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Seeking to “reset” a contentious debate about the role of technology in California public higher education, the authors of a new report argue that California policy makers need a statewide approach to end what they call years of isolated, segmented and ineffective online offerings.  

The report, by the education consultants Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein, was commissioned by 20 Million Minds Foundation, a California-based nonprofit that argues that technology can allow more students to enroll in college and that a tech-driven shakeup is good for higher ed.

The authors' goal, they say, is to end the so-called bottleneck of over-enrolled lower-level courses that prevents students from advancing, prompts some students to drop out, and consumes state resources.

The authors, however, do not believe a contentious California proposal that would force public colleges and universities to work with private unaccredited course providers should be anything more than a “safety valve.” That proposal, advanced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (and backed by 20 Million Minds), is pending in the state Senate.

The report is timed to coincide with the release this week of California Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget proposal, which continues to include $37 million in new money for higher ed technology.

Dean Florez, a former California senator who leads the 20 Million Minds Foundation, said the governor has not laid out how the money will be spent, so the report should serve as “a wakeup call for Jerry Brown.”

Faculty representatives in California are concerned that the Steinberg bill would put unproven private sector companies in charge of students' education. They argue that the solution to access problems in California is more funding for the public higher education systems, and that the public colleges and universities are already offering online courses.

The report challenges that last point by arguing that the current public offerings are not going far enough, though the report suggests the public colleges and universities themselves could solve this problem on their own and that policy makers should turn to outsourcing efforts only as a last resort.

The report concludes that California’s online efforts have so far failed to solve the bottleneck course problem in the state. In California, hundreds of thousands of residents, particularly at the community college level, have been turned away from courses.

Hill and Feldstein argue that the state’s three higher education segments – the community college system, the California State University System and the University of California system – have each, for reasons of their own, failed to use technology successfully to increase capacity.

They assert that the systems need to coordinate their efforts to expand enrollment opportunities in bottleneck courses by flipping classrooms, offering new online courses and, as a last resort, turning to third-party course providers. They also suggest that some skills testing for prior learning experiences can help alleviate enrollment pressures.

Feldstein said he also wants to help reframe the debate away from a tit-for-tat over Steinberg's bill and prompt a broader discussion about "students' rights to access.”

While California students do not have an existing legal right of that sort, Feldstein’s rhetorical point is that framing the issue as a “right” might create a moral imperative to make sure students can get all the classes they need.  

“You don’t debate about how much effort you put into protecting a right,” he said.

The authors say community colleges, which are run partly by locally elected boards -- a vestige of their history as part of the public school system – are extensively using online courses but often in isolation, so students from one of the more than 70 community college districts cannot easily benefit from offerings in another district.

Cal State, they argue, has also not done enough to address the bottleneck. And UC, they say, has done little to reach new students.

They propose a broader statewide thinking, pointing to examples in other states, including at the State University of New York.

What they don’t do is advocate strongly for the use of outside third-party providers, which is what the Steinberg bill is meant to encourage, though they argue that such courses should be a “safety valve.” (The co-founder of the MOOC provider Coursera, Daphne Koller, has used the same term to describe some of what her company is trying to do.)

“When all fails, make third-party provider courses available,” Feldstein said, referring to companies such as Coursera and Udacity. “We don’t believe that going to that third-party provider is going to be the best solution for students because it removes them from their support network from within the university, but if you’re talking about a fundamental right-to-access issue, then you have to have a method of last resort for those students to access that right.”

Florez hopes such elements of the report can help end what he called a “food fight” between supporters of the Steinberg bill and those that are opposed.

He called the report a “reaction to the reaction” to the bill, which was widespread opposition by faculty academic senates and unions. He said he hopes it will help frame this summer's budget bill.

 “I think the report kind of lays out some thought processes for policy makers,” Florez said. “It gives them some opportunity by June to make some hard decisions.”

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