Our View: Senate bill aims for good online classes

March 25, 2013 

The latest frontier in higher education -- online courses -- offers promise for widening access to knowledge. In California, done right, online courses can help reduce failure rates in entry-level courses, reduce bottlenecks in access to classes, reach people who are place-bound and spread unique courses offered on particular California campuses statewide.

However, in the new world where for-profit firms offer "massive open online courses," or MOOCs, our public colleges and universities need rigorous standards to make sure online educa- tion doesn't become a newfangled equivalent to "correspondence school" diploma mills.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has offered a bill that would build on his two bills last year, which established a statewide framework for offering high-quality, affordable, digital open-source textbooks in 50 lower-division courses at the University of California, the California State University and the California Community Colleges.

The earlier bills called for a faculty-led approval process through a nine-member California Open Education Resources Council, which Steinberg expects to be appointed within the next 30 days -- three members each by the UC Academic Senate, the CSU Academic Senate and the community colleges' Academic Senate.

His new bill, Senate Bill 520, would have the council identify the 50 biggest bottleneck lower-division courses in the UC, the CSU and community college systems -- where demand exceeds capacity in courses that students need to graduate or to transfer. The council then would review and approve online courses.

As Steinberg told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board, California needs a statewide commitment "to integrate the entrepreneurial spirit represented by the MOOC movement and California's fine history of faculty knowledge and expertise." Steinberg's structured, statewide process for approving online courses at public colleges and universities is the right approach.

The last thing we want is a Wild West of online education, cheapening and dumbing down one of California's greatest assets -- its universities and community colleges.

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