A closely watched and controversial California bill to allow online courses from unaccredited providers to count for credit in three of the world’s largest public college systems has been amended in an effort to calm faculty concerns -- but perhaps not to the faculty's own satisfaction.
The plan, announced last month  by the powerful leader of the state Senate, would require the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for low-cost online courses offered by outside groups, including classes offered by for-profit companies. The bill’s backers are looking for a way to help students locked out of the state's overenrolled lower division courses. Hundreds of thousands of California students, particularly at the community college level, have been turned away from courses because of capacity issues in California, which has suffered from years of dramatic government budget woes.
Academic senate leaders from California’s three higher education systems uniformly opposed  the measure, as did the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, which represents 4,000 University of California instructors and librarians. In particular, faculty representatives said they worry the plan would pass off untold thousands of students to for-profit companies -- companies that may not have proven their courses can pass muster. Faculty leaders expressed particular concern that oversight of the process would be left up to a nine-member faculty panel without the expertise to make important judgment calls.
Last week, Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg amended his bill to give oversight to system administrators and faculty academic senates in the three California systems.
Dean Florez, a former California senator who leads the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, helped encourage the bill's creation . He praised the recent changes as “inviting the faculty to the table for a long overdue dialogue.”
Faculty may still not feel so invited.
“It’s moved in a better direction,” said UC-AFT President Bob Samuels, “but we’re still deeply concerned.”
Representatives for the academic senates were not yet ready to weigh in, but could do so shortly.
The amended bill would no longer leave the decisions in the hands of just nine faculty members but instead give oversight to the top administrator and academic senates for each of the state’s three public higher ed systems: the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges systems. The bill requires them to "solicit, develop, and promote appropriate partnerships between online course providers and faculty members." While the legislation doesn't identify the providers California may turn to, the providers may include online course providers such as Coursera, StraighterLine and Udacity.
The new version of the bill also requires each outside course to have a “faculty sponsor” who works in the California public higher ed system. The implications of that requirement are unclear.
The new possibilities for input notwithstanding, Steinberg's legislation still commands results. It says the process “shall result in the availability of multiple high-quality online course options in which students may enroll” by fall 2014.
Florez argues that technology can help solve California’s capacity problems and that the shakeup is a good thing for the higher ed system.
“It took a disruptive shove to get them to realize that online education has now arrived at the shores of the ivory tower, they can either channel the waters or build a fortress against the seas of change,” Florez said in an e-mail Sunday. “Hopefully they will take Senator Steinberg's inclusive invite and provide a path to completion for those students stuck in bottleneck courses without any recourse.”
Samuels said the changes make the bill a bit more palatable but do not deal with the larger funding issues that caused the capacity problems in the first place.
“I think it makes it a little bit better, but there is still the major issues of the question of using the outside course providers and we still don’t think this is a major solution to the problems facing higher education in California and the funding of higher education,” he said.
The price tag for the plan remains unclear, though Gov. Jerry Brown's early budget proposal includes $26.9 million  to increase the number of online courses available to matriculated undergraduates. (Steinberg’s recent amendments made clear his bill applies only to enrolled California college students.) Brown, a Democrat, is expected to release a revised budget proposal in mid-May.
Last week's amendments also remove a provision of the Steinberg bill that gave preference to outside courses that have been reviewed and recommended by the American Council on Education. Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based distance education startup, offers five classes that carry ACE credit recommendations (which no institution is currently required to accept) and has said it would seek more such recommendations. ACE also offers credit recommendations for successfully completed StraighterLine courses.
A committee hearing on the bill, SB 520 , is set for this Wednesday, April 24.