Professors Express Worry Over Possible MOOC Mandate

Public colleges and universities in California are expressing concern over a proposal that would have them accept for credit online courses offered by other entities – including for-profit companies. Of particular worry is how the faculty and administrators could make sure that the quality of courses offered is up to snuff, especially if they’re being asked to bypass the curriculum approval processes they apply to their own course offerings.

Concerns were voiced by faculty unions representing instructors from community colleges as well as four-year institutions and universities. They feel that this mandate – to accept third-party courses – could be a gateway towards the privatization of public higher education.

In a letter to state senators, Robert Powell, the head of the UC Assembly of Academic Senate, said as much, pointing out that the requirement is being supported by for-profit education concerns for this very reason.

The bill, authored by state Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would allow online education companies to submit proposals to offer 50 of the most oversubscribed courses to students who otherwise would be unable to get a seat in a traditional classroom at the state’s community college, California State University and University of California campuses. The measure requires that a faculty panel, created under legislation last year to oversee a program for digital open-source textbooks, take a leading role in establishing the online courses.

The proposal may not be as unfriendly to faculty apprehensions as it appears. The panel that would be charged with developing and overseeing the online courses is made up of three academic senate members from the three public higher education systems operating in California – the University of California, California State University and the California Community Colleges.

This gives the panel a lot of power, but its small size – only nine members – means that it’s unlikely to have expertise in every academic area typically covered by the foundation courses in question.

Along with quality concerns, some chafed at the prospect of handing over the job of educating California’s public college students to for-profit private companies.

“This opens the door to wide-scale privatization of public higher education by turning public institutions into conduits for private profit,” Jim Mahler, president of AFT Local 1931, told local community college instructors in an email.

Although that isn’t the sole concern, quality remains the central issue. Jim Miller, who heads up the Local 1931 chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, pointed out that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus yet on whether massive online open courses actually lead to good academic outcomes.

“There is a kind of assumption, the basic thing, that everyone wants to get their classes. The difficulty is what kind of classes and whether or not this solution for providing access is going to do what it says it is going to do.”