A powerful California lawmaker wants public college students who are shut out of popular courses to attend low-cost online alternatives – including those offered by for-profit companies – and he plans to encourage the state’s public institutions to grant credit for those classes.
The proposal expected today from Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat and president pro tem of the state Senate, aims to create a “statewide system of faculty-approved, online college courses,” according to a written statement from Steinberg’s office. (A spokesman for Steinberg declined to discuss the bill.)
Faculty 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, sources said. Another option might be StraighterLine, a low-cost, self-paced online course company.
Those online providers are not accredited and cannot directly issue credit. But the American Council on Education (ACE) offers credit recommendations for successfully completed StraighterLine courses and is currently reviewing  MOOCs for credit recommendations, with five from Coursera already gaining approval . Potentially credit-bearing MOOCs will likely include efforts to verify students' identities and proctored exams.
The proposed legislation might require all of the state’s public institution’s to accept ACE’s recommendations, according to sources familiar with the bill. But whether that requirement would be binding or might include flexibility for colleges was unclear. And the legislation is likely to change as it is fought over and amended.
Steinberg’s goal is to help meet capacity for California’s budget-weary public higher education systems, which have struggled to meet student demand. Community colleges in the state, for example, have turned away about 500,000 students during the prolonged budget crisis.
The pool would only include popular, introductory courses, which are often overbooked. It “would establish an online lifeline for tens of thousands of college students struggling to complete their degrees due to limited classroom seats for impacted courses at many community college, CSU and UC campuses,” the statement said.
Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng said his Silicon Valley-based company wants to help California admit more students and free up space in classrooms
Yet Ng, who teaches at Stanford University, does not think the state should use the effort as an excuse to hire fewer teachers. Instead, society “should be finding room to hire more teachers, not fewer,” he said.
“If you think about your favorite teacher you had back in college and the conversations you had with him or her, there’s just no way to replace that with a computer,” Ng said. “But you need to figure out the economics and the logistics to hire more teachers to deliver those sorts of amazing interactions.”
While many top students and working professionals have embraced MOOCs, the jury is still out on whether at-risk students are as likely to benefit from the courses.
Promise or Peril?
Professors from the public institutions would work with online providers to select courses that match up with their overenrolled equivalents at the colleges, sources said. A panel of nine faculty members from each system's Academic Senate would conduct rigorous reviews, suggesting revisions where they deem necessary. The process would include a focus on retention rates in the courses.
Michelle Pilati, president of the statewide Academic Senate for California’s community colleges, was slated to be with Steinberg at the event today for the bill’s unveiling, where she will be joined by Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s co-founder and CEO, among others.
A source familiar with the bill said it would require online providers to charge no more than the tuition rates of the colleges students attend. So at California community colleges, that would be about $140 per three-credit course.
Gov. Jerry Brown is a big backer of tapping online providers like Coursera for public-private partnerships. He helped broker a deal , announced in January, in which Udacity partnered with San Jose State University to offer a batch of online courses on the company's platform. Observers said Brown could help give the bill a boost.
Dean Florez, a former state senator who leads the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, helped encourage the bill's creation. Steinberg attended a conference  the foundation hosted earlier this year on online education. "It still takes a brave leader to turn policy ideas into implementable solutions, and it seems Steinberg did just that," Florez said.
The proposal is certain to draw plenty of attention in California and beyond. Its symbolic importance is enormous, observers said, as lawmakers in the nation’s largest state look for help from nonaccredited, for-profit companies to meet student demand. And the legislation could create the most promising credit-bearing path to emerge for MOOCs, which have been touted as a “disruptive” force in higher education.
It is equally certain to be controversial.
For example, California faculty unions remain on alert following years of budget battles. And some of their leaders are already deeply suspicious about using MOOCs to replace traditional classroom instruction.
Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, which represents 4,000 University of California instructors and librarians, said there’s a “gold rush” for profit-seeking companies hoping to have the state steer students in their direction. One of them is Udacity, he said.
“We think that the whole MOOC thing is drawing attention away from the real issues, especially the funding issues,” Samuels said.
Another prominent MOOC critic said the bill could end up privatizing public education and centralizing control over public education in California.
“What that is doing is taking control away from campuses to control their curriculum. That is giving control over their curriculum to whoever they happen to accredit,” said Aaron Bady, a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of California at Berkeley who wrote a widely read anti-MOOC essay.  “If that course has to be accepted, that’s a centralize control of state curriculum.”
ACE credit also makes some people nervous. A backlash could be in the making if the legislation would mandate that all of California’s public institutions accept the recommendations.
The council, which is higher education’s umbrella group, is reviewing courses from the three major MOOC providers for credit. It has already approved 60 courses from StraighterLine, as well as other nontraditional providers.
However, California’s community colleges and campuses in the Cal State system each get to make the call on whether they accept those credit recommendations, and not all do. Few, if any, UC campuses grant credit based on ACE transcripts.
The council itself stresses that colleges should have the final say in whether or not to accept its credit recommendations. “It’s always up to the institution’s discretion,” said Cathy A. Sandeen, ACE’s vice president for educational attainment and innovation. “When it comes to academic decisions on a campus it’s the faculty who decide.”
Sandeen had not seen the bill on Tuesday. But she said ACE supports broader acceptance of its credit recommendations, of the voluntary variety at least. And the council is game to do its part to help meet student demand in California.
“Whatever we can do to help students is good,” said Sandeen.