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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Amended Steinberg is Still Privatization

Senator Darrell Steinberg, after push back from higher education figures, has offered up an amended version of his Senate Bill 520.  Although it shifts authority for approving online courses from the California Open Access Resources Council (COERC)  to the administrations of the public higher education segments (in consultation with their Senates), it sharpens Steinberg's effort to compel the three segments to subsidize the growth of private online course providers.  Instead of addressing the long-standing underfunding of the three segments, Steinberg is seeking to compel California Higher Education to depend upon alliances with venture capital.

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 approvalThere 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:

(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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Can you explain the way this public subsidy of the for profit MOOCs would work in more depth? As I understand it, students will pay out of pocket to take these courses, at a rate set by the MOOC for a course taken for credit as opposed to a course "certificate." Thus the courses will not be free to the students. Will they pay an additional fee to the CA college or university they attend to receive credit? If so, how will this price be set? And what will it cover? As I see it, the major problem for the student's own degree granting institution is that it will still have to pay to administer student advising, student health care infrastructure, costs associated with administration of the student's records, his/her major, graduation etc, as well as much of the cost of administering the infrastructure to ensure that course meets university standards. In theory, the institution could charge a "credit" fee that covered all these costs, but my guess is that that this would make taking on line courses for credit very pricy indeed, at least or students. As I recall, Brown promised funding for the development of online courses, but this is at best likely to be very temporary. How is this supposed to work?

Michael Meranze said...

It is very hard to answer your question because the Bill provides very little information on that score. There is a clause indicating that the costs that accompany the mandate will be written into the annual Budget Bill. But what will count as costs is left completely undefined and I can't imagine that it will include the types of things that you raise.

In fact, you are pointing at a critical part of the way that this subsidization works--the online providers are left to produce isolated courses without any of the larger infrastructure that goes into maintaining an educational ecology for students. People who don't care whether universities survive or who are looking forward to their demise may not worry about this. But someone like Steinberg should and so should the leaderships of the three segments.

I would distinguish between Steinberg's Bill and Brown's initiative. I have concerns about Brown's initiative. But at least Brown's program is designed to provide funding to the segments so that they can produce their own courses within the context of their own programs. Steinberg's Bill is an explicit mandate that the segments enter into association with private online providers. If the history of these associations are any indication that involves providing not only a secure market but also paying the providers for the courses.

Hopefully no one will be taken in by the promise of a faculty "sponsor" and thereby not see the fundamental dynamic at work.

Anonymous said...

Easy potential solution that the faculty senates should be allowed to do:

If the problem is bottleneck courses that are blocking students from getting their degrees on time, then instead of giving course credit for a MOOC, the Senates should simply give "tentative placement credit" on the honor system to anyone who asks for it.

How would "tentative placement credit" work? A student claims that he already understands the material in a bottleneck course --- say intro to calculus --- that is required for a physics course. The student is permitted to take the physics course without having taken the prereq. A shadow grade is recorded for the prereq --- which is the minimum of all grades in courses that depend upon it. So if he gets Bs in all the courses he takes that depend on his calculus intro prereq, he gets a shadow B in calculus. Come graduation-time, this shadow grade is what is used against his graduation requirements as far as specific courses go. But no hours are credited for the course, because it is completely unclear how many hours the student has spent on this course in the kinds of instructional engagements that hour credits are supposed to reflect.

This is both fair and a win/win/win situation. If a MOOC (or private tutor, or brilliant textbook with self-guided exercises, or whatever) can really provide a good quality understanding of the material, then great!

1) The student can avoid the bottlenecked prereq courses and get to the stuff he wants to study faster.

2) The MOOC provider (or whoever wants to teach this student) can get paid (or simply tipped) by the student for providing this service. A free market for an actually useful education, where usefulness is measured as useful for further courses at the college. No political games of having to get certified and thereby get a locked-in market.

3) And the educational institutions benefit by not having to over-dedicate resources to bottleneck classes (instead, they could offer more diverse courses if they so choose) as well as presumably having access to quality online resources that they could use to enhance their own on-campus offerings if they so choose.

4) Society at large (and employers) benefit because they still know that a university degree means a certain amount of on-campus student credit hours with all the soft-skills and implicit untestable skills that implies. But they get potentially better educated students who haven't spent as much time twiddling their thumbs waiting for bottleneck courses.

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