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California Launches Its Virtual U

When California turned down an invitation to join the Western Governors' University, many people wondered if it was the right move.

by / January 31, 1998
In October 1996, California Gov. Pete Wilson made an announcement that surprised many. From his office in Sacramento, Wilson declared that the state would not be joining the Western Governors' University (WGU) -- an organization working to build a cooperative, degree-granting virtual university using the Internet and other high-tech tools. Support for WGU snowballed over the previous months, and the fact that California opted out caused many to wonder if Wilson made a mistake regarding the future of education in the state.

However, California rarely takes a spectator's seat on any issue, and online education wouldn't be an exception. As it turns out, Wilson and his staff simply had their sights set on a different digital future for state education, one that would give students online learning opportunities, but in a slightly different manner.

Wilson decided what the state needed was not another university, but a way to tie together the electronic offerings of the state's existing colleges and universities. Soon after, the California Virtual University (CVU) was launched. While CVU won't grant certificates or degrees like the Western Governors' University, it will use the Internet to link students to courses offered through television, the Internet or other electronic means by any of California's 301 accredited colleges and universities. Students will be able to take classes online and still receive a degree from a "real" university.

"When Gov. Wilson received an invitation to join the WGU, he mulled it over and had some concerns," said Richard Halberg, communications director for the California Virtual University. "First, he questioned if there was a need to create a whole new institution to compete with the top-quality institutions California already has. Second, he was sure students would rather receive a degree from colleges with real campuses than a completely virtual university."

Last September, CVU took its first steps by launching an interim Web site that provides links to 65 campuses in California that already offer online or distance learning education. In total, there are over 500 online courses to choose from -- everything from extension courses in wine tasting at American River College to classes necessary for earning a Ph.D. in Education at Pepperdine. In addition, students can register with CVU to receive automatic notification whenever an accredited college or university launches an online distance learning program or substantially updates its online course offerings.

CVU plans to launch a permanent, more functional CVU Web site in early 1998. The permanent site will allow students to enter information about the type of classes they would like to take, when they want to take them and other criteria. "They'll then be presented with the electronic course offerings that meet those criteria, which they can read about and compare online," said Halberg. "Once a student chooses a class to take, they'll be able to enroll online and eventually even pay fees and buy books online. So as a student wanting to take classes from any college in California, you don't have to go to 301 Web sites to find what you're looking for."

Key Ingredients
Soon after the CVU idea was born, Wilson selected eight members of his staff to head a CVU "design team." The design team is scheduled to operate CVU until August; the office will then disband and spin CVU off into a nonprofit, nongovernmental body.

After selecting the eight CVU design team members, Wilson added a group of people that the primarily government-directed WGU had left out -- administrative and faculty representatives from all four of the state's higher education systems -- the University of California, the California State University, community colleges and the Association of Independent Schools.

Halberg admitted that, while there was some trepidation on the part of the faculty at first, they've quickly become enthusiastic participants whose ideas proved invaluable. "Many of them are
naturally concerned about how this is going to change their jobs, but an equal portion of them love the idea and really want to teach online," he said.

"One of the positive things about CVU is that the academics are the ones doing the planning, so we're very excited about the model we're creating," said Diane Vines, who serves as the California State University chief academic officer for CVU. "CVU also leaves all of the accreditation and quality assurance responsibilities to the individual campuses, and that's something that was very important to us. Finally, it's forced all of these institutions to work together -- which is groundbreaking in itself."

California universities also see CVU as an important ally in an approaching crisis they call TidalWave II. "As the baby boomers' kids reach college age, it's estimated an additional 500,000 students will be entering California campuses over the next decade," said Halberg. "That equates to almost one-third more students. Colleges are starting to take a more serious look at online education as a possible way of helping deal with that problem. CVU will help facilitate that."

"We're hoping the increased availability of distance learning in the state will mean less traditional students will be more likely to participate in education online," said Vines. "That will free up more of the traditional campus spots for the TidalWave II population coming out of high school."

However, TidalWave II students are not the only population contributing to an increased demand for higher education in California. Over the last several years, enrollment by professionals who require continuing education to maintain or expand their job skills has skyrocketed.

"As more and more people are working full-time, and the demands of our jobs are increasing all the time, statistics show that more and more Americans are participating in continuing education," said Mary Metz, dean of the University of California University Extension and a member of the design team. "Programs like CVU will help handle that demand."

Vines said one of CVU's goals includes expanding the types of offerings needed by California businesses and state and local government workers. "The community colleges and the CSU system are already working with the California Department of Corrections to provide peace officer education over CVU. This will be an excellent tool for improving employee skills while not requiring them to leave the work site."

Going It Alone
While the California Virtual University appears to be gaining support and momentum, some analysts still question whether offering a catalog of courses is ambitious enough -- and whether going it alone is the best idea. The Western Governors' University, meanwhile, now boasts 16 states as members: Texas, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming; has inked deals to share courseware with universities in Mexico, Japan, the United Kingdom and Canada; and has garnered support from several large high-tech corporations including Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, AT&T and 3Com Corp.

But many California educators say they support Wilson's decision and are standing behind CVU.

"From an academic point of view, I think it was a smart decision," said Metz. "Another degree-granting institution is not really meeting the needs of the state or the nation. The need was for greater access to established institutions."

Vines, who also chairs the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, an organization that is very involved in WGU, believes California educators would never have supported joining WGU anyway. "California colleges, universities and faculty are much more independent, and I don't believe they would have gone along with a model where politicians were leading the effort, or where there was a separately accredited institution involved," she said. "It's not that we don't think that model will work well, but it wouldn't have worked well for us."

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