Online courses are racking up the cred. In the last few months, providers of massive open online courses (MOOCs) have won partnerships and pilot programs with universities, as well as credit equivalency approval from the American Council on Education. But a new state bill in California could give online courses even more gravitas.
In a press conference via Google Hangouts Wednesday, State Sen. Darrell Steinberg introduced a bill that would enable public universities in California to award credit for classes taken online.
It’s unclear whether the bill will ultimately pass, but it shows that online course providers like Coursera, Udacity, edX and others are being viewed by people outside the Silicon Valley bubble as a real solution to access and cost problems in higher education.
Even though California’s public higher education system was created to give everyone access to quality education, and has long been a model for other states, the state’s colleges continue to report overcrowding and students say they have trouble getting the courses they need to graduate.
“The great California system is at a crossroads,” said Steinberg during the press conference. “[This] bill would reshape higher education by bringing together California’s pubic higher education system in partnership … with the technology that we already use to break the bottleneck that prevents students from completing college.”
Careful to calm concerns that the bill would encourage online education to replace in-classroom instruction or undermine faculty control, Steinberg said his proposal limits the scope to 50 courses that are over-subscribed on campuses and would not mean a shift in funding priorities. He also emphasized that while the online courses could come from a variety of sources, panels comprised of faculty would be responsible for certifying them.
Sebastian Thrun, the former Stanford University professor and co-founder of Udacity, joined the Google Hangout conference. And though he called the bill “a shift in higher education for the state of California,” he was also careful to describe his company as a “technology provider – we’re not educators.”
How disruptive will online education be?
As online education picks up steam across the country – and begins to realize disruptive innovation expert Clayton Christensen’s prediction that half of North American higher education will move online in the next 10 years – providers of online education are careful to downplay the likelihood of another one of Christensen’s predictions: that half of universities may be bankrupt in the next 15 years.
On a panel last week at SXSWedu, Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng and edX President Anant Agarwal not only rejected Christensen’s prediction, Ng declined to acknowledge that degrees comprised of all MOOC credits could be around the bend. Like Thrun, he talked up Coursera’s role as a “humble hosting platform,” not a startup laying the groundwork for disruption among their peers.
Online course platforms provide a mechanism for colleges and universities to remain relevant and competitive in a rapidly changing world but they also pose a threat, particularly to middle-of-the-road colleges that can’t offer brand-name degrees or top professors.
Michelle Rhee-Weise, an education research fellow at the non-profit Innosight Institute, in San Mateo, Calif. said middle-tier schools tend to look to big intro classes as their profit centers but that those are the same classes online education companies like StraighterLine and Altius tend to focus on.
Still, those “101″-type classes tend not to be where college students have their most memorable educational moments (or where professors want to spend most of their time) and if technology can help students get more access to the classes they need while saving institutions money that can be better spent elsewhere, that’s a good thing.