Free Online University of California Education for All Aims for Ballot

The University of California system has 10 campuses, 150 academic disciplines and 600 graduate degree programs.

An Orange County real estate broker wants to add tens of thousands of online courses to that list. And he wants to make them available to the public. For free. The Bernie Sanders–style proposal, officially submitted this week to the California attorney general as a potential ballot initiative, is clearly a long shot.

But its author, Boyd Roberts of Laguna Beach, thinks people will be so enthused by the prospect of getting a world-class education on their laptops for no cost that they'll come out in droves to help him get the measure on the November 2018 ballot.

"The first thing it does is establish the right of the public to access publicly owned higher education," he says. "More specifically, it gives them the right to audit all publicly owned higher education online."

The measure would apply to Cal State University campuses and California community colleges, too. It would establish a two-tiered system for access to online courses: Anyone could audit a class online, but those who seek degrees would have to pay what amounts to a break-even price for the institution involved, Roberts says.

If voters approve the measure, it would amend the state's constitution. As such, it would take 585,407 valid voter signatures to make the ballot. And that's if the attorney general approves the proposal's language for signature gathering, which it usually does. Gathering that many signatures almost always requires a professional firm's help at the cost of $3 million or so, experts have estimated.

Roberts, who's also running for Congress as a Democrat against Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, thinks a rare grassroots effort relying on volunteers could produce a breakthrough initiative.

"I think it would be very popular with students and parents," he says. "I visualize a social media campaign like the Ice Bucket Challenge or the Women's March. If it catches hold, people can sign up their friends and ask them to get signatures."

The would-be politician says the effort could be cost-neutral because it would attract new students to the online degree programs. Bonds would be issued to pay for initial infrastructure, he says. "I've got it set up to not impact the taxpayer at all," Roberts says. "Schools can't make it a profit center for the state and universities, either."

The measure also would encourage instructors to use "free, open-source books," Roberts says.

Russell Poulin, deputy director of research for online education nonprofit Wiche Cooperative for Educational Technologies, says the measure is a good idea but that it could be fraught with complications. Chief among them is the daunting volume of courses offered by public higher education institutions in the state. Many would be redundant, Poulin says.

"The way one professor teaches Shakespeare is different from the way another teaches it, so will we have a standard Shakespeare course?" he asks. The University of Georgia has approached the problem by creating "an agreed-upon core of general education courses available online."

However, if one or even a few Shakespeare courses are approved for online offerings over others, "You run into issues of academic freedom," Poulin says. In other words, would offering one class over another censor a professor? And disruptive students and trolls would have to be dealt with, especially if courses are open for free to the general public, he says.

Some courses, like theater classes, medical demonstrations or physical education, might not work in online versions, Poulin says. And there are myriad of "long-tail" classes with relatively obscure topics and low attendance that, while important to a student body, might not be worth the cost of online broadcasting, he argued.

"You'll have to figure out the economics of it," he says.

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