Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Devil is in the Details: Against SB 520

Watching Senator Steinberg’s press conference on the push to give credit for online courses, one can’t help but think that he is on the right path. After all, thousands of Californian students can’t get into classes, and MOOCs offer a new opportunity to deal with this problem in an efficient manner. Steinberg was also quick to stress that the faculty would have final say on which courses would be used, and so quality would be maintained. However, once one starts to look into the details of this deal, everything becomes much more complicated and problematic.

According to the outline of the new senate bill, three professors from each of the three segments would form a committee that would review classes and decide which needed classes would be put online for course credit. The first question to ask is who are these professors and what qualifies them to make curricular decisions for thousands of other faculty members. Also, how will they decide which courses to use and what defines a high-quality course? Moreover, is it possible to design classes that are appropriate for all three segments?

There is also the problem of who will get the revenue from the cross-system enrollments. Does the funding stay with the initial provider or does each campus get a cut of the action? A related concern is how do they decide when a class is over-enrolled, and will campuses be motivated to cut their lower-division classes so students will be forced to take less expensive online versions?

It is clear that this online move is being imposed from above, and it fails to take account the reality on the ground. As I have stressed with lawmakers, if you remove the bottleneck in lower-division courses, you will create a bottleneck in the upper-division. Moreover, these bottlenecks are in part caused by the fact that since too many students want to get into the same majors, lower-division courses are used to weed out lower-performing students. Also, many students come to college and university not fully prepared for higher education, and putting them into MOOCs will not help this situation.

Senator Steinberg has assured us that this new program will not be a substitute for public funding of higher education, but it is clear that the state is using online courses as a way to hide the chronic underfunding of all levels of education in California. Not only has the state reduction of funding for the UC system resulted in larger undergraduate classes and fewer course options for students, but the students now entering into the university system are the products of large classes and low per student K-12 funding. Online education will not fix years of educational neglect.

To voice your opposition to Steinberg’s Bill, please sign the UC Berkeley Faculty Association petition here.

Monday, March 18, 2013

UC’s Failure to Respect Shared Governance and Union Contracts Concerning Online Education

UC Santa Cruz is the only campus with union representation for its senate members, and since the faculty association (SCFA) has the right to bargain over local employment issues, it has determined that the university failed to meet its basic contractual obligations when it signed off on an online program without union approval. Meanwhile, UC-AFT is also in the process of filing grievances over a similar set of issues, and now we are moving to a confrontation that could have national implications.

In the SCFA Request for Information letter to the university, the Faculty Association points out that the recent deal with Coursera conflicts with several legal and contractual requirements. The first issue concerns who owns the intellectual property of a faculty lecture or class: “In 2000, CUCFA successfully lobbied for legislation establishing that individual professors, and not the University, own the intellectual property in their live performances and course materials. . . Viewed within this legal framework the contract template that faculty will be expected to sign before their courses can become available on Coursera appears to put the UCSC campus in the position of becoming the publisher of this material on Coursera and other platforms.” In other words, UC is asking faculty to sign away their intellectual property rights.

The faculty contract with Coursera states the following: "I hereby irrevocably grant the University the absolute right and permission to use, store, host, publicly broadcast, publicly display, public[sic] perform, distribute, reproduce and digitize any Content that I upload, share or otherwise provide in connection with the Course or my use of the Platform, including the full and absolute right to use my name, voice, image or likeness (whether still, photograph or video) in connection therewith, and to edit, modify, translate or adapt any such Content.” So UC is using Coursera to get faculty to sign over their courses, intellectual property, and their IDENTITIES. Forgive me for being paranoid, but does this mean that if a faculty member signs this deal, they no longer own their own name, face, or image?

As the SCFA argues in its letter to the university, the UC should have first bargained with the union before it signed a contract with Coursera that changed the terms and conditions of UCSC senate faculty. This same problem is currently facing lecturers, where the UC has also failed to bargain with UC-AFT before it started several online programs affecting the terms and conditions of lecturers’ employment.

SCFA has asked the university the following important questions: “Was there a confidentiality agreement between Coursera and the campus? If so, at whose initiative was such an agreement undertaken? Who were the parties to this agreement on UCSCs side? If any Senate faculty were parties to the agreement, does the administration consider them to have been acting on behalf of the Senate? Was there any other form, official or unofficial, in which the Senate was consulted prior to signing the contract with Coursera? Has any member of SCFA's bargaining unit, other than administrators, signed the agreement needed to post their classes on Coursera?” The implication of these questions is that the university administration circumvented both the academic senate and the faculty union by making a deal with Coursera, and this deal may include a confidentiality agreement that would force the university to hide the details from its own faculty.

In light of Senator Steinberg’s recent push to have UC students take courses with online providers, everyone should be concerned about the level of secrecy in the current deals with Coursera.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Outsourcing UC

Senator Steinberg is pushing a bill that will potentially outsource many of the University of California lower-division courses to outside course provides like Udacity and Coursera. Here we see one of the clearest examples of privatizing a public good. The state cuts the UC budget for years, and then the same people who cut the budget say we should now turn to online education to deal with the mess. Of course they add that faculty will have a say, but the question is which faculty, and can they stop a plan that is supported by the university president, the governor, and now the legislature?

As I told people in the governor’s office and various legislative staff, there is no evidence that this will save money or move people through the system in a more efficient manner. There is also ample evidence that the students who need the most individual attention will end up having their courses online. I have urged the Academic Council to fight this move, but it looks like the senate is either being co-opted or pushed aside.

This move is a recipe for administrative bloat and the further undermining of shared governance in the University of California. Already people are questioning the value of a UC degree, and so we must ask, who will fight this change?