One fundamental change in the amended bill is its elimination of any role for COERC in the new online course system. As I indicated in a previous post Steinberg had originally tied his push for online courses to his previous push for a system for producing digital textbooks. This part of SB520 garnered the most vociferous push back because it removed authority over curricula from the Academic Senates at the three segments and struck most obviously at faculty authority. In response to that push-back, SB520 now commands that the new California Student Access Platform "shall be developed and administered by the President of the University of California, the Chancellor of the California State University, and the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges, jointly, with the academic senates of the respective segments." He has also added a clause that each online course must have "associated with it a faculty sponsor who is a member of the faculty of the University of California, the California State University, or the California Community Colleges" if it wants approval. There remain ambiguities here, most especially concerning the respective authority granted to the administrations and senates of the Community Colleges, CSU, and UC. But Steinberg has made that a problem for the segments rather than seeming to attack faculty authority directly.
Secondly, Steinberg has restricted access to the Online Platform, perhaps in response to the manifold questions that surround MOOCs and their educational value. In the revised version, Steinberg now declares that the Platform will only serve students matriculated either at one of the three segments or at a California High School. As before, the Platform is designed to focus on lower-division courses that have histories of over-enrollment.
But in modifying these sections of the Bill, Steinberg has only intensified its major implications. Whatever Steinberg's motivations, the amended version of the Bill makes clear that the heart of the legislation is mandating that California Public Higher Education shift course creation to private providers and guarantee private online providers a market in credentials and an educational legitimacy that they have been unable to generate on their own.
SB520 states as a principle that:
California could significantly benefit from a statutorily enacted, quality-first, faculty-led framework that increases partnerships between faculty and online course technology providers aimed at allowing students in
strategically selected lower division areas to take online courses for credit at the UC, CSU, and CCC systems.
Indeed, the Platform itself:
shall solicit, develop, and promote appropriate partnerships between online course providers and faculty members of the University of California, California State University, and the California Community Colleges for the development and deployment of high-quality online options for strategically selected lower division courses.
And lest we miss the point, SB520 also commands that:
Apparently, Senator Steinberg has sought to appease faculty opposition by shifting authority over the courses to the 3 segments and by insisting that each course be linked to a faculty "sponsor." But these changes do nothing to the central effect of the Bill: to secure a subsidized market for for-profit online companies.
(2) (A) For each of the 50 courses identified under paragraph (1), solicit and promote appropriate partnerships between online course technology providers and faculty of the University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges which, by the fall term of the 2014–15 academic year, shall result in the availability of multiple high-quality online course options in which students may enroll in that term.
(B) An online course developed pursuant to this paragraph shall be deemed to meet the lower division transfer and degree requirements for the University of California, the California State University, and the California Community Colleges.
If this conclusion seems harsh, it is only necessary to look at Marty Block's alternative bill SB547. I discussed Block's bill and its problems earlier, but one clear difference is that Block does not require public institutions of higher education to partner with for-profit online companies. Steinberg's SB520 on the other hand, commands that partnering as its very essence.
It is not clear why Steinberg thinks that this is a good solution. Obviously, it allows the Legislature to avoid confronting their own role in underfunding higher education. Perhaps his thinking has been shaped by the lobbying of people such as Sebastian Thrun (whose Udacity seems to be basing its future on precisely this sort of captured public market) or Steinberg's former colleague Dean Flores of 20 Million Minds. Flores, who has been pushing online providers across the nation recently told Inside Higher Education that “I think every professor in the nation starts with, ‘I think online education is going to ruin higher education,’ " he said. "What I think every professor is saying is, ‘Online learning is going to significantly disrupt the way I’ve been doing things."
Higher Ed administrators and Senate leaders may think that the proposed changes are enough to make the bill palatable. But this would be a mistake. In its stripped down version, SB520 continues to forward an agenda of insufficient public funding and a desire to force public institutions to serve private interests.
The latest version of SB520 needs to be opposed. But even more than that, Higher Education needs to do a far better job of explaining what actually goes on in campuses and systems and how universities and colleges in California actually work. Or Steinberg's trojan horse will not be the last.