Decision on California’s controversial online courses expected soon

Most California community colleges had wait lists in 2012.

California legislators are expected to decide next week on the fate of a much-criticized plan to address overcrowding issues by allowing online courses from unaccredited platforms count for credit at public colleges and universities.

The state’s education committee on April 24 heard discussion about the controversial SB520, which has faced fierce opposition from faculty labor unions – among other groups – who say the inclusion of course credit from unaccredited providers could water down public education.

Campus administrators and online education advocates have watched the bill closely since it was proposed in March. Its passage through California’s Senate could mark a major shift in the role of online courses in higher education, as accepting credits from unaccredited providers would expand college opportunity in any state that adopts similar legislation.

Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the bill’s sponsor who has defended the legislation as a necessary use of technology to address a growing problem of overcrowding at California’s 145 public colleges and universities, presented an amended version of the bill to those concerned about its passage.

One amendment, Steinberg said, would ensure the state’s public money did not go to private companies that provide online courses – a main concern of the bill’s most vocal critics.

Another amendment discussed by education committee members would not force colleges and universities to seek help from outside online course providers, but rather create their own web-based course options to ease overcrowding.

“No college student should be denied the right to complete their education because they could not get a seat in the course they needed in order to graduate,” Steinberg said when the bill was introduced in March. “This is not technology for technology’s sake. It addresses a real challenge.”

High-demand courses are in short supply, particularly at community colleges. Last fall, more than three-quarters of California’s 112 community colleges had wait lists, averaging 7,000 students each.