

“Community college systems have actually done a lot with online courses, but it’s always been in silos and each campus having their own program,” said Phil Hill, an education technology consultant and co-publisher of the “e-Literate” blog. “But this is a coordinated systemwide approach where they’re all working together for the first time.”

Not only is this the first time the community colleges have teamed up for something like this, but they also created the online exchange.

Initially, when the two-year system was confronted with capacity and funding issues in 2013, a proposed solution was to use massive open online course providers to meet the demand.

“There was really a big political, public fight about it,” Hill said, adding that Governor Jerry Brown was pushing for the state’s public institutions to experiment with for-profit companies and MOOCs for introductory and remedial courses.

But the state’s faculty pushed back and warned that some of the for-profit providers and MOOCs were unproven.

The system also realized they could provide more seats to students in online courses at colleges that weren’t at capacity, said Patricia James, the initiative's executive director.

And some of the for-profit companies California considered partnering with -- Coursera or Udacity -- have since largely moved out of the higher education market, Hill said.

Instead of ceding control to outside vendors, the colleges decide to create the Online Education Initiative by giving Foothill-De Anza Community College District, Butte-Glenn Community College District and the California Community College Technology Center a five-year, $56.9 million state grant.

So far eight colleges are registering students this fall for the pilot program and this spring more colleges will start working on the exchange to offer classes for the fall of 2017, James said.

“We’ll also have access to students in real time and see where they’re going and what courses they’re taking,” said Jory Hadsell, chief academic affairs officer for OEI. “The home colleges will be much more responsive to how they schedule the enrollment needs of their students.”

So far more than 90 of the state’s community colleges are interested in participating in some way, Hadsell said.

“We have to look at one student in California as our student, no matter where they live,” James said. “We’re no longer these little colleges that grew as an arm of high schools to stepping-stones into the four-year colleges.”

The system is using Canvas as the primary online learning platform. And the project features a common online enrollment application and student information system for sharing across institutions.

“The enrollment challenges and students not getting access to the classes they need is not as big of a problem now, but that doesn’t mean the system doesn’t need to do this,” Hill said. “We still have to help students get access to the courses they need.”

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