California's budget crisis has had many terrible consequences but one of the most troubling has been the erosion of access to college courses. Last fall, for example, about 400,000 community college students -- nearly a quarter of the student body -- were on a waiting list to get into a class.
Online education holds great promise to help alleviate this problem. A bill by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, aims to begin bringing it to scale as a means of improving access while maintaining California's reputation for quality higher education -- a real concern, particularly with classes provided through for-profit companies.
Faculty members have raised legitimate concerns, however, which Steinberg should continue to take seriously as he fleshes out SB 520.
He proposes that a panel of faculty from UC, California State University and the community colleges choose 50 oversubscribed lower-division courses to be taught online, perhaps through private providers like Udacity, which is working on a faculty-led pilot project at San Jose State. Students could get credit for the online work only if the classes were full at their own campuses; the idea is to ensure no one's path to graduation is blocked.
All three branches of California's system of higher education use online courses now, but in a fragmented way. This bill would set rigorous standards, include protections against cheating and ensure that students get the faculty interaction they need. "The key is that we take all the entrepreneurial energy on the outside," Steinberg told us, "and match it with the expertise and tradition and hard work of the faculty in all three systems."
CSU and community college faculties have expressed concerns about the bill, but it has sent UC's faculty into revolt; Steinberg should have consulted with them before announcing the bill. The Academic Senate's top officers last week wrote to their members: "There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over courses to any outside agency."
Faculty members aren't opposed to online classes; many already teach them. They're worried about relinquishing control over standards and diminishing UC's world-class reputation -- a real possibility.
Steinberg's bill may not help the UC schools, which have different students, aims and challenges than the other branches. UC students don't face serious bottlenecks trying to get required courses. CSU and the community colleges serve more than 10 times as many students.
If the goal is to clear bottlenecks and allow students to graduate on time, which cuts costs, Steinberg's faculty committee should primarily focus on courses at CSU and the community colleges, where the need is greatest. And the Legislature should also heed the worries of faculty at all levels to ensure quality instruction and student learning are protected at every step.