California’s Online Education Bill SB 520 Passes Senate

Last week senate bill 520 (SB 520) unanimously passed the California senate, and it is now heading to the assembly for review and, if passed, on to the governor for signature. I have covered the basics of SB520, shared the text of the bill, and described the first round of amendments to the bill. Michael and I have both provided commentary of the bill, and we have also written a position paper for The 20 Million Minds Foundation on the general topic of online education in California.

Now that the bill has passed its major test in the senate, it would be worth comparing the current bill with that proposed a few months ago, as the amendments have been significant. The majority of amendments have been in response to faculty concerns about governance and quality assurance of online courses. The full text of the current bill can be found here.

Highlight of Changes

Original proposal of SB520 would have:

  • Created the California Online Student Access Platform to be administered by the California Open Education Resources Council (the one created to administer California’s OER law SB1052);
  • Created a single pool of online versions of “the 50 most impacted lower division courses” across all three systems (University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges);
  • Required the three systems to provide credit to students who successful take and pass the courses; and
  • Included content that has been reviewed and recommended by the American Council on Education.

Current version of SB 520 that passed senate would:

  • Create a set of three Incentive Grant programs for online courses to be administered by the office of President or Chancellor for each system “in consultation with their respective statewide academic senates”;
  • Create a list of 20 high-demand lower-division courses for each system that are “deemed necessary for program completion, deemed satisfactory for meeting general education requirements, or in areas defined as transferable lower division courses”;
  • Require the three systems to “each provide up to 15 incentive grants to faculty and campuses to facilitate certain intersegmental and intrasegmental partnerships and partnerships between online course technology providers and faculty”;
  • Place these courses into the California Virtual Campus portal;
  • Prohibit public funds from being used to fund any private aspect of a partnerships;
  • Give priority to courses that have also been selected by one or both of the other segments;
  • Require grants for only a course that has “associated with it a member of the faculty of the segment providing the grant who serves as the instructor of record, and the course is approved by the academic senate of that segment”;
  • Shift the approval of the pool of online courses from the California Open Access Resources Council (COERC) to the administration and faculty senates of the three systems while also removing any tie to American Council on Education recommendations;
  • Regularly solicit and consider from their respective statewide student associations advice and guidance; and
  • Tie the provisions of the bill to funding in the Annual Budget Act.

Criteria for Incentive Grants

The primary definition of the course criteria are largely the same:

Section 2 (e) When evaluating a potential faculty or campus grantee to receive an incentive grant pursuant to this section, the President of the University of California, the Chancellor of the California State University, and the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges shall consider the extent to which the developed or deployed course will do each of the following:

(1) Provide students with instructional support and related services to promote retention and success.

(2) Provide students with interaction with instructors and other students.

(3) Contain a proctored student assessment and examination process that ensures academic integrity and satisfactorily measures student learning.

(4) Provide a student with an opportunity to assess the extent to which he or she is suited for online learning before enrolling.

(5) Use, as the primary course text or as a wholly acceptable alternative, content, where it exists, from the California Digital Open Source Library established pursuant to Section 66408.

(6) Include adaptive learning technology systems or comparable technologies that can provide significant improvement in student learning.

(7) Be made available to students of another system, regardless of the system at which they are enrolled.


Michael and I put down our thoughts on the subject of online education to address bottleneck courses in the position paper, and I think several of our recommendations are relevant to the current SB 520 (I cannot speak to the correlation or causation of our paper and the amendments, but the intent of The 20 Million Minds Foundation was certainly to use the paper to influence policy makers).

4) Foster a culture of experimentation and craft among faculty – Campus faculty should be encouraged to learn about how they can incorporate technology to solve educational problems and be empowered to develop their own solutions for their campus’ bottleneck course problems. To this end, the state should fund a broad grant program in which faculty develop pilot bottleneck course solutions. Participants should be led through a development process using educational technologies that exposes them to a range of technology-supported course design options.

5) Encourage the implementation, dissemination and broader adoption of faculty-developed solutions – When good bottleneck solutions are developed by faculty, either through the grant program or through other means, every effort should be made to see that they are implemented locally and adopted broadly. Knowledge of and experience with solutions developed to teach with quality at scale should be recognized as an essential part of California faculty’s professional development.

6) Avoid the trap of treating all three systems with the same solution – Each of the three systems has a distinct mission and student population, and care should be taken to craft different solutions based on the systems’ needs.

9) Provide a “safety valve” of outside provision of credit-bearing, transferable online courses by filling gaps to allow SB 520 to succeed. To achieve the key balance we envision – enabling and supporting faculty to create local solutions while keeping in mind the student right to have access to needed courses, there is an implied two-tiered course selection system.

10) Provide a multi-level course approval process for SB 520 – Whenever possible, faculty should retain oversight of quality. The initial list of approved safety valve courses should therefore be reviewed by a faculty-driven mechanism, which can be set up through the academic senates. However, since access should be a student right, there must always be some safety valve option. Therefore, in the event that the faculty-driven process is not able to recommend adequate provisions, an administrative body should review any gaps in the list and ,where solutions are inadequate, either fund development or partnership to provide the necessary courses or select contingency solutions until such time as a faculty-approved alternative can be provided.

Despite much of the public discussion, SB 520 is not targeted at MOOCs – it is targeted at online courses in general. The bill does allow and encourage partnerships with “online course technology providers”, but that could include non-MOOC providers such as StraighterLine, Pearson, Academic Partnerships, Deltak, 2U, or others.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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2 Responses to California’s Online Education Bill SB 520 Passes Senate

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