In March, a bill was introduced in the California State Senate that, if passed, could radically redefine the role of online learning in American higher education. The proposed legislation, SB 520, would require state colleges and universities to grant credit to students who, unable to register for core classes at their home universities due to “bottleneck” conditions at the entry level, opt to register for massive open online courses (MOOCs) instead.
The bill is packaged by its champions as a necessary measure designed to defend the best interests of a student body under siege. “We want to be the first state in the nation to make this promise,” said Darrell Steinberg, the State Senate president. “No college student in California will be denied the right to move through their education because they couldn’t get a seat in the course they needed.” Detractors, however, attack it as a top-down effort to allow private companies to profit from public institutions of higher learning—what some have labeled the University of Phoenixization of the U Cal system.
Whatever the outcome, this bill has direct implications for the City University of New York (CUNY) as well as other public universities nationwide. The debate in California arrives during a period in which CUNY’s public system has come under great strain from rolling budget cuts, privatization measures and major battles between administrators and faculty over curricular decision-making and control. The potential embrace of MOOCs could well contribute to further contention.
MOOCs are the latest craze in higher education’s push to reinvent itself. Offered by venture capital start-ups, these online courses generally feature a single teacher who lectures remotely in front of a video camera to hundreds, if not thousands, of students. Up until recently, these courses were offered free to those with an internet connection. Increasingly, however, colleges and universities—facing increasing enrollments and uncertain fiscal futures—are considering developing credit-bearing MOOCs, offered for a fee by private companies.
MOOCs have received considerable attention in the past year, including an endorsement from Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty…Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity,” Friedman enthused.
Critics of MOOCs movement aren’t so sure. Richard Wolff, economist and Professor Emeritus at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, denounced Friedman’s championing of online mega-classes, noting that his columns constitute “another exercise in (1) finding a potential positive dimension of capital’s latest profit-driven move, (2) hyping it and (3) ignoring its contradictions, especially those that are negative.”
In The Chronicle, Rebecca Schuman pilloried Friedman’s MOOCopia as representing “nothing less than the creation of an über-oligarchy that is even more exclusive than the current state of academe—which is already elitist enough, thank you very much.” And memorably, in a first-person account of her experiences as a student in one of these courses, university dean at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College, Ann Kirschner, reported her realization that “In a MOOC, nobody can hear you scream.”