Senate leader’s online education bill draws fire*

A bill closely watched by Coursera, a high-flying online education company, that would extend academic credit opportunities for California public university students is likely to be put on hold, the bill author’s office says.

On a 28-to-0 vote on May 30, the Senate sent SB 520 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to the Assembly. Teachers’ unions and higher education faculty organizations oppose the bill.

“The Pro Tem is considering making SB 520 a two-year bill. The odds are pretty high at this point,” Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund said in a phone interview.

“This bill is not the privatization of higher education, which is what faculty have expressed concern,” Hedlund added. “We are not halting the bill because of our opposition, but because we want online education systems to become more established before we further move the legislation.”

A “two-year bill” means the measure would not be taken up until the Legislature returns in 2014.

Existing law requires University of California, California State University and community colleges to maintain a core curriculum of general education courses. Students are having trouble, however, with enrolling in these courses.

According to Steinberg’s office, 85 percent of California community colleges reported course waiting lists in the 2012-2013 academic year. On average, 7,000 students were wait-listed for each California community college that year.

Watching the bill closely is Coursera, an online education startup based in Mountain View, created in 2012, by two Stanford professors, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. The company is a third-party provider of online courses, some of which are accredited. As of July 30, the company has partnered with 86 universities, which have produced more than 400 courses for the site to a growing audience of 4 million students worldwide.

On July 10, Coursera was funded $43 million by venture capitol firms, bringing total funding to $65 million. On its website, Koller states big plans for the company, including accrediting more courses, building a mobile platform and expanding into developing nations.

The company said it is “neutral” on passage of the measure, but said the bill would help students graduate faster by increasing access to required classes.

“SB 520 was intended to solve a very important problem in California: that of students who have serious difficulties in completing their degree in a timely manner due to lack of space in certain important bottleneck courses,” Koller said in an emailed statement. “We agree that the use of online education methods can play a key role in solving this problem.”

Students who are currently wait-listed for general education courses can take online equivalents through the California Virtual Campus, funded by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

This bill would require the UC, CSU and CCC systems to determine their highest demand lower-division courses, and to offer grants to provide them through the California Virtual Campus.

“The courses would supplement traditional courses, not supplant them,” said Hedlund, Steinberg’s spokesman.

In addition, the bill would seek to facilitate relationships with third-party providers, which could also host the granted online courses.

If the legislation passes, one such provider could be Coursera, whose massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, are structured through video lectures, supplemented readings and online message boards.

“We are actively working with a large number of institutions, including several of this country’s largest state university systems and public universities, to help them leverage our technology so as to improve capacity, completion, and outcomes for matriculated students at these institutions,” Koller said.

Students who complete the accredited online courses, even those hosted by private providers, would be eligible for academic credit.

The bill has provoked backlash from California teacher unions and faculty organizations.

In a letter to Steinberg, an education coalition including the California Teachers Association, California Faculty Association and California Federation of Teachers expressed their opposition for the bill. “We believe that SB 520 as amended will lower academic standards, exacerbate the educational divide along socio-economic lines and diminish accountability within our institutions. Ultimately, we believe SB 520 would worsen the situation it attempts to address.”

The University Council-American Federation of Teachers expressed concern regarding academic rigor. “We do not believe that online courses as a platform will be able to maintain the quality of instruction expected by UC students,” the council said on their website.

The council also noted, “There is also no discussion of the fact that a huge surge in credit granted for these introductory courses will create massive bottlenecks in upper division courses.”

In an open letter to its members on Mar. 15, the University of California Academic Senate said that the bill’s intent to privatize public higher education concerns them. “There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over sources to any outside agency,” they wrote.

*Ed’s Note: A previous version of this story stated that Coursera supported the bill. Coursera is officially “neutral,” the company said.

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