California and Credit and MOOCs

It was big news earlier in the year when a bill was proposed (and since was approved) in California that mandates statewide open online courses be approved for college and high school credit. That bill, SB 520, was often written up in articles as being a MOOC bill because it requires that these courses be open to all students who require them and cannot get access to them in their own schools. That last part is important. The bill is about access to courses and that was part of the original intent of MOOCs and earlier open courses that may not have been as massive in enrollment.

The California bill originally positioned 20 "MOOC-like" courses that would be credited by high schools and colleges across the state. This bill generated a lot of resistance from faculty who see it both as a threat to their jobs (bringing in "outside contractors") and as a lower quality of education.

It is important to note that the bill's focus is on students who are shut out of a high school or college classrooms due to a lack of space in that class. It is not about a student opting to take a MOOC version of English Composition rather than the one that is available on campus. The bill says that students must be allowed to take the same course in an online or non-classroom format when that is all that is available to them.

The question of whether or not those outside courses provide the same quality and standards as the accredited high school and college classes is a more controversial issue, and one that will be harder to address. That is an argument that has been active for decades in comparing face-to-face courses and their online counterparts. The short answer from research that I have heard many times is that thee is "no significant difference" between a well designed F2F class and a well designed online version. The California bill seems to assume parity but opponents don't accept that assumption.

The problem of there not being enough space in classrooms for students may not be as relevant in all states as it is in California, but I would predict that most states will have to deal with this issue of giving credit to MOOCs or other third-party online courses soon. Schools have had to deal with the issue in other cases already, such as transfer credits, summer courses and exchange programs.

Of course, college credits mean tuition money and no school wants to lose that whether they are labeled non-profit or for-profit. Some providers have been working with the American Council on Education"s (ACE) CREDIT program. ACE has been around since the mid-1970s and requires course providers who want their accreditation to submit substantial documentation about a course for review by a team of academics.

California may have taken the first step in this direction but it looks like other large state systems like New York and Florida may move in the same direction.

One thing that favors the direction this bill moves towards is that it is being viewed as another way to have students take classes they need and move towards completion (graduation) in a shorter time. That aspect is very important to the federal government and most state and even some county (for 2 year colleges) agencies.

In April 2013, the bill was amended based on the discussions and negotiations that followed the announcement. One change that emerged was that course approval would shift from the state (California Open Access Resources Council) to the local administration and faculty senates of the three systems (University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges). They have also removed the use of ACE recommendations.

There will certainly be more changes, but it is unlikely that the use of some form of the Massive Open Online Courses will simply go away if it is ignored.

SB520 Fact Sheet


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