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California bill proposes awarding credit for certain online courses

Provisions of Senate bill 520: California virtual campus
  • Would require California public universities to give credit for certain online courses
  • Aims to address issues of over-enrollment
  • Courses given credit would be decided by the California Open Education Resources Council, a panel of nine faculty with three each from the UC, CSU and California Community College systems
SOURCE: California President Pro Temp Darrell Steinberg’s Office; Leginfo.ca.gov
Compiled by Katherine Hafner, Bruin senior staff.

By Christopher Hurley

March 18, 2013 10:48 p.m.

A recently introduced bill would require California public colleges and universities to award credit for online courses students have to take because they could not register for over-enrolled classes – legislation that has garnered criticism from University of California faculty.

California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg introduced the legislation last week. It is the first of its kind in the country to require public universities to award credit for certain online courses in place of those that have filled up, according to The New York Times. The online courses could come from outside of the universities, including for-profit education companies.

Through his bill, Steinberg aims to help students complete their degrees on time, and keep them from delaying their entry into the workforce, said Rhys Williams, Steinberg’s press secretary.

The legislation is part of a larger push from state lawmakers to develop online education offered through the state’s higher education institutions.

Online education, a subset of technology-enhanced learning, has had a growing presence in higher education and is reflected in the online courses that the UC offers, said Steve Montiel, a UC spokesman. The UC already offers credit for certain online courses, like Introduction to Writing and Rhetoric, through its UC Online program.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year allocates $10 million to the UC that is earmarked for online education development.

Starting this fall, any UC student will be able to take any online coursework offered by any campus, a move designed to encourage a larger move to integrating online education with traditional education.

Nathan Burroughs, a second-year biology student at UCLA, said certain courses for his major always seemed to be full. He said he thinks the University should expand access to existing courses rather than promoting online alternatives because online education lacks faculty interaction.

Montiel, however, said he does not think over-enrollment of lower-level classes is a problem within the UC.

“While students don’t always get the discussions they want, they will typically get the lecture,” he said.

If passed, Steinberg’s bill would require universities to award credit to students who have to take online courses if the courses offered through their university are full.

Students would only be able to alternatively enroll in an online course if the classrooms were completely filled, Williams said.

“These courses are not intended to supplant, but rather supplement traditional classrooms,” Williams added.

The courses that would transfer, about 50 high-in-demand courses, would need to be preapproved by faculty representatives on the California Open Education Resources Council and would not necessarily have to be offered by the university itself.

The California Open Education Resources Council is a nine-member panel of faculty made up of three members each from the UC, CSU and California Community College systems.

Williams said the council would determine if an online course is credit-worthy or not. The council, which was formed last year, attempts to identify affordable and digitally available textbooks for the most demanded classes.

The Academic Senates of the respective institutions already have their representatives on the council, Williams said.

“This bill puts faculty at the helm,” Williams said

Daniel Kurek, a second-year mechanical engineering student, said he has not faced many problems fulfilling his class requirements. But for students who cannot enroll in the prerequisite classes they need, he said online courses would be a good alternative.

“As long as they’re reviewed and accredited by faculty I think they’re alright,” Kurek said.

The legislation seems likely to pass given the Democratic supermajority in the state Senate as well as Gov. Brown’s recent push for online education to reduce overall college costs, according to The New York Times. If the bill passes in the next several months, the first online courses would start to be approved at the start of 2014, Williams said.

But several UC officials have expressed concerns about the legislation.

In a letter published Friday, Robert Powell and Bill Jacobs, the respective chairman and vice chairman of the UC Academic Senate, raised concerns regarding the Academic Senate’s authority to mandate courses be given credit.

The Academic Senate’s main duty is to accredit classes to then be offered at the university.

Powell and Jacobs said in the letter that reductions in higher education funding are to blame for the problem of limited student access to certain classes.

“There is no possibility that the UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding our authority over courses to (the Open Education Resources Council),” Powell and Jacobs said in the letter.

In his bill, Steinberg references problems that exist more in the California State University and community college spheres than within the UC, Montiel said.

While Williams said Steinberg is confident about the bill, he does not think it is a cure-all.

“There’s a problem (about over-enrollment) that needs a solution, and this bill is the first step in getting there,” Williams added.

The bill is still in its infancy and cannot be amended for 30 days, Williams said.

Over the next several months, he said the bill will likely evolve after discussions in the legislature. He said he hopes it will come to a final vote by the middle of this year.

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