California’s MOOC Bill Likely On Hold Until Late 2014

A controversial bill promoting online education in California is likely to be put on hold, according to Robert Thompson of Capitol Weekly. The SB 520 bill, led by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento and backed by massive open online courses (MOOC) provider Coursera, is designed to require California’s colleges and universities to grant credit for online courses. In May 2013, the Senate sent the SB 520 bill to the Assembly over the opposition of teachers’ unions and higher education faculty organizations, but it appears unlikely to be dealt with until 2014.

Coursera, a third-party provider of online courses, is planning to offer classes to students at the University of California, California State University and community colleges, who have trouble enrolling in basic core curriculum general-education courses.

In the 2012-2013 academic year, about 85% of California community colleges reported course wait-lists. On average, 7,000 students were wait-listed for each California community college that year. Currently, students who are wait-listed for general-education courses can take online equivalents through the California Virtual Campus, funded by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

The bill would require the University of California, California, California State University and California State University systems to determine their highest demand lower-division courses and to offer grants to provide them through the California Virtual Campus.

Coursera was launched in 2012 by two Stanford professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. The company has partnered up with 86 universities and has more than 400 courses and a growing audience of 4 million students worldwide.

Coursera’s online courses are structured through video lectures, supplemented readings and online message boards. Students who complete the online courses would be granted academic credit.

The bill drew criticism from California education advocacy groups and unions. An education coalition including the California Teachers Association, California Faculty Association and California Federation of Teachers sent a letter to Steinberg expressing their opposition to the bill.

“We believe that SB 520 as amended will lower academic standards, exacerbate the educational divide along socio-economic lines and diminish accountability within our institutions. Ultimately, we believe SB 520 would worsen the situation it attempts to address.”

The University Council-American Federation of Teachers also expressed concern regarding the online education.

“We do not believe that online courses as a platform will be able to maintain the quality of instruction expected by UC students,” the council said on their website. The council also noted, “There is also no discussion of the fact that a huge surge in credit granted for these introductory courses will create massive bottlenecks in upper division courses.”

On March 15, 2013, the University of California Academic Senate also said in an open letter to its members that the bill’s intent to privatize public higher education concerns them. “There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over sources to any outside agency,” the faculty organization wrote.

The Independent Voter Network reports that the SB 520 “remains relevant to the discussion of higher education reform.” Steinberg said that the Legislature will revisit the bill in August of 2014.