Apr 02 2013

The Massive Debate About MOOCs Has Just Begun [#Survey]

California Bill Thrusts MOOCs into the Political Arena

Massive open online courses (MOOCs), already controversial in higher education, have been thrown into California’s political arena. A state senator who believes that online courses, even if taught by “providers outside the state's higher-education system,” should be given credit by several universities in California:

Democratic senator Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, California has introduced Senate Bill 520, which is designed to augment two other bills he offered in 2012 that intends to establish a statewide system designed to implement the availability of lower level courses and student access to high-quality, digital textbooks for first and second year courses credited by the University of California, the California Community Colleges and California State University. Senator Steinberg is especially interested in advancing the viability of online higher education as a whole due to ongoing research that shows online courses can significantly lower failure rates of students enrolled in entry-level courses as well as prevent “bottleneck” conditions that may inhibit the ability of students to take certain classes that are necessary for obtaining a degree.

Here are a few key points from the proposed bill:

  1. Provide a list of lower-division classes that are considered oversubscribed and difficult to access.
  2. Allow students to enroll online in these courses when such courses are unavailable from a traditional college or university.
  3. Offer students access to a state-level pool of approved courses that would provide full academic credit at CCC, UC or CSU.

Read Online Higher Education Receives Support from Senate Bill 520 from the San Francisco Chronicle.

This bill raises some questions. For starters, what is the process for certifying these classes, and should colleges have to accept credits for online classes? As Lee Gardner and Jeffrey R. Young wrote in a recent post on The Chronicle of Higher Education, the devil could be in the details. Here are a few more questions they want answered:

  • Who will approve the courses?
  • What role will faculty members really have?
  • Will student financial aid apply to paid online courses?
  • How will the revenue collected by the companies benefit the colleges? The students?

These issues will have to be answered if MOOCs are to move beyond free, online platforms and into traditional colleges.

Let us know what you think of Senate Bill 520.

Reddit user LawAndMortar had this to say about the bill:

For my part, I'm still apprehensive about the use of MOOCs for credit. I haven't been impressed by the one I've tried out (Harvardx "Justice") and I'm afraid it might just be an acceptance/extension of the practices we don't really like in higher education. The 50,000 person MOOC (when done well) isn't all that different from the 500 person lecture, but I've never really liked the 500 person lecture.

Using MOOCs for low-level courses also seems like it might cause an adjustment problem when students move in to more direct classroom experiences. Obviously a single class isn't going to do much damage, but using MOOCs to cover more of the first-year curriculum (GEs and major-foundation courses, for example) risks under-preparing students for a different style of more advanced study.

Looking at the proposed state budget for Louisiana (still making major new cuts to state support for higher education), I'm also a little worried about the spill-over from MOOCs in to other programs/"markets." How long until Southeastern Louisiana University decides to grant credit for a Harvard MOOC? How attractive will that be when the next round of proposed budget cuts can be addressed by cutting faculty without cutting course offerings? At what point do the MOOC-providers have too much say in the curriculum of less wealthy schools trying to retain and advance students?

I don't mean these as criticisms of MOOCs as enrichment activities. I think they're great. It's a brilliant extension of the Wisconsin Idea. I'm just worried about granting credit for them before really looking at their qualities and the effect that credit-bearing MOOCs might have on the rest of the higher education ecosystem.

Click here to respond to the comment on Reddit.