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California: Do MOOCs Deserve Credit?

In February, California Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg introduced a bill that would open the door for massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as Coursera and Udacity, to offer courses for credit to public college and university students in the state. Since its introduction, Senate Bill 520 (SB 520) has generated significant controversy, and a petition by the Berkeley Faculty Association opposing the bill has collected more than 1,500 signatures.

The Problem
The goal of SB 520 is to help more students squeeze through the bottleneck of gateway courses required for their programs, a problem that is particularly bad at California Community Colleges (CCC), where 85 percent of courses in fall 2012 had wait lists, according to information from Senator Steinberg's office. Students in the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems are having similar problems, and only 60 percent of UC students and 16 percent of CSU students can complete their degree programs in four years, primarily because they can't get access to key courses required for their programs.

When there isn't enough space in required courses, many students are forced to enroll in courses unnecessary for their program, just so they can retain the full-time student status required for financial aid. As a result, students are taking longer to complete their degrees and racking up higher levels of student debt.

The Proposed Solution
To alleviate the lack of access to gateway courses, Senator Steinberg proposed to allow online education providers to grant credit for equivalent courses, within specified guidelines. The bill limits the online credit courses to a maximum of 50 of the most oversubscribed courses required for program completion, fulfilling transfer requirements, or meeting general education requirements. Credit for the approved online courses would be restricted to CCC, CSU, UC, and California high school students.

In April, SB 520 was amended in an attempt to appease faculty members who had expressed concern about the bill. The amendments included linking the administration of the program to the California Virtual Campus, which is associated with California Community Colleges; removing ties to American Council on Education (ACE) recommendations; associating a qualified UC, CSU, or CCC faculty member with each course; prohibiting public funds from being used to fund any private aspect of the partnerships; ensuring state retention of intellectual property rights; and shifting oversight of the partnerships to the administration and faculty senates of the three systems.

If SB 520 passes, California will become the first state to legislate credit for online courses at public colleges and universities. But some universities have already started granting credit for MOOCs. San Jose State University offers a credit course through the not-for-profit MOOC platform edX and recently announced plans to expand that partnership. The University of Texas system has also partnered with edX and plans to offer its first credit courses through the platform this summer.

Support for SB 520
Richard Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, spoke in support of SB 520 at a press conference introducing the bill. "For a long time students have suffered from a lack of access to the courses they need to succeed," he said at the press conference. "We've had many students who have had to take frivolous units, taking state subsidization in order to keep the student financial aid in order to get that one course they need to graduate or transfer."

At the press conference, assemblymember Christina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), co-author of the legislation, echoed Copenhagen's argument for SB 520, adding that allowing students who are suited to online learning to complete these courses through MOOCs frees up space in brick-and-mortar classrooms for those students who need more face-to-face interaction.

Opposition to SB 520
The Berkeley Faculty Association sees it differently. The group posted an online petition against the bill, arguing that it will "lower academic standards (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), augment the educational divide along socio-economic lines, and diminish the ability for underrepresented minorities to excel in higher education." The petition cites a recent paper from Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University, which shows online courses "suffer from high dropout rates, poor outcomes for students struggling with basic skills, and high cheating rates."

"It's the wrong solution to the wrong problem," said Robert Meister, chair of the Council of UC Faculty Associations and professor at UC Santa Cruz, in a phone interview. He argued that the problem is inadequate funding and the solution is to increase it. "The legislature and the governor have been cutting higher education on a per-student basis for ten years," he said. "The universities and colleges have been reducing the number of admissions, especially at the community college level, and also reducing the number of seats in required courses. Those problems wouldn't exist if the university, and particularly the community colleges, were adequately funded."

Meister said he believes the state of California could easily restore funding for all three public higher education systems to the levels they were at in 2000, referring to a statement on the Web site of the Council of UC Faculty Associations, which states that "for the median California tax return (individual or joint), restoring the entire system while rolling back student fees to what they were a decade ago would cost $48 next April 15."

The Berkeley Faculty Association's petition echoes Meister's argument that students would be better served by increasing funding to colleges and universities. But instead of funding the public institutions, SB 520 "funnels public money into the hands of private corporations," according to the petition.

"So all of this money is going to be flowing into these programs that have a very, very low cost business model and that are going to be entitled to offer courses that have the titles, the name, of a degree from part of a California State University system," said Meister. "They're not going to have to establish their own quality, their own credibility, their own reputation. They're going to be allowed to offer our courses at almost no cost, but at our price."

But Meister was careful to point out that he is not opposed to online education itself, including MOOCs, just its implementation as outlined in SB 520. "My personal opinion is that different people learn differently, and that if you learn something anywhere, whether it's by studying on your own, or by taking a course on Udacity or Coursera or StraighterLine or Kaplan, you should be able to test out of a prerequisite." This approach of allowing self-motivated students to learn the material on their own and then take an exam to get credit for it would help eliminate the bottlenecks in the gateway courses, he said.

Response from Legislators
Rhys Williams, press secretary for Senator Steinberg, is well aware of the opposition to the bill and said he and Senator Steinberg have been speaking with those people. "The conversations that we've had with them have been instructive, and you know the debate is welcomed and this is all part of the legislative process," said Williams in a phone interview. "Whenever you venture into new areas, there's going to be some fear and trepidation. The point is, Senator Steinberg shares their concerns that we have to do this right. Otherwise we risk it happening without any sort of handle on it."

At a press conference on March 13, Senator Steinberg tried to alleviate some of the concerns by stating that the online option is not intended to replace traditional campus-based instruction but to expand access by offering another option. He also emphasized that the bill is not separated from faculty review and does not represent a shift in funding priorities when it comes to higher education.

Regarding funding, Steinberg pointed out that California Governor Jerry Brown has proposed $16.9 million for California Community Colleges technology funding, $10 million each for UC and CSU technology, $100 million each in additional revenue for UC and CSU (in addition to $125 million added last year), and $200 million in additional revenue for classroom experiences at the community colleges.

At the press conference, Senator Steinberg said some of the details of the proposal have yet to be worked out, including the fee structure for the online courses and how exams would be conducted to prevent cheating. However, he stated that he does "not want to create an incentive to reduce classroom instruction and use a lower fee structure to simply contract out courses." He also said the exam method would be up for faculty review and approval.

While Senator Steinberg has said SB 520 is aimed at reducing bottlenecks in gateway courses, another reason behind the bill is to get out in front of the growing online education movement.

"These classes are happening and are going to happen with or without a framework for a system-wide way of assessing whether they are good and whether they are suitable," said Williams. "The two options facing us are to sit back, do nothing, and hope that it all turns out okay, and in doing so potentially realize risks that some members of faculty have raised about quality. Or we can get out there, get in front of it with faculty at the helm, faculty making the decisions, and faulty shaping the process to get a grip on the opportunity that's in front of us."

What's Next for SB 520
SB 520 has been amended three times since it was introduced, and presumably more amendments will take place before it passes. The most recent amendments on April 17 have already been shot down by a number of California faculty associations, teachers associations, and labor unions, which issued a joint open letter to Senator Steinberg on April 18 opposing a recent draft of the bill. As with the Berkeley Faculty Association's petition, their concerns focus on the quality of online education, its effect on students, and contracting out public education to private corporations. And their proposed alternative solution to fixing the bottleneck of gateway courses is to increase funding to the public institutions.

In other words, after three rounds of amendments, the faculty and the legislators aren't any closer to agreeing, and whether they ever will be remains to be seen.

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