Office of Planning and Budgeting

California Bill Proposal to Make Public Institutions Accept Online Credits

Legislation was introduced in the California Senate on Wednesday that would require the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for overenrolled, on-campus classes. If the bill passes and is signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown (who has been a strong supporter of online education), online courses could go mainstream much more quickly than predicted. At the moment, however, Senate Bill 520 is just a two-page legislative placeholder, or “spot bill,” to be amended with details later.

According to Inside Higher Ed, the bill’s sponsor, Democrat State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, said the bill is meant to “break the bottleneck that prevents students from completing courses.” In Fall 2012, more than 472,000 of the 2.4 million students in the California Community Colleges system were put on waiting lists and at the California State University system, only 16 percent of students graduate within four years. Theoretically, increasing capacity to meet student demand for key, gateway courses could improve on-time graduation rates and more efficiently use state funds. The debate, of course, is whether online courses are actually effective and thus appropriate substitutes for traditional courses.

Under the proposed legislation, a nine-member faculty council representing the state’s three public higher ed systems would determine which 50 introductory courses are most oversubscribed and which online equivalents should be eligible for credit. When reviewing online courses, the panel is to consider whether a course:

  • Offers instructional support to promote retention;
  • Provides interaction between instructors and students;
  • Contains proctored exams and assessment tools;
  • Uses open-source text books; and
  • Includes content recommended by the American Council on Education.

MOOCs provided by Udacity and Coursera, as well as low-cost, self-paced courses from StraighterLine could all be up for consideration—several of which have already gained ACE approval.

Senator Steinberg emphasized at a news conference that the legislation “does not represent a shift in funding priority” for higher education in California, and is not intended to introduce “a substitution for campus-based instruction.” Nevertheless, for the many faculty and university administrators concerned about SB 520’s consequences, the devil may be in the yet-to-be-determined details. We’ll keep you apprised as those details are fleshed out.

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