Educational CyberPlayGround ®

California state program fosters 'virtual' universities

By BRAD HAYWARD, Sacramento Bee Copyright 1997

Early next year, Californians thinking of taking a college class from the comfort of home will be able to get started by logging onto the Internet and going to a World Wide Web page set up by the state.

There, they will plug in the kind of course they're seeking -- from introductory screen writing to hazardous materials management -- and the computer will spit out which California colleges offer the course and how they deliver it, whether by television, Internet or other electronic means.   Admissions information and applications to the colleges will be just another tap of the keyboard away.   It is a small revolution in higher education. Until now, prospective students looking for so-called "distance learning" courses often have had to use unwieldy Internet search engines or scan the catalogs of each individual college to find what they wanted -- if they even knew how to start looking.   The new program is called the California Virtual University, but it employs no professors and grants no degrees of its own. It's not a university, in fact, but an online catalog of electronic courses that are offered by the state's 301 accredited colleges and universities, public and private.   The project's designers, led by Wilson administration staff, say that providing a single, easy-to-use gateway to the expanding world of computer- and TV-based college instruction should help the state absorb an expected 500,000 additional college students over the next decade.   It also will help boost California's economy, they say, by giving working people easier access to college training and retraining programs that fit their schedules.   "These high-quality schools have the capacity to provide a wide range of educational services to Californians at a scale that should help us be more competitive, more productive," said Joe Rodota, an aide to Gov. Pete Wilson and director of the project's design team.   Many of those in California's higher education establishment are positive, though cautious, about the project.   Some are urging a go-slow approach for the virtual university, since the project will encourage the expansion of new technology-based instructional methods that many faculty members are just getting acquainted with and that colleges are still evaluating for quality.   "It needs to go carefully," said Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, vice provost for academic initiatives at the University of California. "There's lots to be learned by everybody in this arena."   Creating more college courses in which the instructor and student are separated physically but linked electronically -- and in which students can "attend" when and where they choose -- is an idea quickly gaining momentum nationally as technological capabilities expand.   Some such courses are delivered by cable television, others by live, two-way TV. One of the biggest growth areas, though, is expected to be in courses that are based on the Internet and electronic mail.   In those courses, assignments are posted on the Internet and class discussions, in written form, take place there as well. Students do much of the work on their own schedule and submit their papers electronically. Some instructors may hold office hours or occasional class sessions in person, and some may require students to appear on campus to take exams.   At Sacramento-area colleges and universities, only a few such courses are now offered. But many faculty members are exploring the concept.   Susan Slaymaker, a geology professor at California State University, Sacramento, is teaching a Web-based introductory earth sciences course this semester and has quickly identified the challenges.   The course requires more of her time than a traditional class -- she has to deal with students' questions individually rather than in a group lecture, and the same questions come in over and over via electronic mail -- and it also demands computer skills that not all students possess, she said.   "I think I had assumed at this point that everyone knew how to do basic stuff on the Internet and send e-mail, and I discovered that is, in fact, not true," Slaymaker said. But, she added, her 54 students are handling the course work as well as those who have taken the regular lecture class.   Many distance learning courses are expected to be directed not so much at traditional undergraduates as at working people with tight schedules and a need to update their skills.   UC officials, for instance, say they expect to use Internet-based courses far more in graduate education and in extension courses for part-time students than for undergraduate instruction.   The availability of distance education courses may vary widely depending on the subject, however.   "Typically it's easier to offer a course in history or English, where a student writes papers online, than to retrain a person in welding on the Internet," said Diana Sloane, vice chancellor for education and technology in Sacramento's Los Rios Community College District.   Development of the California Virtual University as a tool to help students find such courses got under way a year ago, after Wilson announced that the state would not participate in the Western Governors University, a similar online project launched by a consortium of 15 Western states.   One element of that program will allow students to take electronic courses from a variety of colleges and universities in the participating states, then receive a degree from the Western Governors University itself after demonstrating their competency in the subject.   Wilson decided it would be better to create something that would market the electronic offerings of the state's own institutions and provide students with degrees from those existing institutions than to establish something new that would compete with them.   Some analysts still question whether simply offering a catalog of courses is ambitious enough and whether going it alone makes sense.   "We finally have a tool that makes the location of where you get an education not very important, and to keep it only within California's borders seems crazy," said Joni Finney of the nonprofit Higher Education Policy Institute in San Jose. "Until you can piece together a program from different universities across the country, we're not going to change education much."   Promoters of the California Virtual University say the project is a manageable start in the distance learning arena. They recently unveiled their Web page (, which in its early form simply lists the electronic offerings of 65 colleges and offers links to their Web sites.   A more sophisticated Web page with tools for finding a specific course should be ready within a few months.   Among its other features, the page will notify students by electronic mail when a course that is not immediately available opens up later. It also will survey students' backgrounds and educational needs and give the results to the colleges to help them plan course offerings.   While Wilson's office is coordinating the virtual university for now, its designers envision that it ultimately will become a stand- alone entity run by the participating colleges. --