In a surprising development, the state of California, unable to raise the necessary funds to meet full demand for its community colleges courses, may begin offering community college classes via massive open online courses (MOOCs), classes designed for large-scale participation and open access via the Internet.

California Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat, today introduced legislation that would, as Kevin Carey explains, allow

Waitlisted students… to take online classes that have been approved by California’s Open Education Resources Council, a faculty-led body that was created by recent…. legislation creating free open textbooks. Students would have to take in-person proctored exams to pass the courses. Public colleges and universities in California would be required to accept those courses for credit [as they currently do for courses earned at California’s community colleges].

The state has 112 community colleges. Each institution apparently has an average 7,000 enrolled students on waiting lists for classes.

As Tamar Lewin of the New York Times writes, the plan would work like this:

The new legislation would use… [a faculty] panel to determine which 50 introductory courses were most oversubscribed and which online versions of those courses should be eligible for credit. Those decisions would be based on factors like whether the courses included proctored tests, used open-source texts — those available free online — and had been recommended by the American Council on Education. A student could get credit from a third-party course only if the course was full at the student’s home institution, and if that institution did not offer it online.

The heads of the University of California and California State University systems both expressed support for the plan, largely because demand so dramatically exceeds capacity.

The state’s college professors acknowledged this reality, but suggested this solution was somewhat inadequate. As Lillian Taiz, the president of the California Faculty Association, said to Lewin,

This whole online thing is not well-vetted yet. There’s a sort of mania for massive online courses right now, but there’s no good evidence that they work for all students.

What’s really going on is that after the budget cuts have sucked public higher education dry of resources. The Legislature’s saying we should give away the job of educating our students.

Carey anticipated the growing use of alternative methods of delivery for college courses in an article he wrote for the magazine late last year, “The Siege of Academe.” As he wrote, “Political pressure will continue to grow for credits earned in low-cost MOOCs to be transferable to traditional colleges, cutting into the profit margins that colleges have traditionally enjoyed in providing large, lecture-based college courses.”

He predicted this would occur at some point before the decade was out. It looks like acceptance of online-only work in introductory courses is actually happening before the academic year is even over.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer