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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Paved with Good Intentions (UPDATED BELOW)

On Wednesday, April 10 the Senate Committee on Education will hold hearings on both Darell Steinberg's SB520 and Marty Block's SB547.  These two bills are the most prominent of the flurry of activity in the Legislature concerning Higher Education, “bottleneck” courses, and online activities.  As with other bills out there neither SB520 nor SB547 grapples with the systemic issues confronting California Higher Education (especially for the severely under-resourced CSU and CCC) but instead attempt to ride the MOOC wave to address the issue of access to courses.

Steinberg's SB520 has garnered the most attention and is the most complicated.  SB520 builds upon Steinberg’s previous legislation (SB1052 and 1053) passed in 2011-12.  These laws established a framework for the production of online textbooks for lower division courses across the three systems.  SB 1052 and 1053, created a California Digital Open Source Library and a California Open Education Resources Council.  Under SB1052, the COERC (I suppose pronounced "coerce") is required to, among other things, ensure the:

  • "[d]evelopment of a list of 50 strategically selected lower division courses in the public postsecondary segments for which high-quality, affordable, digital open source textbooks and related materials shall be developed or acquired pursuant to this section." 
  • "creation and administration of a standardized, rigorous review and approval process for open source textbooks and related materials developed or acquired pursuant to this section."
  • and "establish a competitive request for proposal process in which faculty members, publishers, and other interested parties may apply for funds to produce the 50 high-quality, affordable, digital open source textbooks and related materials in 2013."

The Council would be made up of 9 faculty representatives from the 3 systems (each system sending 3). 

There are legitimate concerns raised about expecting 9 faculty to be able to manage this function.  Still, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that they could, in fact, identify the most important bottleneck lower-division courses and determine those courses where the basic textbooks seem to be the same.  Given that the proposed textbooks would be modular in form, faculty in courses would retain control over the materials used in their classes.  Moreover, Steinberg appears here to be trying to use public pressure to encourage private textbook providers to lower price.  Whether the state should be providing funds for private publishers to produce these books is something that could be debated.  Still it seems that Steinberg fashioned a focused tool that may help students with an obvious problem: the costs of their lower-division textbooks.

SB520, on the other hand, relies on digital providers to manage a series of disparate issues.  First, it proposes to extend and modify the California Virtual Campus (originally established in 1999).  The CVC was designed both as a repository for existing online courses (it serves as a sort of portal for students) and also as a mechanism to bring together "stakeholders" in higher education together "to facilitate ongoing collaboration and joint efforts relating to the use of technology resources and high-speed Internet connectivity to support teaching, learning, workforce development, and research."  Steinberg proposes to extend the term of its legal basis from 2014 to 2017

But he also proposes to do much more.

The heart of SB520 is the linkage of the California Virtual Campus  to a new California Online Student Access Platform overseen by the California Open Education Resources Council.  Under Steinberg's proposed legislation the Open Education Resources Council would identify the 50 lower-division courses (across the three segments) that are "consistently impacted" and oversee a process by which online courses would be reviewed and approved and then placed in the California Online Student Access Platform.  At that point the legislation declares:

Students taking an online course available in the California Student Access Course Pool and achieving a passing score on the course examination shall be awarded full academic credit for the comparable course at the University of California, the California State University, or the California Community Colleges.

SB520 also declares as a legislative finding that "California could significantly benefit from a statutorily enacted, quality-first, faculty-led framework allowing students in online courses in strategically selected lower division majors and general education fields to be awarded credit at the UC, CSU, and CCC systems" and commands the COERC to offer "an efficient statewide mechanism for online course providers to offer transferable courses for credit."  

The creation of a "statutorily enacted" online platform through which private providers can secure a public market for their courses does at least two things.  First it removes control over the curriculum from the Senates of the three public sectors; second it effectively leverages public resources to secure the investments of private venture capital.   As Chris and Bob Meister have recently pointed out, SB520 not only falsely implies that MOOCs can compensate for the decline in public funding for Higher Education but follows a classic pattern of venture capital reshaping public institutions by using them to secure protected entry into a particular market.  

Indeed, SB520 is a venture capitalist's dream: it opens up a potentially never ending public market for their wares and provides needed legitimacy for their products.  Online providers will be able to concentrate on producing individual courses that will meet whatever standards that COERC may approve.  They will not have to undertake either the process of ongoing evaluation (that will be provided by COERC) or manage the insertion of their courses into larger programs and general education systems (that cost will be borne by public higher education).  Moreover, by insisting that these courses be MOOCs ("open to any interested person.") SB520 encourages the development of a secondary market for the MOOC providers while effectively eliminating courses geared to specific campus populationsIn effect, SB520 provides public funding to minimize costs for private providers; it is another transfer of funds from the state to corporations.

Most of the attention on SB520 has been on the threat to the authority of the Senates (Steinberg seems to have thought that having Senate appointees to the California Open Education Resources Council would prevent that issue from arising).  And that threat has led to a good deal of push-back ranging from the faculty petition organized by the Berkeley Faculty Association to the critical letter offered by the system-wide Academic Council.   One danger of this emphasis on the authority of the Senates rather than on the legislative interference in the form of teaching is the potential for complacence in response to Marty Block's SB547.

SB547, to be sure, avoids some of the problems of SB520 because it is much simpler:  it commands the Academic Senates of the three segments to identify "high demand transferable lower division courses under the Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum" and to develop online versions of those courses to be offered in 2014.   It suggests that funding will be provided in the annual budget (although there is no command about how much that funding will be or what costs will be included).

But as with SB520, Block's proposal insists on the rapid deployment of a teaching medium that, initial studies suggest is profoundly unsuitable for students without previous academic success (see studies on Virginia and Washington.  MOOC proponents will, of course, insist that the medium is experimental and that the technology will enable them to improve their ability to teach all students.  That may well be true.  But the future possibility does not justify the present commitment of resources and legitimation of a particular vision of education.  That it is also a remarkable political intrusion into the nature of teaching (with potentially the same effects on the classroom as the introduction of the testing regime has had in K-12) cannot be ignored.  Although I do not doubt the good intentions of either Steinberg or Block, their proposals subordinate the integrity of the curriculum in the interests of the venture capitalists behind Udacity, Coursera, and other digital start-ups. 

Locking in online courses as the only possible solution to the problem not only avoids confronting the larger crises brought about by state disinvestment in higher education but also institutionalizes a particular form of online classes. 

It is encouraging that both Senator Steinberg and Senator Block are attempting to address the real financial pressures facing students and their families.  It is also important that they recognize the importance of improving transfer rates and helping the CCC resume its important role in fostering social mobility in California.  But their approach through the mandated production of online courses misses the boat.  Steinberg's bill will undermine public education by entrenching private capital; Block's overestimates the educational effectiveness of online for its target population and therefore helps foreclose more imaginative uses of the digital and the allocation of necessary resources to the CCC and the CSU.  It also allows the Legislature to avoid confronting the question of why bottlenecks have grown.  It would be good if Steinberg and Block turned their attention to that issue.  They might find that it led them back to the crucial problem that the State has created: the continual under-investment in California Higher Education.

UPDATE: The hearing on SB520 and SB547 has been postponed till April 24.  I'll keep you posted if anything else changes.  (h/t Eric Hays)


Charles Schwartz said...

I am in physics at Berkeley(Professor Emeritus). Suppose we ask how this new metric system will affect us.

We have relatively few majors in our undergraduate program; but very many superb graduate students in our PhD program; and they are intimately involved in our fantastic world class research programs.

So, what is it you want to count in evaluating how much money we should get?

Online courses? WOW, I bet most all of our big undergraduate classes (i.e., those for non-physics majors) could be done that way - and done very well.

Oops, but that would kill our base of faculty FTE support.

You see, most of what we earn in undergraduate teaching credits is for the service courses we provide. Whether for engineering or biology or even liberal arts, we enroll thousands of undergraduate students and give them a first class introduction to physics - classical and modern. This is what pays for our expensive overall support budget.

And you want to change that, how?...

Anonymous said...

well Professor Schwartz, you have always been the one arguing that we charge undergraduates more than the cost of their education... the model you cite where we use large service courses to support the faculty and TA FTE is no different than this online model -- except that we will be supporting only the faculty who figure out a way to convey their knowledge at a distance and they may not even be on the same campus as where the students are...so the best research universities will be the ones that figure out a way to best exploit this new model of knowledge dissemination just as large public research universities like UC learned how to exploit 400 student lecture courses right after WW II (in order to serve all the GI Bill students)...

Chris Newfield said...

I see a couple of important differences between the large capacity of MOOCs today and the large capacity of the lecture halls after World War II. The large lecture was delivering skills in demand in the economy of the time: "mastery" learning of specific content to be reliably reproduced in multidivisional corporations hiring hundreds of thousands of grads to perform semi-routine white collar work. MOOCs currently offer mastery learning for precisely the jobs that are being offshored at ever-higher levels of skill. If you have a skill for which you can credential someone after a single online course (or three), that is a skill that is already being offered in another country for 10-20% of the US cost. Secondly, large lectures cross-subsidized seminars and research and, increasingly, the administrative overhead of complex multi-versities. I think the pedagogical model was always flawed, but there was a kind of bargain in which the lower-division student would "pay" now for personal attention in seminars or research-learning later. Same for research: the professor teaching 300 in the fall might have more time for research in the spring. MOOCs, if they become part of the state- and tuition-funded revenues of state universities, will absorb the student subsidizes into their own operations and not return them to support upper-division and research activities. Students need creativity-oriented learning and universities need research subsidies. The fact that large lectures got us only half way doesn't mean MOOCs will get us farther: the evidence for that doesn't yet exist, and much evidence points to destabilization and lowered outcomes.

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