College & Careers

Questions surround bill proposing online course network at colleges



California could lead the charge in developing a network of online public college courses open to all students enrolled in the University of California, California State University and the California Community College system.

Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg said online courses aren't technology for technology's sake; they address real change.

Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg said online courses aren’t technology for technology’s sake; they address real change.

Senate Bill 520, introduced by Senate president pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would allow the thousands of students shut out of required classes due to budget cuts to enroll in an online version of the course in order to stay on track to graduate or transfer.

“No college student in California should be denied the right to complete their education because they could not get a seat in the course they need in order to graduate,” said Steinberg during an online press conference to unveil the bill Wednesday morning.

But the bill is generating questions as well as interest from leaders of the three systems. UC President Mark Yudof applauded Steinberg for supporting online education, but said he needs more information and wants to be part of future discussions.

“We have not yet seen any language for potential legislation, and we look forward to learning more about what is being proposed,” said Yudof in a statement.

The bill caught Barry Russell, vice chancellor of academic affairs for the community college system, off guard. Neither he nor the leaders of UC and CSU had any input into the measure before it was released, and Russell had had just a few hours to review it when reached by a reporter Wednesday afternoon. He has a lot of questions about how the proposed network would operate, especially in relation to a virtual campus of online courses that his office is in the process of developing. About 17 percent of community college courses are already online and each year more than a quarter of students enroll in one of them.

“My hope would be that the two would come together and either become one or we would somehow have to figure out the lay of the land so we’re not trying to do two different things,” Russell said.

Any move in that direction would have to happen before Gov. Jerry Brown releases his May revise budget. In his current spending plan, the governor proposed giving community colleges $16.9 million, and $10 million each to UC and CSU to build up their online programs. Steinberg’s bill would require the Legislature to reshuffle that money.

A companion bill, SB 547, by Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego) would require faculty to approve online courses that are transferable from one system to another.

Eighty percent of the state’s 112 community colleges reported having waiting lists for classes last semester, affecting, on average, about 7,200 students at each of those campuses. Steinberg said unavailable classes are also one reason that just 16 percent of Cal State students and 60 percent of UC students graduate in four years.

Those statistics are more than mere numbers to students.

“For a long time, students really suffered from a lack of access to courses they need to succeed,” said Rich Copenhagen, a student at the College of Alameda and president of the

Rich Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, said SB 520 would provide needed flexibility for students.

Rich Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, said SB 520 would provide needed flexibility for students.

Student Senate for California Community Colleges.

“It’s not all going to be solved by online education,” he acknowledged, “but there is a significant opportunity brought forward by online advances in providing flexibility and the ability for students to take courses in college they don’t have physical access to.”

Both the community college plan and Steinberg’s proposal would create some kind of online clearinghouse of available courses that students could access no matter which campus they attend. There are some significant differences. Under SB 520 the online courses would only be available in the 50 most oversubscribed lower division classes, such as freshman English, and they would supplement not supplant the current courses. Students would only be permitted to enroll if they’re wait-listed for a class they must take that semester in order to stay on track to graduate or transfer.

“It’s all about trying to help students continue their education in the most expeditious way possible without racking up more and more debt because they can’t get into the classes they need and have to extend their college by one or more years,” said Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund.

The bill also allows outside groups like Udacity, Coursera or other massive open online course (MOOC) providers to compete for an opportunity to run some of the classes as long as they’re approved by the joint faculty panel and meet the conditions, which include providing interaction between students and instructors, having proctored exams and offering instructional support to students.

But most of the details still need to be worked out, especially the financial details. How much would private companies charge for the courses? Udacity currently runs a pilot program at San José State University that’s free for most students, but runs $150 for students who want to take it for credit. That’s less than comparable fees at UC and CSU, but it’s not clear whether students could use their financial aid to pay for the classes.

Despite his uncertainties, the community college’s Russell said there’s a lot they can learn from MOOCs. Udacity and Coursera run detailed analytics tracking how many times a student logs on or off or how long they’re watching a video, and then adjust the curriculum accordingly. That could be useful in improving the low success rate of the online courses at community colleges.

“You can’t just take a lecture class, videotape it, put it online and have students respond,” Russell said. “I think we have some work to do.”

Filed under: College & Careers, Community Colleges, Legislation, State Education Policy

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7 Responses to “Questions surround bill proposing online course network at colleges”

  1. el said

    on March 14, 2013 at 8:55 am

    I think there are some real opportunities to help people overcome some of the logistical obstacles we have with education using online courses, especially for grabbing one or two prerequisite classes that are impacting the student’s ability to progress in her major.

    I would suggest that when these courses are adapted and available that we consider making them available for credit for high school students as well (and counting for a-g), when taken under supervision of a high school instructor. There are kids who are ready for that work who would benefit, or who would benefit from experiencing a more difficult course with the additional support available in a high school environment.

  2. marty said

    on March 14, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Check the facts on the number of different students in community college successfully finishing a course on-line and check to see if they would have preferred to take a class in person on campus if they could fit it into their schedule.

    • el replied

      on March 14, 2013 at 11:56 am

      A friend of mine has taken several courses as online courses at the community college. I would say the frustrations are many for her and often maddening to me, like submissions that have to be done using Microsoft Word, which she had to purchase. Thoughtfully, Microsoft is offering special 6 month semester-long licenses for this kind of activity. Given that she’s not doing training in Microsoft products, it’s idiotic to require a particular piece of software when what you’re evaluating is her text submissions.

      There are also fun things like having her internet connection fail in the middle of a timed exam, difficulties with the instructor getting material out on time and in the correct formats, etc. It’s not the future yet, and to build a good online course takes substantially more resources to set up than to deliver it in person.

      As for the MOOCs, for the right sort of material and the right sort of student, the world is better having them than not, but I totally agree they’re not a substitute for taking the class with real instructors and having fellow students right there with you. But for people tied to their location or unable to meet at a particular time, when done well, they can expand opportunities.

      One of the problems for MOOCs with student interaction is that you really can’t put together a meaningful community of tens of thousands of people overnight and have good communication right off the bat. There are just too many voices.

      What I don’t want to see is online courses becoming an excuse not to solve problems of scheduling and access that apply to a large number of students who could and should be served in the regular framework.

  3. Kathryn Baron said

    on March 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    I asked the systemwide office for completion and pass rates for online courses. They didn’t have them available, but said they were significantly lower than for traditional classes.

  4. Manuel said

    on March 14, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    My problem with this approach is that a student who pays a set tuition (as at UC) vs one who pays for units (as at community college) is not getting what s/he paid for: a quality education provided by “real time” instructors. Having on-line courses vs “brick & mortar” ones is a “separate but equal” situation in my opinion. That Steinberg doesn’t see that is a shame. But, hey, some people out there claims that it works and most likely his aides have read this “research.”

    If the Legislature is so concerned that classes are not offered in sufficient time slots, perhaps the Legislature should establish, via an official Legislative Analyst’s Office report, why this is happening. Dollars to donuts they don’t do this because they already know the answer: colleges cannot offer the classes because the Legislature has cut their budgets. But that is an inconvenient truth, isn’t it?

    So they take the path of least resistance: jump on the distance learning bandwagon. Oh, well, times are a’changin’!

  5. John said

    on March 14, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    As a college graduate and someone that has taken classes on all three of the main MOOCs, I can attest to the fact that the MOOC classes in general are better than most university in classroom classes. If anyone really studies the issues, they will come to a similar conclusion. The main fight here is about teacher jobs which is a shame because it should be about the student. We will see who wins this round – the student or the teacher unions.

    • Manuel replied

      on March 14, 2013 at 10:57 pm

      There are no true faculty unions at UC, in my opinion. Maybe at CSUs and the CCs, but not at UC.

      Besides, the true business model at UC is extramuraly-funded research as the teaching of undergraduate is most often placed in the back burner. So maybe students will profit more from the MOOCs, but to claim that it is all about jobs is simply misdirection. And a political ploy to avoid talking about what a college education really is all about.

      From what I have observed, the on-line component developed at some UCs is to enhance traditional classes, not supplant them. I doubt that a true class, one where there is true exchange of ideas between the teacher and the student, can ever be replaced by a canned video. Sure, technically oriented classes (usual “weeders” where 400+ students are packed into an auditorium) can be packaged and offered on demand. But an entire set of required classes? No way. And if they do that, they better lower the tuition from more than $12k/year to something more reasonable. Like $4k/year, for example.

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