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"Virtual University" gets boost

Boasting 1,600 courses, the California Virtual University relaunches its online catalog and announces a $75,000 infusion from Oracle.

Fattened up with a total of 1,600 courses, the California Virtual University (CVU) relaunched its online catalog today, and announced a $75,000 infusion from Oracle.

The CVU's searchable catalog pulls together the Web-based distance-learning courses offered by 95 public and private universities in the state. Students can work toward degrees at a specific university or enroll in continuing education courses related to their careers.

Online courses have grown in popularity in the '90s as students look for new ways to balance classes with their complicated schedules and family responsibilities, and as more people return to college to enhance their high-tech skills or retrain for new careers.

"It is going to provide access to quality higher education to a larger percentage of our population--how much larger, only time can tell," Gov. Pete Wilson said today during a conference call with reporters.

"Those who, simply for reasons of their own work schedule or their physical remoteness from a residential [campus, could not attend college], will now be able to at any time and literally at any place be able to access the kind of higher-educational opportunities they need for their own advancement professionally," he added.

Today also ends the state's role as a facilitator for developing the CVU, Wilson said.

Now the online catalog will be administered and updated by a nonprofit foundation made up of representatives from the universities.

Although 9,000 people have registered with the CVU site to receive updates about specific course offerings, there is no estimate of how many students chose online courses via the site since it launched in January.

"We're aiming to be the Amazon.com of the technology-mediated education in California," said Rich Halberg, CVU's spokesman. "So as a student you just have to go to one Web site."

Corporate sponsors will advise the foundation from a technology standpoint, but will not oversee its activities.

The estimated cost to keep the catalog running and enhanced with more automated features is about $2 million per year, Halberg said. The CVU will continue to get the bulk of its funding from corporate sponsors who already have kicked in about $75,000 each. Along with Oracle, sponsors include Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Pacific Bell, and International Thomson Publishing.

The CVU also will support itself through e-commerce. The foundation plans to partner with book, software, and computer retailers to sell course materials to students. The CVU will get a cut of the revenue.

"We're looking for an associates program where we get a percentage of that money," the CVU's Halberg added. "The students may end up saving money."

For those students who can't afford the computers and Net connections necessary to participate in online courses, there could be some financial aid in the works. Wilson's proposed 1999 state budget includes a trial program to approve state student grants for PCs and online access. A bill is moving in both houses of Congress to include a similar provision for federal student grants.

The CVU is only one of several public-private partnerships California has drummed up to increase access to technology or enhance education through the Net.

Wilson's $500 million Digital High School kicked off last August to fund new computer hardware, software, and Internet connections for high schools, as well as to provide faculty training. Oracle alone shelled out $10 million for that project, boosting its deployment of network computers.

Other proposals haven't fared as well.

Last month, the California State University scrapped plans for a ten-year, money-making partnership with four high-tech giants, including Microsoft. The deal would have financed a $300 million technological and telecommunications retrofit for the CSU's 23 campuses by the year 2000, but it was fraught with controversy and halted after financial negotiations collapsed.