Last week a California legislator, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, introduced legislation to begin offering community college classes via massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are designed for large-scale participation and open access via the Internet. All University of California and California State University campuses would have to accept those courses for credit, as they currently do for courses earned at California community colleges.

Many proclaimed this legislation a positive development, but some professors find this occurrence troublesome. The leaders of the University of California’s academic senate released a letter Friday expressing “grave concerns about the MOOC legislation.

Supporters, like California State University system Chancellor Timothy White, support the MOOC move. White argues “Demand exceeds capacity on every one of our campuses. We have to find a way to do better at meeting the growing demand, and if there’s a better way to do things, why not?” Community colleges have an average 7,000 students at each school on waitlists for courses they need. MOOCs can help community colleges deal with their severe capacity problem.

This, of course, is true. But that doesn’t address the problem faculty have with the plan. According to the letter:

First, limits on student access to the courses this bill targets are in large part the result of significant reductions in public state higher education funding, especially over the last six years. Second, the clear self-interest of for profit corporations in promoting the privatization of public higher education through this legislation is dismaying. In fact, UC’s graduation rates and time to degree performance show that access to courses for our students is not an acute issue as it may be in the other segments. Lastly, the faculty of the University of California, through the Academic Senate, approves courses for credit at the University and reviews courses offered for transfer credit to determine whether they cover the same material with equal rigor. There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over courses to any outside agency.

Or, to put it simply: just because you’re not funding the community colleges doesn’t mean the alternative online classes you’re offering are a good idea, and it doesn’t mean we have to grant academic credit for them.

The decision to grant institutional credit for a course taken somewhere else is (generally) a matter of evaluating the quality of that course. It is not a decision that should be made by legislative fiat.

Under the legislation MOOCs would be approved by California’s Open Education Resources Council, a faculty group created by recent legislation to build free open textbooks.

Professors would therefore have a means of assuring that that institutions wouldn’t be be granting academic credit for particularly low quality courses. But the decision to grant that credit to online courses in the first place would be pretty much a done deal. A few professors have power over the details of the plan, but no power over the plan itself. [Image via]

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