Calif. Bill Would Permit Online Courses for Credit - Higher Education
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Calif. Bill Would Permit Online Courses for Credit

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by Christina Hoag, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — California would allow private, online education companies to offer courses for credit at state colleges and universities, under a bill introduced Wednesday in the state Legislature.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who authored the amended SB 520, said that, if approved, the law would be the first of its kind in the nation and promises to reshape higher education.

The bill is designed to address a problem that has increasingly cropped up in recent years at the University of California, California State University and community colleges systems due to severe state funding cuts that have caused reductions in courses, faculty and admissions.

Gov. Jerry Brown has said online courses could be a cost-effective way to increase offerings and has called on the institutions to do more with technology.

Many students now cannot get the basic courses that they must take in order to graduate, causing delays in graduation and fewer seats available for new students. In 2012-13, 85 percent of state community colleges reported wait lists for fall courses with an average of 7,000 students.

At the University of California and Cal State systems, only 60 percent and 16 percent of students, respectively, graduate in four years. Access to key courses was a major factor in the time lag, Steinberg’s office said.

“No college student should be denied a college education because they could not get a seat in the course they needed to graduate,” Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, said at an online news conference.

The bill would allow online providers such as Udacity and Coursera to offer as many as 50 of the most in-demand courses at each institution. A panel of nine faculty members appointed from each institution’s Academic Senate would vet and approve the course content. Students would only be able to enroll if they could not get into the equivalent campus course.

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“It is not a substitute for campus-based instruction,” Steinberg said.

Fees for the online courses are yet to be worked out but would not be higher than a campus class, Steinberg said. In addition, the institutions would share some of the revenue with the education providers.

Sebastian Thrun, co-founder and chief executive of Udacity, said his company is having good results with a pilot program with 300 students at San Jose State University, who each pay $150 for the for-credit course. He emphasized that his company provides only the technology.

“We leave the entire content of what happens on our platform to the faculty,” he said.

Richard Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, said the plan would help students realize their goals. Many students are frustrated because they have to take frivolous courses each semester so they can maintain financial aid, he said.

Representatives of the California Faculty Association did not immediately return phone calls for comment.

Cal State spokesman Michael Uhlenkamp said officials had not yet read the bill and could not comment on it.

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