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California Bill Allowing Credit for MOOCs Passes Senate

California state senators voted unanimously last Thursday to pass Senate Bill 520 (SB 520), despite opposition from faculty at California Community Colleges, California State University, and University of California. The bill establishes incentive grant programs for the state's public universities and colleges to develop online courses on massive open online course (MOOC) platforms, such as Udacity and Coursera, as a way of reducing the bottleneck for required gateway courses.

Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg introduced the bill on February 21 with the goal of helping more students complete oversubscribed courses required for their programs. Many of the lower-division gateway courses have long wait lists, causing students to take more time to complete their programs, register in unnecessary courses in order to maintain a full course load required for student aid, and consequently rack up larger student loans. SB 520 proposed to identify up to 50 of the most oversubscribed courses and allow students to complete equivalent courses through approved online course providers for credit.

Faculty associations opposed the bill, claiming it would lower academic standards and hurt at-risk and disadvantaged students, and suggesting the state instead increase funding to public higher education institutions so they could increase the number of seats in those courses. A petition from the Berkeley Faculty Association received nearly 1,700 signatures.

The bill was amended four times before passing in the senate on May 30 with a vote of 28-0, and it will now proceed to the state Assembly.

The amended bill establishes three separate California Online Student Access Platform Incentive Grant programs, one for each of the three public higher education systems. The programs require each system to identify 20 of its high-demand lower-division courses that are required for program completion and provide up to 15 incentive grants to faculty and campuses to "facilitate partnerships" with online course technology providers to significantly increase online options for students as of the fall 2014 semester.

The courses would be placed in the California Virtual Campus, and students who are enrolled at the public university or college systems or California high schools, and who successfully complete the online course, would be awarded full academic credit for the equivalent course at their institution. While the bill does not require the online courses to be offered through MOOCs, it opens the door to that option.

Despite the amendments, faculty members remain opposed to the bill and have gone on record stating that the changes haven't addressed faculty concerns and that the core of the bill remains essentially unchanged.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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