California lawmakers introduced legislation recently requiring the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for low-cost online courses offered by third parties, including classes offered by for-profit companies. If passed, this move is bound to alter classroom dynamics and change how learning takes place in the future.
The university system in the state of California faces an acute problem with many students not being able to enrol into courses of their choice or even mandatory ones that are repeatedly oversubscribed. This situation is prevalent on other campuses across the US. Though the latest move is likely to help students, it is not universally popular.
According to senator Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, the state’s 112 community colleges each had an average of 7,000 enrolled students who were on waiting lists, and only 16% of students graduate within four years, in part because of the difficulty in getting the courses they need. The law may also help to reduce overcrowding in classrooms and could provide a boost to massive open online courses (MOOC) offered by private companies like Udacity and Coursera that are not affiliated to any universities.
However, monitoring the quality of education being offered in an online environment remains a contentious issue. Opponents of the Bill also argue that it is difficult to beat the benefits of a learning environment involving discussions with teachers and fellow students. Moreover, granting credit to courses offered by third parties dilutes the identity and brand of any university. Universities have traditionally positioned themselves not only on the basis of their faculty but also on the quality of research that takes place on campus which in turn attracts and retains scholars on its rolls.
Relying on third parties to offer courses instead of in-house faculty is retrograde and universities need to find other ways to address this problem. Some universities are already on this path. San Jose State University (SJSU) has announced a deal with Udacity to offer three of its introductory level courses online for $150 each. Others like Georgia State University and Utah State University have made announcements recently regarding their plans to use MOOCs for credit earning courses.
Universities could also collaborate with organizations like Edx, a non-profit MOOC platform founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. Edx currently offers courses from Harvard, MIT and University of California, Berkeley. It plans to expand its consortium to include colleges like Georgetown University, University of Texas, Ecole Polytechnique, University of Toronto, Australian National University, etc. Though Edx does not offer credits for its courses, universities could work with Edx to offer for-credit courses.
Inaction and turning a blind eye to the plight of students by universities has led to the current situation. Universities would do well to follow SJSU’s lead in offering their own courses online for credit to ensure quality and retain brand while allowing students to take courses as needed and graduate in four years instead of hanging on to get that one class to meet their graduation requirements.