By Tamar Lewin
Legislation was introduced in the California Senate on Wednesday that could reshape higher education by requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for oversubscribed classes on campus.
If it passes, as seems likely, it would be the first time that state legislators have instructed public universities to grant credit for courses that were not their own — including those taught by a private vendor, not by a college or university.
“We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise: No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed,” said Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the Senate, who will introduce the bill. “That’s the motivation for this.”
Despite doubts about the measure from some faculty members, signs point to the proposal’s passage after refinements to the legislative language, which is currently more outline than details. Democrats control the Legislature, and Gov. Jerry Brown has been a strong proponent of online education as a means to reduce college costs.
In part because of budget cuts, hundreds of thousands of students in California’s three public higher-education systems are shut out of the gateway courses they must pass to fulfill their general education requirements or proceed with their major. Many are forced to spend extra semesters, or years, to get degrees.
Under the legislation, some of the eligible courses would likely be free “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, like those offered by providers like Coursera, Udacity and edX; others might come from companies like Straighterline, which offers low-price online courses, or Pearson, the educational publishing and testing company.
“This would be a big change, acknowledging that colleges aren’t the only ones who can offer college courses,” said Burck Smith, the founder of Straighterline. “It means rethinking what a college is.”
According to Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the state’s 112 community colleges each had an average of 7,000 enrolled students who were on waiting lists, and at the 420,000-student, 23-campus California State University, only 16 percent of students graduate within four years, in part because of the difficulty in getting the courses they need.
“It’s almost unthinkable that so many students seeking to attend the public colleges and universities are shut out,” said Molly Corbett Broad, the president of the American Council on Education. “I definitely expect it to spawn serious deliberations within the faculty, but these would be the basic courses that perhaps faculty gets the least psychic reward from teaching.”
In a way, the legislation has a head start: Last year, in an effort to bring down textbook costs, Steinberg won passage of a law requiring free online textbooks for the 50 most popular introductory college courses, and in the process created a faculty panel — three members each from the University of California, California State University and the community college system — to choose materials.
The new legislation would use that panel to determine which 50 introductory courses were most oversubscribed and which online versions of those courses should be eligible for credit. Those decisions would be based on factors like whether the courses included proctored tests, used open-source texts — those available free online — and had been recommended by the American Council on Education. A student could get credit from a third-party course only if the course was full at the student’s home institution, and if that institution did not offer it online.
Despite the element of faculty control that would be built into the process, it is not likely to sit well with faculty.
“I think it’s going to be very controversial,” said Josh Jarrett, a higher education officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which finances research on online education. “The decision to award credit has been one of those solemn things that the faculty hold very dear. But it could be a catalyst for widespread change, driving community colleges where they turn away a lot of students to move quickly to put more of their own courses online, and charge tuition, to keep their students from taking the courses elsewhere.”
The trend to use educational resources available free online is moving at a gallop, nationwide. This week, UC Irvine announced that it was making its chemistry videos and lectures available free online — albeit not for credit. And David Wiley, a pioneer of online education, started a new company, Lumen Learning, to work with colleges shifting toward open-source textbooks and to create degree programs that would use only open-source materials.
In putting together the new legislative proposal, Steinberg worked with Dean Florez, a former California Senate majority leader who is the president of the 20 Million Minds Foundation, which works for open-education resources. Florez said the online courses would supplement — but never supplant — the classes taught at California’s public colleges, so that students would not be delayed by bottlenecks. His own son had to wait three semesters at Santa Monica Community College to get into a math class he needed, he said.
But Lillian Taiz, the president of the California Faculty Association, said that she thought it was too soon to conclude that online classes from third-party providers were a good substitute for the classes at state institutions.
“This whole online thing is not well-vetted yet,” she said. “There’s a sort of mania for massive online courses right now, but there’s no good evidence that they work for all students.”
“What’s really going on is that after the budget cuts have sucked public higher education dry of resources,” she continued, “the Legislature’s saying we should give away the job of educating our students.”
Other higher education leaders were more open to the idea, including Mark Yudof, the president of the University of California.
“I’m OK with credit for online, actually. I’m flat-out optimistic about it, as long as our faculty has the chance to massage it appropriately,” Yudof said. “They might want to add recitation, or assessment or discussions groups, but assuming they accept it, I think it’s fine. We’re getting ready to put online 30 courses developed by our own faculty, mostly introductory general education courses, and it’s possible that people at other institutions would use those.”
The chancellor of the California State University system, Timothy P. White, also was cautiously supportive.
“Demand exceeds capacity on every one of our campuses,” he said. “This is really about increasing our capacity with the existing resources. It isn’t a challenge to professors’ autonomy, or something that would mean cutting the work force. We have to find a way to do better at meeting the growing demand, and if there’s a better way to do things, why not? We need innovation, but we also need quality, and the devil’s in the details.”