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Talking Out Both Sides of Our Mouths On MOOC Course Quality


The California state Senate will soon be considering a bill that requires the University of California system universities and colleges to accept online courses taken from other other providers for credit toward U.C. degrees.

The bill is an attempt to deal with the problem of over-enrollment in required courses, which keeps students from completing their degrees on schedule. So far, the idea of this proposal is that accepting online courses for credit transfer would apply only to required courses that are oversubscribed.

It’s not clear where MOOCS in particular fit into this proposal, but presumably if any accredited institution ever offers a MOOC course for credit at their own institution, that’s a MOOC the University of California would have to consider accepting for transfer.

The more straightforward solution — fully funding their state university system so that classes aren’t oversubscribed to begin with — doesn’t seem to be in state Senate’s power.  In past generations, California was renowned for making a decent college education affordable for every resident who could win admission, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for this generation. Sorry kids.

What interested me about this story, was the line, “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.”

Why is that? Is the online course a good enough substitute for the traditional class or not? If it is, then what difference should it make if the traditional class was available or not?

It can’t be because the course comes from a third party. Students often transfer from one college to another and have their accumulated credits evaluated for transfer on a case-by-case basis. The fact that a student’s new college offers a course they already took elsewhere doesn’t usually rule out transferring that credit.

Why handle it differently now if the third party is an online course provider? Obviously, because the traditional class is still presumed to be superior.

Which I don’t necessarily disagree with. I’m taking an agnostic view on the question of equivalency in online education. If people want to argue that online education is not equivalent to a real college course, that’s fine. But if you don’t believe it is, then accepting it for transfer credit is a pretty weak way to deal with underfunding of the university system.

The people making public education policy –in California and elsewhere — are talking out of both sides of their mouths on the issue of MOOC course quality. This logical inconsistency  exposes the anxiety about quality that policymakers don’t have the political will to resolve. They’re in a tough spot, to be sure. It’s clear what they really want is for students to take courses the way they’ve always done, but they are unwilling to require taxpayers to make that investment.

Meanwhile, the look to online education as a salvation while holding their noses and saying, okay, we’ll take the cheaper option, but only when we have to. They’re looking at online education as the least-bad solution to their problems rather than as an opportunity or — if they can’t really think it’s an opportunity — looking for what by their own criteria would a real solution.

The online course providers, meanwhile, are girding for battles over how their courses match up with the traditional classroom, and at this rate, they’re going to find that the day is won with arrows still in the quiver. The most dispiriting quote from the New York Times reporting on this bill came from an organization representing university presidents:

“It’s almost unthinkable that so many students seeking to attend the public colleges and universities are shut out,” said Molly Corbett Broad, the president of the American Council on Education. “I definitely expect it to spawn serious deliberations within the faculty, but these would be the basic courses that perhaps faculty gets the least psychic reward from teaching.”

In other words, faculty talk a good game about educational quality and we expect to see the faculty run this around the committee structure for awhile, but in the end they’ll be just as glad not to deal with freshman anyway.

As I say, I’m open to arguments either way about whether online courses make equivalent substitutes for traditional courses, but it appears that U.C. faculty and legislators aren’t going to engage in that argument in ways that matter. They might grumble in passive-aggressive ways about it and put temporary conditions on the use of online education that will erode later when it’s not their problem anymore. But they’re not actually making a case.

Robert McGuire (52 Posts)

My content marketing services firm provides all-in-one external staff solutions for companies looking to grow their business through thought leadership. I started MOOC News & Reviews in 2013 out of a fascination with the economic, demographic and technological forces impacting edtech, online education and higher education, and I wanted to provide a forum for serious discussion of this new phenomenon. I love building communities of writers engaging in lively critical dialogue about emerging issues.