Online education bill passes in state Senate despite opposition


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California state senators unanimously passed a controversial online education bill Thursday that creates a grant program for faculty at the state’s higher education institutions to develop online courses.

Despite opposition from UC officials and faculty members in recent weeks, SB 520 passed in the Senate by a vote of 28-0 — with 11 senators not voting — and will now be sent to the state Assembly for review. Authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the bill introduces an incentive grant program that would allow faculty at state public colleges and universities to develop courses with private online providers such as Coursera and Udacity. Critics have said the bill is overly prescriptive and relies too much on private companies.

Previous versions of the bill required that the 50 most impacted lower-division courses in the state be made available online — in part by developing partnerships with private course providers. The bill passed on Thursday, however, reflects new changes that relax previous requirements, offering grants for 20 “high-demand” lower-division courses in each state system. Both versions aim to relieve enrollment pressures and cut costs at higher education institutions.

Rhys Williams, Steinberg’s press secretary, said the bill helps standardize education across public educational institutions in California. Although faculty members will not be required to develop courses on private platforms, they still have the option of using them.

“By creating a framework from which the faculty lead the decision-making, the decision is being taken to scale,” Williams said. “The faculty has the ultimate decision as to whether they want to proceed to the online option or not.”

But Robert Powell, chair of the UC Academic Senate, said the most recent version of the bill fails to address long-standing concerns about the use of private contractors in public education, especially at the University of California.

“The bill has not met the criticisms that we’ve had of the bills since the beginning,” Powell said. “They undermine the efforts that the university has been making … It’s overly prescriptive.”

UC spokesperson Shelly Meron also criticized the bill, citing the existence of similar plans, such as the Innovative Learning Technology Initiative, which could use $10 million in state funds to increase access to high-demand classes in the UC system. Although the language of SB 520 has changed, the content of the bill remains largely the same, she said, adding that the changes haven’t fully addressed the concerns that the UC has.

The bill’s emphasis on partnering with private contractors continues to be a problem for the university, Meron said.

According to Williams, the bill is a response to long waiting lists at UC campuses rather than a replacement for classes taken in person. But Nolan Pack, ASUC executive vice president, said that the bill is an attempt to address a problem that the Legislature created.

“The problem is that they’re advertising it as a way to solve the problem of long wait-lists,” Pack said. “I think the takeaway is that the crisis in higher education and in public education is not going to be solved through online education.”

Contact Chris Yoder at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @christiancyoder.

A previous version of this article misquoted Meron as saying “Those changes haven’t fully addressed the concerns that UC Berkeley has.” In fact, Meron said the changes did not fully address concerns that the UC has.

The article also incorrectly quoted Meron as saying “The contract providers are still definitely a part of the bill, and that remains a problem with the university.” In fact, the private contractors remain a problem for the UC.