ALERT: New California Legislation on Online Education

Dear Colleagues,

Your AFT and the California Federation of Teachers are deeply concerned about CA State Senator Steinberg’s proposal (see UT article below) to thrust mass online learning onto public higher education institutions. This development is troubling because there was no consultation with faculty before the Steinberg proposal was announced this week. Thus, our valuable experience in teaching face-to-face AND online courses was not brought to bear.

There are several fundamental problems with mandating that colleges bypass their normal curricular processes and outsource gateway courses for undergraduates to private entities:

1. This opens the door to wide-scale privatization of public higher education by turning public institutions into conduits for private profit.
2. We need to preserve the quality of public education by maintaining our rigorous standards for the development of curriculum, preparation for teaching in new modalities, and the process of establishing which courses should be awarded credit.
3. As the Legislative Analysts’ Office and recent large-scale studies have shown, completion rates are substantially lower than face-to-face community college courses and online courses exacerbate the ethnic minority performance gap.
4. We need to establish a solid process for monitoring and accountability since a vast majority of students fail to complete Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Such a system does not yet exist for institutions of public higher education.
5. This political push to legislate curriculum represents a step away from the essential task of determining how to fund public higher education with a dependable revenue source into the future. MOOCs in particular represent a false promise of cost savings and efficiency that will cheapen education rather than making it more affordable.

While it is clear that this proposal is being sold with the language of improved access, there is no evidence to suggest it will achieve this goal for the students who most need it. Indeed, it is far more likely that those who will gain access to our systems of public higher education will be the corporations that benefit from the shift of public dollars into their coffers.

The answer to the access question is not mandating whole-scale transformation and outsourcing of our curriculum, but to restore higher education funding for the long term. Such a move will indeed require political courage on the part of the governor and the majority leadership in the state legislature, but it is essential if we are to avoid gutting our institutions of higher education in the name of saving them.

In the weeks to come we will be enlisting your support to assist us in defeating this wrongheaded privatization agenda.

In Unity,

Jim Mahler, President
AFT Guild, Local 1931
San Diego & Grossmont-Cuyamaca
Community Colleges

U-T San Diego: Lawmakers push for online courses

By Karen Kucher
1:06 p.m. March 13, 2013

California lawmakers want to improve higher education access and help students graduate in a more timely fashion by allowing private online providers to offer basic courses for the state’s colleges and universities.

Under a bill introduced Wednesday, online education companies would be able to submit proposals to offer up to 50 of the most oversubscribed courses for students attending community college, California State University or University of California campuses.

The legislation would make California the first state in the nation to offer a statewide system of online courses for credit with a faculty panel approving the courses, said state Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who authored Senate Bill 520.

“The goal here is to help students,” Steinberg said. “We can either shape this (online course) movement or we can watch it and hope it all comes out OK. If we don’t do that, then it is going to happen anyway and it probably will happen in ways that run the risk of diminishing quality.”

Steinberg said the state’s higher education system is at a crossroads: traditional brick-and-mortar institutions are on one path and online courses that offer anyone with a computer access to learning are on another.

He said his bill, and a measure authored by state Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, that requires the online courses be transferable, would help combine California’s higher education systems with the “incredible innovation and entrepreneurship” that is fueling the online education movement.

The measures are designed to ease problems caused by state funding cuts over the past four years, including reductions in courses and faculty.

In 2012-13, 85 percent of California community colleges reported wait lists for fall courses, with an average of 7,000 students. In the UC system 60 percent of students graduate in four years and in the CSU system only 16 percent finish in that time frame, according to documents released by Steinberg’s office.

Block said the proposed legislation would go far to improve student access. “It allows students to matriculate or graduate more quickly so they can get out into the workforce,” he said.

The lawmakers said details still need to be worked out but that online courses developed under the program would cost students the same or less than what they pay now in tuition. Steinberg said he’d like to see revenue generated by the courses shared with providers and the higher education institutions.

Having students take high-demand courses online also may “create an empty seat” for other students who might need the additional help of taking the course in a traditional classroom, said Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, who co-authored the online proposal with Steinberg.

“It is a supplement, not a replacement,” she said.

Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, said she was pleased to hear that faculty would be involved in planning the online offerings. Her district already offers 12 percent of its courses in an online format.

Faculty involvement may ensure that quality-control concerns are addressed, particularly if for-profit agencies are selected as providers, she said.

“As long as the institutions and their faculties are in charge of the processes and the courses and the evaluation and selection of faculty members, there shouldn’t be a problem,” Carroll said.

Sebastian Thrun, co-founder and chief executive of Udacity, said during Wednesday’s news conference that his company has seen good results with online learning. He stressed that it is a technology provider.

“We are not educators,” he said. “We have enormous respect for the obligations on quality and effectiveness.”