California colleges, lawmakers turn to technology in face of budget crisis

Critics say Cal State Online is a waste of limited resources.

It now costs more to attend a public California college than Harvard University, and California campus officials are pushing for a centralized online learning repository and lawmakers are proposing a free open source textbook library that could all but eliminate students’ textbook costs, while state budget cuts threaten to make higher education even more expensive in 2013.

The open-source library – an idea that has long been pushed in educational technology circles – has become a serious public policy proposal just months after state schools raised tuition and fees as California faces steep budget shortfalls.

California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, introduced a bill last month that would fund a comprehensive online library for the state’s 50 most popular public college courses. Students could access the books in the repository free of charge, or print a paper version for about $20.

Providing free books would save students about $1,000 annually, according to state estimates. Six in 10 students who responded to a 2011 textbook survey said they didn’t buy required textbooks because the books were too expensive and not available at a discount.

“While the jaw-dropping, exorbitant prices of today’s college textbooks are a shock to everyone who strolls through a college bookstore, it’s our students who feel the real squeeze,” Steinberg said, adding that he would form a council of nine California faculty members to determine which books would be offered in the open-source library, and how peer review would be handled. “They’re the ones who often have to choose between buying food or basic necessities and buying a $250 book for one required class.”

Securing funding for California’s open-source library could be politically impossible as budgets are slashed, but if the political will is there, students would benefit immediately, said Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), which has conducted extensive research on open-source books.

“This kind of policy is exactly the kind of innovative solution that cash-strapped states need in a budget crisis,” Allen said. “Textbook costs present a unique opportunity to address college costs, because unlike tuition and fees, it’s something that we can address immediately. Saving students money is literally as simple as a professor selecting a less expensive book.”

Just as California legislators begun debating the merits of an open-source library, the specifics of an online “hub” for web-based courses in the California State University (CSU) System were released March 2, outlining a centralized system that would serve as the basis for a virtual university and reward faculty members who teach classes offered through the CSU hub, known as Cal State Online.

The steady increase of public college tuition in California and the continued demand for more college course openings throughout the CSU System – the largest in the country – could make Cal State Online the state’s best chance at making higher education accessible during historically bad budget crises.

Ruth Claire Black, executive director of Cal State Online, said in an open letter that courses offered through the online learning system would be “subject to the same approval processes and oversight structures as an on-campus program.”

The state’s major technology initiatives have been made public and pushed by powerful politicians and campus officials after a report on said that California’s gutting of student aid and raising of tuition rates would mean a typical freshman would pay $24,000 to attend Cal State, while a freshman at Harvard would pay about $17,000, including room and board.

On March 5, dozens of students were arrested at the state Capitol while protesting California’s cuts to higher-education funding.

Cal State Online, which is expected to launch this fall, isn’t without its critics.

Dennis Loo, a sociology professor at California Polytechnic State University, urged CSU System faculty members to rally against the new online learning hub in part because Cal State Online could use services from for-profit education companies, outsourcing web-based courses to those companies once the online system is established.

“CSU Online represents nothing less than a Trojan Horse for the CSU put forth by those who wish to undo the CSU as a public good,” Loo wrote in a blog post. “No public money or CSU funds should be used for such an enterprise, nor should the good name of the California State University be stolen by applying it to this destructive scheme. An online university run in whole or in part by for-profits is divorced from the development of CSU campuses dedicated to public education.”

Teri Yamada, a blogger for the website Restructuring Public Hi Ed, said the implementation of Cal State Online “may set up a new corporation to sell the CSU brand to foreign students and the military, funneling needed resources away from campuses to a virtual CSU.”

Yamada said the university system should use its limited funding for other programs outside of the new online hub, charging that the funding of Cal State Online “siphon[s] money from courses that students need to graduate.”

The CSU System’s open letter about its online learning hub could assuage some long-held labor-related fears among professors and instructors across the state.

The letter said that Cal State Online “will adhere to all statewide collective bargaining agreements” and faculty will “have the option of participating in Cal State Online with one or more programs that they have developed or that they are developing alone or in consortium with other CSU campuses.”

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