Inside Higher Ed: Politics and Cautions in California

By Ry Rivard, for Inside Higher Ed

March 18, 2013

University of California at Berkeley

Californian legislators have detailed a plan to require the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for low-cost online courses offered by outside groups, including classes offered by for-profit companies.

The bill, backed by the powerful leader of the state’s senate, would force all the state’s colleges – from community colleges to the University of California at Berkeley – to reduce overcrowding by allowing students to enrol in dozens of outsourced classes. The idea immediately captured attention not just among educators, but among pundits and politicians - and not just in California.

The measure’s main sponsor - the senate’s leader, Democrat Darrell Steinberg - said the bill would reshape higher education and “break the bottleneck that prevents students from completing courses”.

Mr Steinberg’s goal is to help meet capacity for California’s budget-weary public higher education systems, which have struggled to meet student demand.

Richard Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, said community college students have really suffered. About 500,000 of them have been turned away during the state’s prolonged budget crisis.

“We’ve had many students who have had to take frivolous units, taking state subsidisation in order to simply keep their financial aid in hopes of getting that one course they need to graduate or transfer,” Mr Copenhagen said during a press conference that Mr Steinberg hosted in Sacramento to announce the plan.

“We have had students who have gone homeless because of these significant access issues - and it’s not all going to be solved by online education, we recognise that.” 

Others, including one of the educators who attended Mr Steinberg’s press conference, were not yet sure if the bill was at all a good idea. Michelle Pilati, president of the statewide Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, said faculty are still wondering if it’s appropriate for the state to require colleges to grant credit for courses that the institutions don’t control.

“There are so many things that are not clear, it’s hard to take a position,” she said. She said her attendance at the press conference was simply an indication that lawmakers value faculty input and that the faculty are happy to provide it.

The community college system is one of three public higher education systems in California.

The California Faculty Association, the union that represents professors in the California State University system, said it would work with Mr Steinberg but also seek to protect the “reputation of California’s public higher education system as the best in the world”.

“We are seeing a whirlwind of new technologies – as well as proposals on how to best deploy them – coming to the fore and as such, it is imperative that we clearly understand what is, and what is not, working,” the association said in a statement. “We want to maintain academic credibility and the delivery of accessible, quality public education, rather than chase the latest private sector fad.”

Under the plan, a nine-member council of faculty members 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. Another option might be StraighterLine, a low-cost, self-paced online course company.

Mr Steinberg’s plan appears to have been closely guarded. While Ms Pilati said she learned of it late last week and one of Coursera’s co-founders saw a draft of the bill a few weeks ago, a spokesman said the chairwoman of the senate education committee was not aware of the plan until her office was contacted last Tuesday by reporters, and the head of the Cal State system had not seen a draft of the bill on Tuesday afternoon. Various other California education insiders said they also had not known about the plan or its details in advance.

The bill’s fate is unclear.

Governor Jerry Brown, who has been supportive of online education in the state, said he was excited by the prospect of saving money and helping students graduate faster, but he did not think the bill was a finished product because of political forces at play.

“But how are we going to proceed? I think that’s an open question,” the governor said during a separate press conference when asked about the bill. “So I wouldn’t jump the gun too quickly. This is something I’m pushing, but I’m also talking to faculty. I respect their role.”

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