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California lawmakers detailed a plan Wednesday to 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, backed by the powerful leader of the state’s Senate, would force all the state’s colleges – from community colleges to the University of California at Berkeley – to reduce overcrowding by allowing students to enroll in dozens of outsourced classes. The idea immediately captured attention not just among educators, but among pundits and politicians -- and not just in California.

The measure's lead sponsor, Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said the bill would reshape higher education and “break the bottleneck that prevents students from completing courses.”

Steinberg’s goal is to help meet capacity for California’s budget-weary public higher education systems, which have struggled to meet student demand. Richard Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, said community college students have really suffered.  About 500,000 of them have been turned away during the state's prolonged budget crisis.

“We’ve had many students who have had to take frivolous units, taking state subsidization in order to simply keep their financial aid in hopes of getting that one course they need to graduate or transfer," Copenhagen said during a press conference Steinberg hosted in Sacramento to announce the plan. "We have had students who have gone homeless because of these significant access issues -- and it’s not all going to be solved by online education, we recognize that.” 

Others, including one of the educators who attended Steinberg's press conference, were not yet sure if the bill was at all a good idea. Michelle Pilati, president of the statewide Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, said faculty are still wondering if it’s appropriate for the state to require colleges to grant credit for courses that the institutions don't control.

“There are so many things that are not clear, it’s hard to take a position,” Pilati said in a telephone interview Wednesday evening.

She said her attendance at the press conference was simply an indication that lawmakers value faculty input and that the faculty are happy to provide it.

The community college system is one of three public higher ed systems in California.

The California Faculty Association, the union that represents professors in the California State University system, said it would work with Steinberg but also seek to protect the “reputation of California’s public higher education system as the best in the world.”

“We are seeing a whirlwind of new technologies – as well as proposals on how to best deploy them – coming to the fore and as such, it is imperative that we clearly understand what is, and what is not, working,” the association said in a statement. “We want to maintain academic credibility and the delivery of accessible, quality public education, rather than chase the latest private sector fad.”

Under the plan, a nine-member council of faculty members would decide which courses should make the cut for a pool of online offerings. Likely participants include Udacity and Coursera, two major massive open online course providers. Another option might be StraighterLine, a low-cost, self-paced online course company. Those online providers are not accredited and cannot directly issue credit. 

Steinberg’s plan appears to have been closely guarded. While Pilati said she learned of it late last week and one of Coursera’s co-founders saw a draft of the bill a few weeks ago, a spokesman said the chairwoman of the Senate education committee was not aware of the plan until her office was contacted Tuesday by reporters, and the head of the Cal State system had not seen a draft of the bill Tuesday afternoon. Various other California education insiders said they also had not known about the plan or its details in advance.

The bill’s fate is unclear.

Governor Jerry Brown, who has been supportive of online education in the state, said he was excited by the prospect of saving money and helping students graduate faster, but he did not think the bill was a finished product because of political forces at play.

“But how are we going to proceed? I think that’s an open question,” the governor said Wednesday during a separate press conference when asked about the bill. “So I wouldn’t jump the gun too quickly. This is something I’m pushing, but I’m also talking to faculty. I respect their role.”

The heads of the California Senate and Assembly education committees could not be reached for comment. 

A big question is what classes would be allowed into the pool. The decision will be made by a nine-member faculty council -- three faculty members selected by each system's Academic Senate.

While Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s co-founder and CEO, participated in Steinberg's press conference via the Internet, some of the language in the bill seems to suggest MOOCs as they are currently offered will not cut it. Indeed, one aide to Steinberg said the bill would, in essence, help tame the MOOC "Wild West."

A draft of the bill given to the media by Steinberg’s office on Wednesday said the faculty council "shall, at minimum, consider the extent to which each course does any of the following”:

  • Provide students with support from instructors to prevent dropouts and failure and also provide some “interaction” with instructors and other students. If strictly adhered to, this would seem to require some one-on-one help from somebody, a feature that the major MOOC providers do not necessarily provide in their free, open-enrollment offerings.
  • Have proctored tests. This is something that MOOC providers, like Coursera, can already offer using webcams.
  • Allow students to know before they enroll in a course the extent to which they are “suited for online learning.” Currently, the free MOOCs do not have mandatory prerequisites.
  • Offer content from the California Digital Open Source Library, a state effort meant to offer free or cheap textbooks to students.
  • Include “adaptive learning technology,” which is software that automatically monitors students’ performance and makes adjustments to try to prevent a student from falling behind. This, again, is something that standard MOOCs do not offer.
  • Include content that has been recommended by the American Council on Education. Currently, MOOC providers like Coursera are not accredited and cannot directly issue credit. The council offers credit recommendations for successfully completed StraighterLine courses and is currently reviewing MOOCs for credit recommendation, with five from Coursera already gaining approval.

The proposal could meet opposition from faculty worn down by years of budget battles.

Teri Shaffer Yamada, president of the union chapter at California State University at Long Beach, said some forms of online classes remain unproven. “To move forward this rapidly with that kind of plan seems dangerous to me, no matter how well-intended,” she said in a telephone interview.

She said a key issue will be what faculty sit on the council that decides what classes are in and out of the pool.

Yamada is also concerned that outside companies will be able to use somebody who is not a professor to fulfill the recommendation that someone interact with a student.

“I think most students probably want to talk to a professor, not to somebody who is, ‘What? - not a specialist in the field,’ ” she said.


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