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Cal State Online Plays Small Ball

While Cal State Online is planned to go live as a pilot in Fall 2012 and fully launch in Spring 2013, the levels of bureaucracy behind the California State University system will make that a challenging goal to meet. Photo by Hanna.

The California State University (CSU), the largest state university system in the United States, has at long last settled on an online learning strategy for its 23 campuses. With more than three decades as a professor in the CSU, now retired, I decided to take a look.

The goal. 

“The goal is to increase capacity at California State, where massive budget cuts have coincided with a rising demand for higher ed degrees,” wrote Steve Kolowich in a review of the plan.

The doubts.  

Many faculty extend their doubts about CSU leadership to online education, an easy target for professorial skepticism. What about quality? What about relationships? What about dwindling dollars directed to new technology schemes rather than familiar, underfunded academic programs? The CSU system has done little in this area to establish confidence, with online action driven by individual faculty, programs and campuses.

Baby steps.  

At the get-go, Cal State Online will serve as an engine for marketing and technology support for sixty existing online programs. Think about the initiative as a new high tech ramp to current programs and practices.

Ruth Claire Black, the new director of Cal State Online, in an open letter to the CSU presented 10 guiding principles. Concerned about external, centralized control? Have no fear. Participation is voluntary. What about recognition and support for faculty? It is there, in principle number 2.

What about quality? That’s assured in principle 7: “Online courses will meet or exceed the quality standards of CSU face-to-face courses.” What about the cost of online classes? Financial aid will make these assets accessible to all. All? And if worried about short shrift for campus and student life, there is a vow to deliver “world class student services” and consideration of ways to include “place” in online instruction, thus leveraging campus infrastructure.

Magical methods.

Those are lofty promises and gnarly matters. How will it unfold? Just one example of the conundrum: Cal State Online states that it will focus on academic areas in which the CSU is “already strong and proficient.” Makes sense and sounds good until you attempt to sort the strong and proficient from the others. Does such a list exist? Other than an extensive RFP process which will invite experienced providers into some aspects of the mix, few details are provided. And the devil, of course, is in those details.

A long slog.  

The Kolovich piece quotes F. King Alexander, President of Cal State Long Beach, as acknowledging that the CSU is about ten years behind everybody else in online education. Because California processes are far from nimble, Cal State Online will struggle to decide and execute. Every base that is touched increases time and cost– and Director Black promises that she and her group will visit many bases. Even before the RFP hits the street, the following entities will review it: Statewide Academic Senate, Executive Council, Faculty Senate Chairs, Presidents, Provosts, VPs Academic Affairs, CABO, ITAC, TSC, ATSC, ATAC, DAT, Deans of Extended Education, Directors of Distance Learning and the Commission on the Extended University. Her letter assures that all participating online programs will be subject to the same approval processes and oversight structures as on-campus programs.

Cal State Online, which took years to conceive, is now scheduled to pilot in the Fall semester, 2012, and then to launch in Spring, 2013. While the intention is to deliver to California students first and the rest of the world next, it is difficult to believe it will serve large numbers any time soon.

Re-thinking the CSU.

While refreshment of Title 5, the brilliant 1960 Higher Education Master Plan, is long overdue, Cal State Online is unlikely to jump start a new vision. A plan that is struggling to not be too scary will not advance core issues: How are credits earned? What is credit? Must students take a class or can they prove proficiency through other authentic demonstrations? What is a course? How will we know that a course is worthwhile? Do we still need courses? How about our students’ need for campuses and majors? Will the fact that technology can enable more choice guarantee that students will get to make more choices? How will we help students to make smart choices?

It is important to engage on those questions and to extend the discourse into how we think about programs, requirements, instructors, certification, assessments, and instructional time and space. Net, net, these are questions about technology as addition or supplement, about whether technology will add to the positive things already happening in the CSU or supplant, alter and challenge the status quo.

Don’t worry, be happy.  The CSU is trying to do three desirable and not obviously compatible things:

  1. Increase access;
  2. Maximize efficiencies; and
  3. Maintain happy faculty and campuses.

Can Cal State Online achieve these outcomes without changing much of anything? 

Who do you think you are?  

My name is Allison Rossett, and I am Professor Emerita of Educational Technology at San Diego State University. I believe in online education. I’ve offered classes online and I’ve taken one too. I know it isn’t easy. I know that quality is no finger snap away.

Faculty and administrators have many reasons for concern, but none that should turn them away from the good that could be sparked by a bolder Cal State Online. This offering feels pinched, crafted by a committee. California deserves a brave program that will tackle hard questions, experiment with new forms, and lead the way to a new Title 5 for this new century and our great state.

Cross-posted from Allison Rossett.

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