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 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
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.”