On Feb. 21, Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) presented Senate Bill 520, which would create online courses at the state level in hopes of providing relief for California students struggling to get into introductory courses. The bill is set for a hearing on April 24.
These classes would be offered in an online clearinghouse — an online course registrar offered by the state — and students could receive credit at UC, CSU and California Community Colleges (CCCs), according to the bill’s summary.
Bob Powell, chair of the University of California Academic Senate and UC Davis professor of chemical engineering, chemical science and food science and technology, co-authored with Bill Jacob, vice chair of the University of California Academic Senate, an open letter opposing Steinberg’s bill.
“We need to do this in a way that creates high-quality courses that are periodically reviewed, can be updated regularly as new material comes into the curriculum and has UC faculty both designing them and teaching them. That’s really what it’s about for us,” Powell said.
According to Powell, the UC system has a very rigorous method of approving online courses that involves interdisciplinary involvement in both creating online courses and approving them to be sure that the courses fulfill the standard that the UC strives to uphold.
“You signed up for a UC education, and we expect to give you one,” Powell said.
Powell said that the data shows that the time it takes for UC students to complete degrees has been steadily falling while completion of degree rates have gone up, even in the face of budget cuts and lowering the student-to-faculty ratio.
“I know at Davis, in the last four or five years, they’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that there aren’t critical gateway courses that students aren’t able to get,” Powell said.
Powell said that he would like to see an online catalog made for the UC system, in which online courses developed by UC faculty can be accessed by UC students on any campus. Additionally, he said he hopes that faculty from different UC campuses will collaborate in course creation.
According to Rhys Williams, Steinberg’s press secretary, the bill creates a framework in which faculty could approve up to 50 courses for accreditation online. Faculty would be allowed to make decisions about which online courses to create, taking into consideration the degree to which the course is oversubscribed and if the institution currently provides an online alternative.
According to the authors, the bill would ensure that students could receive faculty support when needed and that exams would be proctored to uphold academic integrity.
“What is [currently] happening is that these courses are being developed in pockets all over the state, there’s not much interaction between campuses on what they’re doing,” Williams said. “When you’re talking about a transfer of credit from the community college system to the UC system, that stuff becomes relevant.”
According to Williams, last year, 80 percent of CCCs reported waitlists for their fall classes. That meant on average, 7,000 enrolled students per campus were on waitlists. Additionally, Williams reported that only 16 percent of CSU students graduated in four years.
“While students aren’t getting into their classes, they’re deferring their graduation time, which means buildup of debt,” Williams said.
Williams said that the bill isn’t seeking to use technology for technology’s sake, but rather to provide some relief to the waitlisting problem.
The governor’s budget proposal allots $37 million for online education and the bill is not envisaged as a way to cut back on publicly funded education in California, Williams said.
“The intention is to maintain the academic quality of California’s postsecondary education system and help students complete their degrees on time and lower the burden of debt,” Williams said.
Williams also said that it is important that faculty be at the forefront of the creation of these courses and that it would be ideal for California to seize on this opportunity in its infancy, rather than take no action at all.
UC Davis communication professor Catherine Puckering didn’t have enough room in her Interpersonal Communication class this Spring Quarter, resulting in many students not being able to get into the course. She said that she believes that although offering online alternatives for classes isn’t ideal, it is a viable option.
Puckering researched the effectiveness of distance education courses in graduate school. She said that the research she is familiar with shows that there is no significant difference between online courses and traditional courses as far as performance outcome.
“That’s only looking at one outcome. It’s looking at performance — can you learn the material? I think there is something to be said for that in-class experience where you get to know the professor or you get to work with other students,” Puckering said.
According to Puckering, online education can be very effective, especially at a time when the UC system is so budget-strapped.
Guanghui Wang, a second-year communication and economics double major, has yet to declare her communication major, which prevents her from getting into classes that would fulfill any communication requirements.
Wang was undeclared as a first-year and didn’t decide what she wanted to major in until Spring Quarter of her first year. That spring, Wang began her prerequisites for both communication and economics.
“The prereq[uisite] situation was [such] that [the classes] were just too much to fit into two quarters,” Wang said.
This predicament left Wang with little choice but to take upper-division courses this spring. But because she has yet to declare, she couldn’t add any upper-division courses until Pass 2.
Wang said she feels that having the option to fulfill courses online would be helpful.
“Part of the reason I was unhappy was because the two classes that I did get into that fulfill something for my major [were with] really bad professors that had terrible ratings, so I was already feeling like I wasn’t going to get a good experience,” Wang said.
SYDNEY COHEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.