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Darrell Steinberg at his press conference March 13, 2013, in a Google+ Hangout.

California could become the first in the nation to require its public colleges to address overcrowding by accepting credits for private sector online courses that would enable tens of thousands of students shut out of classes to move along.

A bill introduced Wednesday to set up the online education alternative is the latest example of state leaders turning to technology to fix bottlenecks and other problems in higher education that reached a breaking point during the state budget crisis.

"No college student should be denied the right to complete their education because they could not get a seat in the course they needed in order to graduate," said the bill's co-author, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. "This is not technology for technology's sake. It addresses a real challenge."

One of more than a half-dozen online education bills floating through the Legislature, SB520 would create approved online courses for the roughly 50 high-demand, lower-level classes that routinely put students on waiting lists.

High-demand courses are in short supply, particularly at community colleges. Last fall, more than three-quarters of California's 112 community colleges had wait lists, averaging 7,000 students each.

These new courses -- which would be accepted by the UC, CSU and community college systems -- would need approval by a faculty panel representing the three systems.

The law would apply only to students who otherwise would be put on waiting lists for courses at their home campuses.

Initial student reaction was mixed.

"For a long time students have really suffered from a lack of access to the courses they needed to succeed," said Rich Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges.

The bill would help the many students who end up taking frivolous courses just to keep their full-time status and financial aid, backers say.

But others say that by turning to online education, the Legislature isn't addressing the real issue: not enough classes and not enough professors.

Steinberg's news conference announcing the bill -- complete with a Google Hangout interactive video stream -- reflected an online education frenzy that has swept the globe in the past year. Working with top university professors, Silicon Valley startups Udacity and Coursera have put hundreds of free courses online, reaching millions of students worldwide.

Until now, however, most such courses offered a certificate of completion, not course credit. Steinberg's bill could change that.

Community college leaders, including the president of the system's Academic Senate, have rallied behind Steinberg, saying the law could help students stymied by the current system. UC released a statement saying President Mark Yudof "strongly supports" the use of online education to help students graduate on time. Others were more cautious.

"In theory, anything that will help students to graduate in a timely manner is good," said Linda Dobb, associate provost for CSU East Bay. Still, she added, "We want to see exactly how it's going to play out before we say, 'Yes, we want to be on board.'"

UC's Academic Senate leaders also said they wanted to know more. So far, they said, the widely publicized measure was short on details. "Where's the legislation? Where's the analysis? Where's the funding?" asked Bill Jacob, Academic Senate vice chairman.

Steinberg stressed that faculty would be key to the plan — but he didn't seem overly concerned about the controversy his proposal is sure to create.

"If it wasn't at least a little bit controversial, it wouldn't be worth doing," he said.

Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

senator's solution
A bill unveiled Wednesday would let California's public college and university students earn credits through a new system of online courses if there's no room for them in the classroom.
Senate Bill 520, introduced by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would:
-- Develop of a list of the 50 most oversubscribed lower division courses at the UC, CSU, and the California Community Colleges.
-- Create a standardized review and approval for courses offered by private online education providers in those 50 courses. Students would be able to enroll in such courses for credit only if they were unable to enroll in the same course offered in a traditional classroom format.
-- Place approved courses in a statewide pool, through which students could access courses and be awarded full academic credit for the comparable course at the UC, CSU, or California community colleges.