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.”
CUNY has hardly been immune to MOOC mania. At the end of January, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein delivered a speech castigating universities for being stuck in their ways. The chancellor noted that “Nowhere is the notion of challenge to the established norms of instruction more apparent than in the explosion of attention to MOOCs and other alternative delivery models. [These] new models of delivery have the potential to change traditional instruction, financing, facilities and assessment models.”
Goldstein predicted that “Eventually, an institution may determine the curricula, governance and pricing to offer an entire degree through the existing menu of MOOCs. Students will pick and choose among professors from Stanford, MIT, Penn and universities across the globe…. But we are in the infancy of these developments, and more empirical research will be needed before we can answer basic questions about whether demand will result in a tectonic shift in the way we deliver content.” Goldstein’s enthusiasm for MOOCs fits squarely within his broader market-based understanding of education, and that’s why the California bill is so important to the future of CUNY.
The structure of SB 520 practically guarantees a cycle of demand and supply. Underfunding has rendered California colleges unable to meet student demand, the argument goes, which can be met by MOOCs. As MOOCs attract more and more students with their theoretically unlimited capacity, pressures to preserve education funding for regular classes might diminish, which at the very least will sustain consistent demand for more MOOCs.
The University of California Academic Senate issued a strong statement rejecting the proposed legislation. In an open letter, senate leaders wrote:
“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… Lastly, the faculty at the University of California…approves courses taught for credit at the University and reviews courses offered for transfer credit…There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over courses to any outside agency.”
In anticipation of the likely embrace of MOOC’s by CUNY administrators, faculties across CUNY should consider issuing a statement rejecting any possibility that MOOC’s will ever be welcome at the City University.
If the California State Senate bill is passed into law, precedent will be set for state university systems across the country. The CUNY chancellor and board of trustees will likely use such an outcome as a point of departure in advancing their vision of a university run on a model of corporate supply and demand. The best way to resist these pressures is to advance alternative visions for the future of our university—visions that include proper funding, freedom from private interests and meaningful community control.