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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Steinberg Strikes Back

In response to all of the push-back he has received Senator Steinberg has offered yet another version of his attempt to appear to champion the interests of California's college students.  His latest iteration lightens the direct hand of legislative intrusion into curriculum without solving any of the underlying problems that continue to beset his vision.  Moreover, his continued acceptance of the rhetoric of for-profit online providers blinds him to the real costs of his proposals and to engaging in a serious consideration of alternative ways of improving access in higher education.

Still, Steinberg is proposing significant changes to SB520 and it is important to recognize them.

1) Steinberg has moved from putting into place a structured "framework" to drive the segments into relation with online providers to creating a system of "grant programs" for intensifying reliance on online programs and providers.  You will recall that in April he sought to establish "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."  Now, according to his latest amendments, he has shifted to legislating "incentive grant programs" (one in each segement) to help "faculty and individual campuses within the UC, CSU, and CCC systems to provide students increased opportunities to take strategically selected lower division courses online."

With this change, Steinberg has shifted his rhetoric from creating the "California Online Student Access Platform" to creating the "California Online Student Access Incentive Grant programs."  Under his new proposal, the state will provide funding to faculty for the purpose of increasing the numbers of lower-division online courses that will allegedly move students move more quickly either within a segment or between segments.  The heads of the Systems, "in consultation" with their Senates of course, will disburse incentive grants to individual faculty or groups of faculty. 

2) Despite changing his approach from the stick to the carrot, Steinberg is actually increasing the demands placed on the system.  Whereas in April he had required the segments "jointly" to identify up to 50 courses that served as important bottlenecks for students, he is now instructing "each segment" to identify up to 20 "high-demand lower division courses" and for up to 15 of those courses provide "incentive grants" to faculty to encourage them to enter into "15 appropriate partnerships" either within the segments or with "online course technology providers" to "significantly increase online options for matriculated students and high school pupils for the fall terms of the 2014-15 academic year."

3) Although Steinberg continues to insist that all courses created with incentive grant funding be put in the California Virtual Campus, he has softened his language on the State's direct claim to online intellectual property.   Whereas in April he declared that "the state shall retain all appropriate rights to intellectual property it creates or develops in the implementation of this section" he is now placing the question of intellectual property back within the systems themselves by insisting that "intellectual property created or developed by a segment in the implementation of this act shall be owned and managed by that segment according to its existing policies pursuant to applicable provisions of this code.

These are clearly genuine changes in his approach.  But the question remains whether they can overcome the fundamental flaws of his earlier version?  And do they truly point out a way to an educationally desirable solution to the genuine problems of access?  The answer to both questions is no.

For one thing, as much as Steinberg may wish not to confront it, his proposals do entail a decision to spend money in one way rather than another.  None of this will be free and the funds spend through the incentive grants and the platform is money that could be spent elsewhere (say on faculty).  As the Senate Appropriations Committee Staff Analysis of Steinberg's April Version indicated, these costs are considerable.  The Staff pointed out that the CCC estimated initial course creation costs from $50,000 to $100,000 with costs higher at CSU and UC, considerable staff time and costs "to develop and approve them." Each year the costs of providing the accompanying services and administering the courses could range into the millions (although the Staff was analyzing the costs of the Online Platform its elimination will not get rid of the costs but simply transfer them directly onto the Segments).  To make the system work through the California Virtual Campus, the staff predicted that there would be the need for a common Learning Management System for the CCC alone would be $13M in the first year and over $7M in each subsequent year.  If the other systems are involved the costs would be much greater.  Steinberg is proposing to impose upon the three segments millions of dollars of new costs.  Even if the State does provide funding for these costs that money could be spent in other less speculative ways.  Far more likely is that the Segments will be driven into partnerships with online providers so as to share the upfront costs of meeting Steinberg's timetable.

These costs lead to the another problem of Steinberg's (revised) framework: the relationship between faculty intellectual property and venture capital.   Steinberg's devices to assure that neither public funding nor faculty intellectual property are diverted to "any private aspect" of alliances with for-profit online providers are weak tea indeed.  In concrete terms they do not exist.  Once placed within the California Virtual Campus it is difficult to see how faculty will retain any control over the use of their course materials or the marketing and distribution of the courses.  Steinberg's concern, understandably,  is to ensure that no student matriculated in any of the three segments or a California High School not be denied course credit for one of his online courses.  He is not concerned to control the reuse of the materials beyond the CVC without permission of faculty.  In fact there is no limitation placed on that at all.  Moreover, as anyone familiar with the debates going on within UC over defining intellectual property rights in UC sponsored online courses can attest, the property interests of the segments and those of the faculty are not necessarily aligned.

Nor is there any means set up to assure that no public funds are spent on private interests.  Should the segments enter into partnerships with the online providers, they will likely contract out services and use public funds to pay for them.  Despite the rhetoric of social justice, venture capital will demand a profitable return on its investments.  Moreover, as the for-profit MOOC providers have demonstrated, their business is information and they claim that the information they gather on students is their property.  I see no way around the notion that public funds will indeed be diverted to "private aspects" of the partnerships.

Ultimately, the drive to push through SB520 is a drive to avoid a serious discussion about reinvesting in California's educational system.  Pursuing the will o' wisp of technophilia allows the Legislature (and the Governor in his own way) to appear to be solving problems of their own making without engaging in a serious public debate over the future educational needs of the state (from K-16).  They won't overcome the pressing educational challenges facing California.


Anonymous said...

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It would seem that the contracts there described are trying to accomplish what this bill does through law.

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