Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Efforts to quickly legalize student access fees for community college cyber-classes - fees that are banned by state law but which may be rampant across California campuses - have hit a snag in the state Capitol.
Darrell Steinberg, president pro tem of the state Senate, has strongly criticized a recent recommendation by a community college task force to change state law to permit such fees, which are charged by publishers capitalizing on the explosive popularity of online courses.
The problem, he told community college leaders, is that the group met behind closed doors, was heavily weighted with publishers, and failed to disclose conflicts of interest.
In his letter last week, the Sacramento Democrat also warned Community College Chancellor Jack Scott and Scott Himelstein, president of the community college Board of Governors that hasty legalization of such fees could open the door to "predatory publisher practices at the expense of students and families." He called for "a full vetting" of the issue with proper public notice and participation.
Echoing Steinberg's concerns are advocates of free online curriculum - known as open educational resources - and the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst.
"We want to know how widespread this (fee) practice is," said Paul Steenhausen, a community college specialist at the Legislative Analyst's Office. "This is something the Legislature will review."
Enrollment in online courses has soared in the past decade. In 2000, 115,000 California community college students took at least one such class, but last year more than 600,000 took online courses, according to a report by Steenhausen. While community college enrollment grew by just 1 percent a year in that time, online enrollment climbed by 19 percent a year, the report found.
Now the fee controversy puts California at a crossroads about how to proceed: Should the state make it easier for publishers to provide sometimes costly, off-the-shelf cyber classes, or should lawmakers encourage a greater reliance on free or low-cost curriculum, often developed by professors for broad distribution online?
Pearson, a big publisher that sells online classes to 3 out of 4 California community colleges - says students and faculty strongly benefit from its courses, which provide instant quiz grades and academic feedback, "freeing instructors to spend less time grading and more time working directly with their students," the company said responding to inquiries from The Chronicle.
But advocates of free online instructional materials also have powerful proponents. They say that textbooks in the public domain are increasingly necessary as the costs of college - and books - rise ever higher.
The U.S. Department of Education endorses free curriculum as a matter of policy, and this year began requiring community colleges that rely on federal grant money earmarked for developing online curriculum to offer it at no cost to students.
Push for lower fees
In California, former state Senate leader Dean Florez heads a foundation called 20 Million Minds, which works to lower the cost of college texts through the use of open educational resources. It's across the street from the state Capitol, and Florez hasn't hesitated to tell his former colleagues that it's a bad idea to let publishers charge for access.
"As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation," he said. Permitting the fees "has the potential to create a very, very bad precedent."
"It's not just about academic affordability or fee stability. It's bigger. It's the potential for open educational resources to be put into the mix," Florez said.
The fee controversy came to light in June after The Chronicle published a story about student anger over a $78 fee for an online math class at Foothill Community College in Los Altos Hills. To enroll, students had to pay the fee to Pearson on top of their $85 registration fee to the college, effectively doubling the price of the course.
College officials defended the publisher's fee as a legitimate charge for instructional materials. Yet state law prohibits such fees unless students can keep the materials they've purchased.
Students said they couldn't download, store or print the electronic textbook they paid for, and that their access code had an expiration date. Jason Jordan, a senior vice president at Pearson, confirmed that students "can't download it and keep it. It's a purely Web-based application."
Fred Rassaii, a Foothill student who first complained to campus officials about the fee in April, believes every student who has paid such a fee - perhaps thousands statewide - is owed a refund.
"Students are being robbed," he said. "It's not limited to California. We're talking about a multibillion-dollar fleecing of American students."
Rassaii called Steinberg's effort "a good start."
Foothill College was once a hub of advocacy for free courseware - and many professors still use it. Hal Plotkin, a former trustee of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, was a huge proponent and now serves as a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Education.
Although the Obama administration has taken no position on the fee issue, Plotkin said he was "greatly heartened" to see Steinberg's letter, which also urged the college leaders to consider "other online educational resources that may be lower in cost or free to students."
Chancellor Scott and Board President Himelstein have not yet replied to the letter.