The initiative, called Open SUNY, will begin next year and offer 10 online bachelor's degree programs, with an enrollment goal of 100,000 students in three years.
"No institution in America -- not even the for-profits -- will be able to match the number of offerings and the quality of instruction SUNY can offer," Zimpher said in her third annual State of the University address. "And not only are we going to do it best -- we're going to do it big."
Students will be able to take online courses offered at any of the campuses, regardless of which one they attend, Zimpher said.
The online bachelor's degrees to be offered beginning in 2014 will be in fields of high demand, such as engineering and health care, SUNY officials said.
Lectures by SUNY's top professors also will be offered online, Zimpher said, joining a movement begun by professors at elite private schools who make available free Web classes called massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which have drawn millions of viewers around the world.
The move will result in cost savings for the state, although the exact figures are unclear because the program is in its initial stages, SUNY officials said.
The online courses will help students complete a bachelor's degree in three years, a plan Zimpher said will decrease students' debt by helping them graduate faster than the average of 4.5 years.
SUNY graduates of four-year programs have an average debt of $22,575, below the national average of $26,600, Zimpher said.
Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley said he supports the online education initiative and an accelerated degree for some students, particularly those who might want to complete a combined bachelor's / master's program in four years.
"I'm really glad to see SUNY taking the lead on it," he said.
Stony Brook professors already teach an upper-level biology class to students at the Binghamton and New Paltz campuses, where the class isn't offered, Stanley said.
Content and cost-sharing arrangements need to be reached, Stanley said, but he is optimistic that the individual college presidents will support the collaboration.
Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst researching online education at public universities for the nonpartisan New America Foundation, which has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C., said online degree programs are "common sense for state-supported institutions."
"A lot of systems are starting to realize that it's better if you join together," she said.
Other state university systems, including those in California, Florida, Tennessee and Wisconsin, plan to ramp up online education.
California Gov. Jerry Brown has said he wants to improve graduation rates and operational efficiencies, in part by creating "virtual campuses" in his state's public college system.