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California and the West

State Won't Oversee Virtual University

Education: Seeking to avoid creating more bureaucracy, Wilson turns over network of online courses to nonprofit group.

July 30, 1998|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson turned the fledgling California Virtual University over to a nonprofit foundation Wednesday, saying that there was "no need" to create a new state bureaucracy to oversee the electronic gateway to online college courses.

The virtual university, now to be run by college officials, will play an enormous role in bringing classes over the Internet to nontraditional students who cannot make it to campuses because of busy work schedules or because they live in remote areas, Wilson said.

"When we speak of the Information Age, it isn't just a glib phrase," Wilson said. "It means you can be completely remote [from campus] and be in touch with the very finest lecturers and researchers."

The California Virtual University, as designed by the governor's staff and college leaders, does not actually employ professors or grant degrees.

Instead, it is an electronic catalog of courses offered over the Internet and other technologies by participating community colleges and universities, including Stanford, USC, and most of the University of California and California State University campuses.

The idea is to provide one-stop shopping for students who want to plug into distance-education courses on topics from accounting to wine tasting.

Since Virtual U. opened its electronic doors last September, the number of courses listed on its Web site (http://www.california.edu) has mushroomed from about 300 to 1,600.

"We are expecting thousands of courses to be offered," said Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, UC's vice provost and president of the California Virtual University Foundation's board of directors.

Courses will proliferate, she said, as professors become more comfortable with the technology that makes distance education possible.

California Virtual University was launched last year after Wilson spurned an invitation from colleagues in 17 other Western states to form a regional online college called Western Governors University.

Unlike Western Governors, which aims to offer a complete curriculum online and issues degrees, California Virtual University decided to leave control to the colleges themselves.

So colleges advertising online classes through Virtual U. determine who can enroll and who is eligible for a degree. These schools also set the fees, which range from $36 for a typical community college class in creative writing to $2,448 for a master's-level course from USC in electrical engineering.

Students who live outside California must pay out-of-state tuition to enroll in online courses offered by public colleges and universities.

Wilson said Wednesday that California, with its vast array of colleges, had no need to link up with other Western states. And he said he thought California could move more quickly and offer more courses online if it wasn't encumbered by coordinating every decision with other states.

"I've been proved right in every instance," Wilson said.

He pointed out that Western Governors has lined up only about 20 universities, compared with the 95 accredited colleges and universities affiliated with year-old California Virtual University.

Joseph Rodota, Wilson's deputy chief of staff, said no one knows precisely how many students are taking distance-education classes offered by California, but he noted that 9,000 people have signed up for a Virtual U. service that automatically notifies people when certain types of courses become available. The site has become popular overseas, with one-fourth of those who visit the Web site logging on from abroad.

California colleges are offering at least 60 degree and certification programs that can be satisfied entirely by taking classes online. They range from a master's degree in business administration from Cal State Dominguez Hills to a certificate in hazardous materials management from UC Berkeley's extension program.

Stanford announced this week that it would become the first major research university to offer an online graduate degree: A series of 30 courses will lead to a master's in electrical engineering.

Besides handing over the reins to Virtual U., Wilson on Wednesday also gave the foundation $625,000 raised from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and high-tech corporations to keep the online catalog operating for the next year.

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