Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Devil is in the Details: Against SB 520

Watching Senator Steinberg’s press conference on the push to give credit for online courses, one can’t help but think that he is on the right path. After all, thousands of Californian students can’t get into classes, and MOOCs offer a new opportunity to deal with this problem in an efficient manner. Steinberg was also quick to stress that the faculty would have final say on which courses would be used, and so quality would be maintained. However, once one starts to look into the details of this deal, everything becomes much more complicated and problematic.

According to the outline of the new senate bill, three professors from each of the three segments would form a committee that would review classes and decide which needed classes would be put online for course credit. The first question to ask is who are these professors and what qualifies them to make curricular decisions for thousands of other faculty members. Also, how will they decide which courses to use and what defines a high-quality course? Moreover, is it possible to design classes that are appropriate for all three segments?

There is also the problem of who will get the revenue from the cross-system enrollments. Does the funding stay with the initial provider or does each campus get a cut of the action? A related concern is how do they decide when a class is over-enrolled, and will campuses be motivated to cut their lower-division classes so students will be forced to take less expensive online versions?

It is clear that this online move is being imposed from above, and it fails to take account the reality on the ground. As I have stressed with lawmakers, if you remove the bottleneck in lower-division courses, you will create a bottleneck in the upper-division. Moreover, these bottlenecks are in part caused by the fact that since too many students want to get into the same majors, lower-division courses are used to weed out lower-performing students. Also, many students come to college and university not fully prepared for higher education, and putting them into MOOCs will not help this situation.

Senator Steinberg has assured us that this new program will not be a substitute for public funding of higher education, but it is clear that the state is using online courses as a way to hide the chronic underfunding of all levels of education in California. Not only has the state reduction of funding for the UC system resulted in larger undergraduate classes and fewer course options for students, but the students now entering into the university system are the products of large classes and low per student K-12 funding. Online education will not fix years of educational neglect.

To voice your opposition to Steinberg’s Bill, please sign the UC Berkeley Faculty Association petition here.