Last week, the hotly debated online education bill introduced in February by Senator Darrell Steinberg passed unanimously by California state senators. The bill establishes the California Virtual Campus grant, which will provide funding to faculty willing to create and offer online versions of the 20 most impacted courses in the California higher education system. UC and CSU faculty, among others, have raised serious concerns about the bill, and not without reason: they’re afraid putting courses online could put the quality of a California public higher education in jeopardy, and in effect privatize the university system by proposing professors partner with private online course providers.
I find this argument interesting because opponents seem to be ignoring some harsh realities of the current system. As a result of overly impacted courses, many students are unable to enroll in the classes they need to graduate, forcing them to pay extra tuition dollars for additional terms they wouldn’t have needed otherwise. Also, because of budget cuts in California, tuition has skyrocketed across the higher education system in the past 10 years. Schools are accepting more of out-of-state and international students than ever in order to cover funding gaps. Many California applicants are being denied admission in favor of accepting out-of-state students who pay heftier tuition fees. So I’ve got news for opponents of the recently passed Senate bill: the quality of a public higher education in the state of California is already in jeopardy, and the university system is already being privatized.
Let’s talk about the amendments that were made to the original bill (which still needs to be passed by the assembly, then signed by the governor, to become law). Originally, SB 520 stated that the 50 most over-enrolled courses in the California university system would be made available online and would be overseen by a nine-person council. The Senate Education Committee made amendments in response to UC administrators’ protests, dropping the nine-person council and instead allowing courses to be overseen and approved by UC CSU, and community college senators and chancellors, and other higher ups.
Critics were still unhappy, so the Senate again amended and ultimately passed what is now the final version of the bill. The bill now offers grants to faculty who are willing to develop and offer online courses for 20 in-demand, lower-division courses. The faculty is not required to offer these courses, nor are they required to utilize any private online course providers (such as Coursera or Udacity) to do so. These online courses, if developed, will only affect a small amount of students attending California higher education institutions, but they’ll relieve enrollment and tuition pressures for those students, ultimately cutting costs for the universities as well.
And now, critics are still unhappy. “The bill has not met the criticisms that we’ve had of the bills since the beginning,” Robert Powell, chair of the UC Academic Senate said to the Daily Californian. “They undermine the efforts that the university has been making … It’s overly prescriptive.”
Opponents argue that the real problem with the system is a lack of funding for California schools as a whole, which I agree is absolutely true. California can’t provide the funds these institutions need to ease the pressures induced by overly impacted courses, and that’s a problem. No arguments there. But to those content to simply wring their hands, I say this: the higher education system is unlikely to get more funding from the state of California any time soon, because the state of California has no more money to give.
Many education advocates and citizens of California in general disagree with the way tax dollars are currently being allocated. I know I certainly do (but that’s a whole other issue entirely). Believe me, I wish the legislature would fork over a huge chunk of cash to California public schools. I wish they’d allocate funds differently. I have as little faith in the legislature as any Californian who has witnessed their ineffectiveness and laziness. But this bill, SB 520, could actually solve a real problem, so in this case, I’m willing to support them.
On top of that, funding allocations aren’t being changed any time soon, and students need to enroll in the classes they need now. I’ve done my best to remain impartial as this debate has raged over the last few months, and as someone who is very personally invested in California higher education (I’m a UC Berkeley alum with countless family and friends who attended state schools), this has been no small feat. But frankly, I’ve grown tired of opponents who only complain about lack of funding rather than actually do something about the problem.
For those who claim the quality of a California higher education will be compromised if some courses are offered online, they’re missing the point entirely. This bill is not a replacement of in-person courses. This bill offers students who cannot take the in-person courses they need to graduate because of over-enrollment — courses they were promised when they were accepted into their respective universities — an option beyond paying an additional quarter, semester, or year’s worth of tuition. These students are already being wronged by California’s school system. Why not right that wrong by offering them an online option instead of forcing them to pay thousands of extra dollars?
Speaking as someone who has taken online courses for credit and is currently enrolled in an online course — a MOOC on finance — I can say that they’re completely effective in teaching foundational concepts normally taught in lower-division courses. The professor of my MOOC is engaging, warm, and able to convey complicated concepts very effectively, despite his lectures being streamed online. I’ve found the discussion
forums to be filled with students who are like-minded, motivated, helpful, and supportive. The online experience is surely more limiting than an in-person one, but I’d take an online course over paying an extra semester’s worth of tuition any day. For these reasons, I hope the bill passes, and I hope there are faculty members within the UC and CSU system who will take advantage of the grants being offered and give students an online option.
So instead of wringing our hands, bemoaning the fact that the California higher education system lacks funding, and looking to tomorrow to solve our funding problems, why don’t we do what we can today? And today, if we can put even a small percentage of impacted courses online, and save a small percentage of students’ tuition money by doing so, let’s act. We have to stop looking at online courses as the enemy to higher education. The original mission of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education was to provide affordable access to quality education to California students. Online courses, in the case of this Senate bill, will provide access to students who can’t get the classes they need.