The pilot program, co-developed by San Jose State and Palo Alto-based Udacity Inc., will begin offering three entry-level courses for $150 each starting later this month. The California State University campus charges about $620 for similar classroom-based courses.
The online effort began this past summer when the governor called Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun and asked him to help develop digital courses for California colleges. Thrun is a researcher at Stanford University and Google Inc. who launched Udacity to provide so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
Brown said Tuesday the goal is to allow students to "graduate quicker so they don't carry this big load of debt on their backs for the next 25 years," noting that only 16 percent of Cal State students graduate in four years.
The initiative, called "San Jose State University Plus," is different from other online education programs because it will offer introductory courses for credit, charge low fees and welcome students who don't attend the school, officials said.
The pilot program will enroll about 100 students in each class, with half from outside San Jose State. It will target high school students, waitlisted community college students, members of the armed forces and veterans.
The first classes offered will be pre-algebra, algebra and elementary statistics - three-unit "gateway courses" with high failure rates that are required for most Cal State degree programs.
"These are the courses that are high demand. Everybody needs them to move to the next part of their curriculum sequence," said Timothy White, the new chancellor of the 23-campus CSU system.
San Jose State faculty will be the instructors of record for the classes and will evaluate students. No textbooks are required, and students will have access to mentors through chat rooms, a helpline and other means.
"I'll be communicating with those students via chat and tutoring them. Udasity is also going to be offering online tutoring," said Sandra DeSousa, a SJSU algebra professor.
"I want to democratize education. I want to level the playing field for everybody," Thrun told ABC7 News.
"After all, we are here in San Jose, the capital of Silicon Valley, the cradle of creatively and the epicenter of innovation," said San Jose State president Mohammad Qayoumi.
San Jose student Alan Cochrane told ABC7 News he likes the idea. He said, "I feel like it may be cheaper. For me personally, I like on line courses because it helps me focus more."
Brown said, "It's an experiment and we're going to learn together. That's why I think we will succeed."
Thrun admits the pilot project is a work in progress. He told ABC7 News, "Wait two or three years into it. I hope it's going to be much, much better."
In his 2013-2014 budget, Brown has proposed giving California's public colleges and universities more money. But in return, the Democratic governor wants them to hold down costs, stop raising tuition and embrace online learning.
Brown is scheduled to attend the University of California Board of Regents meeting on Wednesday, when university officials plan to discuss plans to expand online learning at the 10-campus system. Leaders of the online education providers Coursera, edX and Udacity are expected to speak at the gathering.
U.C. has spent $4 million to market the idea, but only one person who wasn't already a U.C. student, has signed up for any of the 14 courses.
ABC7 News contributed to this report.