California’s Move Toward MOOCs Sends Shock Waves, But Key Questions Remain Unanswered

Supporters of newly proposed legislation in California hope to reduce the number of students shut out of key courses by forging an unprecedented partnership between traditional public colleges and online-education upstarts. But on Wednesday specific details of how the deal would work were hard to pin down.

Senate Bill 520, sponsored by State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who is president pro tem of the Senate, calls for establishing a statewide platform through which students who have trouble getting into certain low-level, high-demand classes could take approved online courses offered by providers outside the state's higher-education system. If the bill is passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, state colleges and universities could be compelled to accept credits earned in massive open online courses, or MOOCs, bringing the controversial courses into the mainstream faster than even their proponents had predicted.

But right now SB 520 is just a two-page "spot bill," a legislative placeholder to be amended with details later. And for those concerned about the consequences of a sudden embrace of a relatively new enterprise such as MOOCs, the devil may be in those details. Who will approve the courses? What role will faculty members really have? Will student financial aid apply to paid online courses? How will the revenue collected by the companies benefit the colleges? The students?

At a news conference announcing the bill, Mr. Steinberg acknowledged that such a bold move could be expected to cause "some fear, and sometimes some upset." He took pains to emphasize 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."

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THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION

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