California Bill Brings Online College One Step Closer

By Mar 21, 2013, 12:05 PM Author's Blog  

In California, public college students are used to waiting to try to register for popular or required courses. But if a newly introduced state bill passes, those students may soon be able to take classes online rather than waiting in line.

The bill, introduced by California Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would allow students at public colleges to take web-based “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) for academic credit in place of certain courses necessary for degree completion if spots are not available in on-campus sections of those courses. Credit would be awarded based on recommendations by the American Council on Education. While faculty panels would have the chance to review online courses and choose appropriate replacements for particular over-registered classes, schools would no longer be able to withhold credit altogether from students seeking online alternatives.

The bill addresses a statewide problem of over-registration for introductory courses in core subjects, particularly at the community college level. The state’s community college system has been sandwiched between budget cuts on one side and increasing demand for higher education on the other. As a result, last fall, three quarters of California’s 112 community colleges were forced to turn students away. The schools’ waitlists averaged 7,000 students. Even those students who are able to matriculate still often find themselves unable to register for the classes they need to graduate or to continue their studies. They must sometimes spend additional semesters in school, simply waiting for spots to open in the required classes.

The online replacement courses promoted by the bill would be offered by third-party providers, some of which are profit-seeking businesses, including Udacity, Straighterline, EdX and Coursera. The program would be paired with an existing statewide effort to promote the use of free, open-source textbooks, according to a press release from the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a California non-profit that focuses on reducing textbook costs.

Using online resources to fill the course gap makes a lot of sense. Allowing students to study introductory-level material in virtual classrooms can keep them on the path to graduation, while freeing up classroom space and time for more advanced classes.

On the surface, allowing online programs to pick up the slack in introductory-level instruction may seem like a professor’s dream. My guess, however, is that instructors and administrators at California’s public colleges will not be pleased. In fact, if it were not for resistance from within academia, there would be no need for the bill, because students would already be able to take courses online for credit.

The reason students need the bill to pass before they can click “Enroll” is accreditation; so far, very few online programs have received it. As I have written before, the college accreditation process, which is run by private organizations dominated by academics and administrators, serves to entrench existing institutions at the expense of competitors that could prove more cost-effective. Rather than applying objective, outcome-based standards, the accreditors, who are mostly affiliated with traditional schools, judge potential newcomers based on whether they adhere to established methods. This automatically blocks innovation and has kept most online programs out of the accredited club.

By withholding accreditation, the powers that be in academia have effectively prevented newer online programs from being able to compete for students. Most students need to prove that their degrees are from accredited schools before those degrees are considered legitimate. Accreditation is also used to determine federal financial aid eligibility. While accredited colleges could choose to grant academic credits to students who complete courses through non-accredited online programs, few do. This is why students wait to get into in-person classes at accredited schools, despite the availability of online programs capable of delivering the same knowledge and skills.

While university faculty and administrators maintain control over the accreditation system, financial pressure will ultimately make change unavoidable. The ever-higher tuition bills and ever-larger student debt that are the byproducts of the current academic arrangement simply cannot be sustained for much longer.

The California bill is a sign that those financial pressures are having an effect. The arrangement proposed in the bill effectively overrides the accrediting agencies by forcing public schools to lend the strength of their own accreditation to high-caliber online classes. This sort of legislative jerry-rigging may not be sufficient in the long run, but at least it is a step in the right direction, bringing us closer to the day when students can choose from a multitude of accredited programs that are online, on-campus or a combination of the two.

The share of high school graduates who go on to college has risen from 45 percent in 1959 to 70 percent in 2009. In that half-century span, employers who once might have accepted candidates with only a high school diploma now use college degrees as their hiring standard. Yet we continue to rely on academic models that were developed when only a minority of students pursued higher education. It is no wonder that those systems are being overwhelmed. We owe it to students to ensure that the educational infrastructure is repaired before it breaks beneath them. If colleges themselves can’t or won’t do this, then lawmakers, particularly at the state level, will need to step in.

If the California bill succeeds, it will offer a valuable lesson to the rest of the country. I hope educators are paying attention.

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