California to Consider Bill to Grant College Credit for MOOCs

The movement to legitimize free online open courses is taking a big step forward with a new bill currently being considered by the California Legislature. Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the state Senate, has introduced a measure that would force public colleges and universities to accept online courses for credit.

It is uncertain if the bill has an actual chance for passage, but according to Steinberg, his chief motivation for introducing it is to open debate over alternative means of earning a college degree. Venture Beat’s Christina Farr writes that if the bill becomes law, it’ll be the first time that government would have mandated that a university accept for credit courses offered by a third party.

One of the founders of Coursera, former Stanford professor Daphne Koller, points out that the current situation in higher education is untenable with degree prices spiraling ever higher while the incomes of middle-class Americans continue to stagnate. Without some kind of a radical change, college could become completely unaffordable to a large portion of Americans in less than 10 years.

Coursera, EdX, and Udacity will likely provide the eligible online courses to help students progress through college. A faculty-led panel will determine which 50 introductory courses are the most oversubscribed and will recommend that online versions of those courses be available for credit. A student would only get credit from a third-party provider if the course is full at their college or university. Due to budget cuts, thousands of students are on the waiting list for a basic and introductory algebra class, which is a requirement. This prevents many students from graduating from a four-year degree program on time.

Steinberg wants to find a way to fix the problem that over 7,000 students remain on waiting lists for community college slots in the state, while fewer than 16% graduate from the public university system in four years.

These numbers aren’t unique to California. Raising college graduation rates and reducing the number of people who earn some college credits but don’t go all the way is a preoccupation of almost every state and the federal government.

A handful of Coursera’s online courses were recently approved for college credit by the American Council on Education (ACE), ahead of its competitors. The problem, which Koller refers to as the “bottleneck” is that colleges still need to accept those credits for transfer. Universities are realizing that it’s not the best use of resources to have multiple instructors teaching the same introductory calculus class when Coursera has an accredited online version.