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Florida lawmakers advanced a bill this week intended to upend the American college accreditation system.

The measure would allow Florida officials to accredit individual courses on their own -- including classes offered by unaccredited for-profit providers. 

“We’re saying the monopoly of the accrediting system is not designed for the world of MOOCs or other individual courses,” said Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes, the bill’s sponsor. MOOCs are massive open online courses, the generally free online classes offered by a handful of groups, including some of the most elite universities in the world and for-profit companies.

The Florida plan is similar to a high-profile California bill. Both would force public colleges and universities under some circumstances to award credit for work done by students in online programs unaffiliated with their colleges.

With less than a month left in the Florida legislative session, the bill’s fate is unclear. But its critics and supporters both take the effort seriously even though the bill has remained below the radar nationally compared to the California plan, even within higher education circles in Florida.

Tom Auxter, the president of the 7,000-member United Faculty of Florida, was on his way to Tallahassee on Wednesday to lobby against the bill, which is known as the Florida Accredited Courses and Tests Initiative, or FACTs.

“What we’re trying to do is mobilize faculty to contact their legislators to say just how bad this is,” Auxter said.

The bill is part of a national effort to use technology to change higher ed.

“Now you see the nation being squeezed by California and now in Florida,” said Dean Florez, a former California state senator who leads the Twenty Million Minds Foundation and generally supports the bills in both states.

Brandes won approval for the bill from the Senate’s powerful rules committee on Tuesday morning, clearing a major hurdle that allows the bill to be considered by the full Senate.

The bill does two main things.

First, it would create “Florida-accredited courses.” According to the bill, anyone – “any individual, institution, entity or organization,” it says – could create a course and seek “Florida-accredited” status.  The vagueness of the language worries faculty unions and other state lawmakers, including a Republican senator who warned during the committee meeting Tuesday that Florida was inviting "scam artists."

During testimony to the rules committee Tuesday and in an interview Wednesday, Brandes made clear his bill is intended to shake up the way things are done in higher ed. He said the current accrediting model, which looks at a whole institution, fails to look at the rigor of individual courses. He said this means a college might be good over all, but a course wouldn’t be.

Under his plan, the head of the state’s public school system and the chancellor of the university system would together certify which courses among those not offered by accredited institutions deserve to be “Florida-accredited.” (Currently, all public higher ed institutions in Florida are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.)

Auxter called that plan dangerous and prone to political influence.

“It takes away decision making on the curriculum from faculties, universities and colleges and it gives it to officials in Tallahassee,” Auxter said. “Then all lobbyists have to do is argue with two officials, who are both political appointees, that their vendor contract to produce a high-quality – so-called – online course should be adopted."

The second major part of the bill is a new regime of statewide tests for K-12 and undergraduate college students to get credit for certain general education requirements based on their knowledge rather than for taking any specific course. The tests would be similar to Advanced Placement, ​International Baccalaureate and College Level Examination Program, or CLEP, exams. These for-credit exams would be tailored to Florida but designed and administered by contractors. ​Many colleges and universities will award credit or waive some requirements for students with certain scores on the AP or other exams, but these decisions have historically been made by colleges, and some institutions opt not to award such credit.

Florida International University Provost Douglas Wartzok said both key parts of the bill are “certainly concerning” because they take the university out of the picture: faculty would not offer the instruction, faculty would not design the tests and faculty would not administer the test.

“This approach takes it one more step away from the individual universities’ overview and allows commercial organizations to do the evaluations,” Wartzok said.

Florez criticized academic resistance.

“I think every professor in the nation starts with, ‘I think online education is going to ruin higher education,’ " he said. "What I think every professor is saying is, ‘Online learning is going to significantly disrupt the way I’ve been doing things.'"

Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which criticizes standardized tests, said the legislation was troubling. “It is designed so that the test is the curriculum, so that students will gain credit if they pass the test, even if they don’t do anything else and that certainly will encourage test prep and not deeper learning,” he said.

Even though Brandes is pushing tests that would grant students credit for doing well, Brandes said "for the most part" students should still take some kind of course -- whether it be traditional courses or MOOCs -- in order to learn.

“What we’re saying here is students have to pass an exam at the end, so they have to pass to attain the knowledge,” he said. "The arguments against it would be there’s something magical about how you attain that knowledge. For the most part, the knowledge is the commodity. So what we’re saying is, ‘How are we going to get this commodity into your head?’”

Brandes -- using a comparison attributed to Stanford University President John Hennessy -- said technology is a tsunami and it’s up to education policy makers to sink or swim.

Auxter said this line of thinking spells the end of higher ed as it’s known. He said college professors would soon begin to teach to tests, a criticism leveled frequently now at K-12 teachers.

“Would you like to have university courses taught like that? Would you like to have colleges taught like that?” Auxter said. "Well, notice what’s in this bill.”

While the bill has fallen off some Florida higher ed officials' radar, Brandes said it is alive and he plans to amend the legislation into a House bill that is in the Senate and then send the amended version back to the House. Both Florida chambers have Republican majorities. Florida Gov. Rick Scott is also a Republican who has challenged public universities to offer low-cost alternatives to traditional programs.

Senator Bill Montford, a Democrat, voted for the bill during the rules committee meeting this week despite some outstanding questions.

“We’ve had terrible experience with good ideas before,” he said during the meeting. “I want some assurance that the Department of Education and the school districts will have the ability to make the decisions that we will not subject our children to less than the very best in those courses and instruction.”


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