California bill aims to be 'turning point' for college courses online

In an effort to improve students' access to high-demand courses, a California state senator is proposing the creation of up to 50 online courses, perhaps spurring a dialogue on college education.

California State Sen. Darrell Steinberg wants to bridge two universes in education – the traditional campus and the realm of innovative online courses.

The leader of the California Senate unveiled legislation Wednesday that would pave the way for up to 50 online courses, in subjects that are traditionally oversubscribed, to be offered statewide for credit. Such a partnership between California’s public university systems and various online providers would “break the bottleneck that prevents students from completing courses,” he said in a web-streamed announcement.

As the first such legislative proposal, “it certainly is going to spark a national dialogue … [and may mark] a turning point in instructional program delivery in this country,” says Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

With community colleges in California in recent years reporting hundreds of thousands of students on waiting lists for classes, the proposal was cheered by student Richard Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges.

“For a long time students have really suffered from a lack of access to courses they need,” he said. They have had to take “frivolous” courses to keep their financial aid, and some have even “gone homeless because of these significant access issues,” he said at the Wednesday press conference. Online courses won’t solve all the access issues but will offer students much-needed flexibility, he said.

The phenomenon of students being shut out of important courses because of overcrowding is most pronounced in California, but it’s not unheard of in other areas. In a survey of 1,205 community college students, 37 percent said they were unable to enroll in a class in the fall of 2011 because it was full, according to the Pearson Foundation, a nonprofit wing of the Pearson global education company.

That survey also showed 57 percent of the community college students had taken an online course.

Nationally, 6.7 million college students (about 32 percent) took at least one online course in the fall of 2011, according to a survey by Babson College.

Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs, have expanded access to courses, largely offering them for free, though not usually for credit. But they are so new that it’s still unknown how well they compare with traditional in-classroom learning.

Just under 3 percent of higher education institutions offered MOOCs in 2011, but another 9 percent were planning to, the Babson survey showed. Only 30 percent of chief academic officers in the survey said they believed their faculty accepted the value and legitimacy of online education.

Two major MOOC startups are based in California, Udacity and Coursera.

Senator Steinberg and other supporters of the bill stressed that it would require a faculty panel to approve the online courses, and that it was intended as an extra tool for students, not a broad substitute for on-campus classes.

The California Faculty Association issued a statement that it would work with Steinberg on the legislation to ensure that it “improves student success” and at the same time does not “end up costing the state more financial and human resources in the long run.”

Another California faculty group is highly skeptical, however.  “The same people who cut our budget now are telling us to basically cheapen our educational product and basically outsource it,” says Bob Samuels, president of the University Council–American Federation of Teachers, which represents some faculty and librarians at the University of California. “We have questions about what real faculty control will be involved and who’s profiting from this deal.”

If approved by the faculty panel, the courses could be provided by commercial ventures, according to the proposed bill.

The bill signals a growing “openness to look at alternative forms of credit,” says Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education (ACE), a higher education membership group in Washington.

Since the 1970s, ACE has reviewed military and workplace education and experiences to recommend whether they can be counted toward college degrees, she says. Now it is exploring doing something similar with MOOCs.

A study of five Coursera courses – including a pre-calculus class and introduction to genetics and evolution – found that all were able to satisfy faculty reviewers. That included meeting standards for ensuring the identity of the student taking the course, and proctoring online exams (via live webcam).

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