This fall, for the first time, the nation's largest public university system will offer the option of online courses to all of its students, using digital technology to overcome pervasive space shortages in real-world classrooms.

A program revealed Wednesday by the 23-campus California State University includes more than 30 courses approved systemwide, from Elementary Astronomy to the History of Rock and Roll.

This means a student from San Francisco State can sign up for a microeconomics course taught at CSU Northridge, while students from that Southern California campus can learn all about U.S. politics from a professor who teaches in San Francisco.

"It's radical for our system," said Mike Uhlenkamp, a CSU spokesman.

CSU's new cross-campus course option is just the kind of experiment Gov. Jerry Brown has been prodding California's public colleges and universities to try, arguing that smart use of technology could help more students get into and through college. It was funded from $17 million in state money originally earmarked for online education, Uhlenkamp said.

Meanwhile, the University of California is spending $10 million to develop dozens more such courses, along with a cross-campus online enrollment system.

In some ways, CSU is getting in line behind other large public systems such as the University of Texas and UC, which have set up systemwide courses to meet student demand. Across the country, colleges are trying to make more classes available to more students online, a phenomenon spurred by funding cuts, rising tuition and the emergence of companies offering free or low-cost courses.


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While CSU doesn't have data on the number of overcrowded courses, the problem is widespread. On five of its campuses this year, including San Jose State, every single major had more applicants than spaces. While no fan of the online classes he has taken at San Jose State -- an experience felt like a chore, he said -- senior Eric Yam said having that option beats the alternative: not being able to take a course you need to graduate.

"You don't want to spend another year there because of one class," he said.

CSU students will, for now, be limited to one course per term offered at another campus, in addition to any online classes taught by their college's own professors.

Notably missing from the colleges' fall enrollment planning is a controversial online education bill introduced this spring that drew fierce faculty opposition. Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, proposed a much more sweeping change than CSU is pursuing to help students who couldn't get into overcrowded classes. SB 520 would have created a single pool of online classes acceptable for credit at any community college or public university in California -- including some created by unaccredited online education providers.

Announced with fanfare this spring, Steinberg's legislation has been put on hold until next year.

"This bill has prompted a real debate, and now we have the segments coming out with their plans," said Rhys Williams, a spokesman for Steinberg.

But it was the promise of additional state funding, not pending legislation, that set CSU's latest online initiatives in motion, UC and CSU representatives say. It was hard for CSU to find the money for such projects during the state budget crisis, Uhlenkamp said, "when the reality was we needed to keep the doors open and the lights on."

The latest CSU experiment is sure to have its glitches but is long overdue, said Rafael Hernandez, associate dean for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences at CSU East Bay.

But Hernandez said he expects these changes will happen far more smoothly than Steinberg's online education plan. That, he said, was going to "cause an immense amount of headache and bad will among the faculty."

Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.