Academic Senate condemns online education bill

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The Academic Senate of the University of California signed an open letter last Friday condemning a California State Senate bill requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to accept faculty-approved online college courses for credit.

SB 520, authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would make the 50 most oversubscribed lower-division courses in California’s higher education system available online. The open letter criticizes the bill’s inclusion of private corporate interests as well as its exaggeration of issues with undergraduate student success.

According to SB 520, courses eligible for credit may be provided by private, third-party providers like edX, Coursera and Udacity, which offer massive open online courses. The Academic Senate wrote in the letter that this may allow corporate interests to replace faculty control over online curricula.

“There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over courses to any outside agency,” the letter stated.

Mark Hedlund, communications director for Steinberg, said that the legislation was written so that the faculty will have control over the entire process. The bill stipulates the creation of a nine-member panel composed of faculty members appointed by academic senates of the three state institutions to approve the online courses.

However, Robert Powell, Academic Senate chair and co-author of the open letter, said that the faculty panel would not be unaccountable to the Academic Senate’s review processes or bylaws.

“It doesn’t show respect for the processes that already exist,” Powell said. “It is a loosely knit organization with no vested authority from the University of California.”

Hedlund explained that Steinberg’s bill, proposed late last month, aims to increase accessibility to courses in an effort to boost graduation rates. However, UC graduation rates and time-to-degree performance show that access to courses for students is not an acute issue, according to the letter.

“If students are having a hard time getting these courses, it has to be reflected in the graduation rates,” Powell said. “The data are very clear on how quickly students are graduating. Our rates have been going up steadily since the early 1990s.”

According to the 2012 Accountability Report, UC Berkeley’s four-year graduation rate has gone up from 45 percent in 1992 to nearly 70 percent for the incoming class in 2007.

Members of the Academic Senate plan to meet with Steinberg’s staff later this week to discuss this bill.

“It’s just not a robust system, as least as far as we see it,” Powell said. “We want to let the senator know what we’re doing with online education and be able to set aside our concerns. We’ll know a lot more when we meet with them on Wednesday.”

Contact Mia Shaw at [email protected].