MOOCs being readied for prime time in California

California’s public universities and colleges may soon be required to grant students credit for online courses, including massive open online courses, or MOOCs – a move that could radically alter the higher education landscape.

New legislation introduced in the Senate in March would allow students unable to register for oversubscribed classes to receive credit for online classes not affiliated with their institution.

“No college student should be denied the right to complete their education because they could not get a seat on the course that they needed in order to graduate,” said State Senator Darrell Steinberg, who introduced the bill on 13 March.

“This is not technology for technology’s sake. It addresses a real challenge.”

Years of crippling budget cuts at California’s three public higher education systems – the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges – has meant thousands of students have been shut out of the core courses needed for graduating.

According to the legislation, called Senate Bill 520, nearly 90% of California’s 112 community colleges reported waiting lists for courses in autumn 2012, with an average of 7,000 students on waiting lists per college.

Meanwhile, only 60% of students at the University of California and a paltry 16% at California State University were able to earn a degree within the standard four years, largely due to their inability to register for the courses they need in order to graduate.

Under the new legislation, a panel of faculty leaders from the three systems would develop a list of the 50 most oversubscribed introductory courses and deem which online courses would be eligible to stand in.

The platform, which would cost around $10 million to create, would allow students to access either free MOOCs or low-cost online classes. The courses would only be available to students who were unable to enrol in similar classes at their institution.

“We are pleased that alternative forms of potential college credit are being given such serious consideration in California and elsewhere,” Cathy A Sandeen, American Council on Education’s (ACE) vice-president for education attainment and innovation, told University World News.

“ACE has for decades conducted rigorous evaluations of military and workplace courses and experiences in order to make college credit recommendations."

But online education should not usurp the role of the traditional university, she added.

“It’s important to stress that individual colleges and universities should be able to decide whether or not to accept a credit recommendation, and academic decisions on campus should be made by institutions and their faculty.”

Online learning was met with scepticism in the past due to the rise of low quality, and in some cases fraudulent, course offerings. However, as reported by University World News, a slew of online initiatives from some of America’s most prestigious universities have changed the way people view online education.

But some critics have expressed concern that online learning hasn’t been around long enough for us to know whether it is truly eligible to stand in for traditional classroom learning.

Steinberg acknowledged these concerns during a news conference announcing the bill, stating that the legislation is not intended as a “substitution for campus-based instruction”.

“This is about helping students," he said. "We would be making a big mistake if we did not take advantage of the technological advances in our state.”

The California Faculty Association, which represents the 23-campus California State University system, supports Steinberg’s commitment to providing access to all students.

The group did insist though that they “want to maintain academic credibility and the delivery of accessible, quality public education, rather than chase the latest private-sector fad”.

But multi-million dollar online initiatives like Coursera and edX, rolled out in the past year by institutions such as Stanford and Harvard, point to online education as more than just a passing fad.

The high quality course offerings “reflect a dramatic, sea change in how people see online learning”, said Daphne Koller, co-founder of Stanford’s Coursera, which offers free online course from more than 60 universities and colleges.

“Traditional forms of instruction are going to have to change to reflect the use of technology.”