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March 19, 2013
Editorial: Senate bill could help ensure high-quality online education

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(March 19 -- By the Editorial Board)

The latest frontier in higher education - online courses - offers promise for widening access to knowledge. In California, done right, online courses can help reduce failure rates in entry-level courses, reduce bottlenecks in access to classes, reach people who are place-bound and spread unique courses offered on particular California campuses statewide.

However, in the new world where for-profit firms offer "massive open online courses," or MOOCs, our public colleges and universities need rigorous standards to make sure online education doesn't become a newfangled equivalent to "correspondence school" diploma mills.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has offered a bill that would build on his two bills last year, which established a statewide framework for offering high-quality, affordable, digital open-source textbooks in 50 lower-division courses at the University of California, the California State University, and the California Community Colleges.

The earlier bills called for a faculty-led approval process through a nine-member California Open Education Resources Council, which Steinberg expects to be appointed within the next 30 days - three members each by the UC Academic Senate, the CSU Academic Senate and the community colleges' Academic Senate.

His new bill, Senate Bill 520, would have the council also identify the 50 biggest bottleneck lower-division courses in the UC, CSU and community college systems - where demand exceeds capacity in traditional classes - that students need to graduate or to transfer. The council would then review and approve online courses.

As Steinberg told The Bee's editorial board, California needs a statewide commitment "to integrate the entrepreneurial spirit represented by the MOOC movement and California's fine history of faculty knowledge and expertise."

Without a statewide framework, Steinberg notes that we would get huge inconsistencies from campus to campus and from system to system. "We want articulation between the UC, CSU and California Community Colleges," he said.

An example of how this might work is the partnership between San Jose State University and Silicon Valley-based online education startup Udacity. San Jose State faculty members worked with Udacity to redesign three classes with high failure rates - entry-level mathematics, algebra and elementary statistics. The faculty member runs the course and the exams.

The chair and vice chair of the UC Academic Senate have written a letter against Steinberg's bill, objecting to ceding authority over courses to "any outside agency." Each UC campus already has established procedures for approving courses, and the UC system has guidelines for making campus-approved courses available systemwide. Steinberg should work with faculty to make it clear that his bill is compatible with and will not pre-empt that process.

This is not about a private takeover of faculty functions. Three UC campuses - Berkeley, Irvine, and San Francisco - already have partnerships with Coursera or edX for faculty to develop online courses. This is faculty-driven.

SB 520 would require the statewide, faculty-led council to consider whether a proposed online course includes interaction with faculty and has proctored student examinations to prevent cheating. It also would track student enrollment, retention and completion rates.

Steinberg's structured, statewide process for approving online courses at public colleges and universities is the right approach. The last thing we want is a Wild West of online education, cheapening and dumbing down one of California's greatest assets - its universities and community colleges.

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