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California and the West

California Virtual University Has a Collision With Reality

Education: UC agrees to keep Web site running but drops plans to expand programs and services.


Once touted as the vehicle to whisk college students into cyber-classes, the California Virtual University has run out of gas.

The University of California has agreed to keep the Web site running, so that students still have access to an electronic catalog of 2,550 online courses offered by California's colleges and universities.

But the additional services envisioned for the Virtual University only a few months ago--everything from online guidance counseling to electronic book buying--have been abandoned like the university's former staff.

The troubles that have befallen the California Virtual University are emblematic of the birth pains of distance education.

Consider these events:

* The College Board on Wednesday criticized online education for widening the education gap between wealthy white students and their poor black and Latino classmates. Citing unequal access to computers and the Internet, the influential group of educators called on the government to commit more money to "narrow the 'digital divide' between whites and minorities."

* The Institute of Higher Education Policy this week found flaws in most studies that show students learn just as well taking online classes as they can in a traditional classroom. "The higher education community has a lot to learn regarding how, and in what ways, technology can enhance the teaching/learning process, particularly at a distance," the institute concluded.

* Jones International University became the nation's first fully accredited virtual university. Last month's accreditation by the North Central Assn. of Colleges and Schools was immediately condemned by the American Assn. of University Professors, which argued the decision "weakens the very definition of higher education."

* The American Federation of Teachers will belittle distance education in an upcoming advertising campaign that resurrects the old "Saturday Night Live" TV comedy sketch of Father Guido Sarducci selling his "Five Minute University." "Is this about to become a reality?" the ad asks.

John Kobara, a former UCLA vice chancellor and now online educational entrepreneur, said these groups raise important issues.

But he suggested that most of the concerns--from equal access to proper instruction--will be worked out as distance education matures.

"It's early in its life cycle," Kobara said. "There are going to be a few bumps in the road."

Indeed, the few online classes offered three years ago were widely dismissed as the high-tech version of the correspondence courses of notorious diploma mills. Now they are being embraced by virtually all colleges and universities.

More than 110 public and private colleges in California are linked up to the California Virtual University Web site, which lists the 2,550 online courses offered by those institutions. About 25,000 students have enrolled with those individual colleges to take the courses.

The number of Internet courses is expected to explode as more professors get comfortable with the medium and the technology improves.

The University of California and other universities are poised to launch Internet II, which promises to eliminate the "jerky" moving images that often distract students from the content of online lectures.

California's community colleges are perhaps moving the most aggressively into online education. More colleges every month rely on them to fill out their course offerings or attract enough students to fill classrooms.

Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State University system, hopes that 15% of Cal State classes will be offered over the Internet within the next five years. It's one of his principal strategies for the 22-campus system to accommodate the tidal wave of extra students that threatens to swamp traditional classrooms.

Some private colleges view the Internet as a way to pick up some more tuition-paying students and ward off competition from outside companies trying to exploit the new market of distance education.

All this activity would seem to justify Gov. Pete Wilson's 1997 decision to set up a nonprofit, free-standing California Virtual University to help students click through all of the course offerings.

He spurned Western state leaders who created the Western Governors University, saying he thought that California should go it alone. Instead of creating a degree-granting university like Western Governors, he opted for an electronic clearinghouse for courses offered by the state's array of accredited schools.

Last July, Wilson turned over the California Virtual University to a nonprofit foundation, saying there was "no need" to create a new state bureaucracy. He launched it with temporary funding from private donations, hoping it would soon be bringing in revenue from ads on its Web site at

But when Stanley A. Chodorow arrived as the virtual university's first CEO, he found it without any financial means of support. So he asked private colleges and the three public segments--the University of California, Cal State and community colleges--to collectively chip in $1 million a year for three years while he built up advertising and book-sales revenues.

Cal State's Chancellor Reed was the first to balk, questioning if the virtual university would ever be self-sustaining. The coalition then collapsed.

"It never really caught on," Reed said. "We wanted to keep up the Web site and we've managed to do that."

Chodorow, former University of Pennsylvania provost, chalks up the experience to "birth pains" of a spanking-new industry. He remains unshaken from his view that virtual universities will flourish in the future.

"The concept of one-stop shopping of online course offers is a terrific one," he said, "and ought to be preserved at any cost."

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