Proposed California Legislation for Statewide Online Education Courses – The Basics

Outside of the Vatican, the big news this week in higher education is the proposed legislation in California that would identify and approve a set of up to 50 online courses that the three public systems would accept as credit for admitted students. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is co-authoring SB520 that addresses popular, introductory courses for which students cannot get access from their University of California, California State University, or California Community College campus. The pre-coverage of the event included the following:

As described in the NY Times:

Legislation will be introduced in the California Senate on Wednesday that could reshape higher education by requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to give credit for faculty-approved online courses taken by students unable to register for oversubscribed classes on campus.

If it passes, as seems likely, it would be the first time that state legislators have instructed public universities to grant credit for courses that were not their own — including those taught by a private vendor, not by a college or university.

“We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise: No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed,” said Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the Senate, who will introduce the bill. “That’s the motivation for this.”

Update 3/14: Text of bill here

Senate President Pro Tem Steinberg held a press conference today via Google Hangout and video streaming (archive available soon on site) to announce the package of legislation. I have attempted to summarize the press conference below (any mistakes in note-taking are my own, and I’ll update as needed). While Michael and I will both have analysis of this proposal soon, I wanted to first share the information directly.


Steinberg introduced several key people that were part of crafting the proposal or presenting during the press conference.

  • Sen. Marty Block, chair of education sub-committee who introduced companion bill SB547
  • Special thanks to 20 million minds & Dean Florez for “help and leadership on these important issues”
  • Assemblywoman Christina Garcia, co-author of SB520
  • Michelle Pilati faculty senate Community Colleges
  • Richard Copenhagen, student rep
  • Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity

Why we’re here – Darrell Steinberg

  • Steinberg referenced the Master Plan from 1960 as a blueprint for California higher education and a model for the nation. The Master Plan was founded on principle of making higher education available for all regardless of economic means – only to be limited by individual desires / ambitions. The plan led to economic engine of CA and our high-tech position. However, we’re at a cross-roads.
  • SB520 as amended “would reshape higher ed” higher ed “in partnership with technology we already use to break bottleneck that prevents students from completing education”.
  • California would be the 1st state in nation with such a statewide system.
  • No student should be denied education because can’t get course they need.
  • What SB520 is NOT:
    • Not substitute for campus-based instruction;
    • Not separated from faculty review – faculty panel can certify up to 50 online courses where students have problems getting into in traditional way. Only for courses where students cannot get into, and only if university is not already offering the course online. The courses can come from anywhere, but have to be approved by 9-member panel of faculty appointed by faculty senates from all three systems; modeled after SB1052/53 on OER access.
    • Not a shift in funding priorities; still plan to invest

Richard Copenhagen

  • We face a lack of access with students having to take frivolous units to keep financial aid & transfer requirements; students have gone homeless in cases.
  • We won’t solve problems just with online.

Sebastian Thrun

  • I am excited about today; shift of higher education in California.
  • This bill will empower access to higher education.
  • We are technology provider, not educators – leave course design with faculty.

Michelle Pilati

  • We are pleased with interest in distance education; excited to see what we can do.
  • Technology is adjunct to learning; referenced Richard’s statements – technology is not a solution but can assist.
  • We hope we can leverage interest in distance education state of art to better serve students – help them get through courses the first time.
  • We plan to work with legislation, shape it into something that will help students.

Marty Block

  • Access, affordability & quality – these are the three pillars from Master Plan; over time we have kept affordability (even with tuition raises), and no one questions our quality; however, access is problem.
  • What online education does is open up possibilities for students, open up options.
  • We need to be careful to maintain quality and academic rigor; with these bills the faculty role is not diminished; courses are reviewed, monitored by faculty.
  • I have introduced SB547 – the three faculty senates jointly identify & develop transferable lower-division courses that can be offered online; these will be deemed transferable; works hand-in-hand with SB520 on access.

Christina Garcia

  • I was a math professor for 13 years – university & college; saw students struggle to complete courses on time, and even to figure out what’s next.
  • I am co-author of this bill (SB520).
  • I know first-hand power of online technology.
  • One feature is that by providing online courses for those who can benefit from online will free up seats in face-to-face courses for those needing this structure.
  • Online education does not replace traditional models – it gives another tool.
  • We will create one other bill in this “package”.

Darrell Steinberg

  • Here’s what’s happening: Incredible innovation and entrepreneurship on one hand and proud institutions on the other hand; these have been separate worlds.
  • If allowed to go separately, we won’t serve students; with the edtech hand, they can’t earn credit for online courses (e.g. MOOCs); on the other hand, with incredible faculty and institutions – we are struggling and there simply are not enough classes to ensure students who want to get their education can do this thru our three systems.
  • This bill seeks to put the entrepreneurial innovation and energy alongside the best of higher education system – maintain / enhance quality, ensure process for certifying courses is faculty-driven; also invest more in core education mission.
  • This is an exciting day. We would be the first state in nation to figure out how to put the two worlds together. How to certify the best courses, while not only involving faculty but let them take leadership position.

Questions & Answers

  • Q. Given budgetary constraints, this could be seen as bringing us into 21st century, yet others may see this as cheapening of education – do you have this concern? A. I would have concern if bill simply said to take outside content and courses and rubber-stamp approval, but that’s not what it does. True partnership between faculty 3 sys and innovators and entrepreneurs. No, I don’t have that concern – we’re providing the correct approach.
  • Q. Do these courses cost the same per unit as current system fees? With students signing in remotely, how would you deal with cheating? A. On the fee issue – we still have work to do for specific answer. The general approach – fee should be no more than taking face-to-face equivalent. We also need to make sure savings / revenue is shared in some way by students as well as the universities & colleges. We don’t want to create incentive to reduce face-tof-face instruction and lower cost structure. We will rely on face-to-face proctoring or remote proctoring software for testing req, but we don’t have final answer. Part of faculty panel’s review process is to review feasibility of proposed testing.
  • Q. This will clear way for online ed credit in 3 systems. A. Yes, will create smart pathway for certifying online courses for credit.
  • Q. Would you have to pass test to get credit at all 3 systems? A. Yes, similar or identical requirement.
  • Q. Would students have to be admitted through regular admissions? A. Yes.
  • Q. Did you get the same reaction from all three systems? A. I wouldn’t characterize reaction as different. I would characterize as showing interest, excitement, opportunity, and a little or a lot of fear and trepidation. Until we lay the bill out in details, there will need to be some concern. If it wasn’t somewhat controversial, this bill wouldn’t be worth doing.
  • Q. How will courses be priced, who will set fees? A. We still have work to do for definite answer. See above.
  • Q. Why Google Hangout for press conference? A. This is the first time for this type of event, and it is consistent with policy direction. The world is changing. Technology is important force in our life – mostly a positive force. We want to use technology to help as many young people, students as possible to achieve dreams and compete in modern economy. Using Google Hangout was the right thing to do and is consistent with mission.
  • Q. Does the bill outline support for faculty & students? A. We will be very specific for criteria for faculty panel. One of the lead considerations is the extent the course provides opportunity for interaction between faculty and students. If none, the course is not going to be certified.
    • Pilati – It is not completely clear where the bill is going, but student-faculty interaction is critical to success, like current online offerings.
    • Garcia – Keep in mind that with campuses there are multiple support and tutoring systems from institution; weneed to figure out student-faculty interaction, but we do have other methods of support already in place.
    • Thrun – He referenced SJSU pilot with 300 students for-credit, $150 per unity – lower than face-to-face fees; the pilot is staffed with instructors and mentors; have excellent retention rate so far; could shed light.
  • Q. Are there 50 courses for each system? A. No 50 courses across all.
  • Q. So UC student could take same course as CC? A. Sure, could cross over.
  • Q. What is expected cost of this initiative? A. Note that SB1052 /53 appropriated $5M with matching funds – $10m total to launch aggressively. We will look at details as part of  budget process, but we expect the same kinds of numbers, in the ballpark.
  • Q. What would be the maximum number of students enrolled in a course? A. First, define population as admitted students. Within this ceiling, we don’t think there would be limit. The issue is whether or not students could get access to face-to-face course. If not, they will be eligible for online course.
  • Q. Is this more about saving money or helping students, and any evidence that online education does help students? A. This is about helping students. This is not a substitute for reinvesting in higher education in general. But we will be making a big mistake if we don’t take advantage of technology advances. Students won’t be hindered in ability to get into class. We can get out in front and shape MOOC movement, not just watch it. Without this approach, we actually risk diminishing quality. I admit this bill will be controversial, but we need to get out in front. Use 1052/53 structure to guide us.
    • Thrun – Udacity is only provider pulled classes because of quality concerns, we want quality first.
  • Q. What is involvement of Udacity in this proposal? A. Udacity is eligible, like any other provider, to compete before faculty panel. The “good doctor” (Thrun) has been a leader in the field, we need to learn from others. They will be a competitor like anybody else.
  • Q. Is Udacity a sponsor, or is there a sponsor? A. There is no sponsor. I gave shout-out to 20 Million Minds Foundation and Dean Florez –  and we worked with them. Steinberg / Garcia are co-authors.
  • Q. How many online classes will be allowed to transfer between system and will there be any cap? A. That’s a great question. We don’t have an answer at this point. We need to put this in the mix. Question worthy of consideration.

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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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