As regulators and industry representatives hash out a potential future for higher education accreditation, particularly rules governing online learning, three industry groups have put forward their own policy recommendations.
Covering topics such as competency-based education (CBE), regular and substantive interaction and state authorization, the policy briefs were written by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET).
The trio suggests that while these topics are a focus at the Education Department’s ongoing accreditation rulemaking session, congressional action may also be required, such as to develop outcomes-based Title IV eligibility standards for gauging colleges’ effectiveness with a wider range of instructional modalities.
The groups, which represent workforce-oriented and online education, want colleges to have more freedom to explore educational models such as CBE without losing Title IV eligibility.
They say current rules around regular and substantive interaction — the measure of how much contact instructors and students must have in online courses — puts distance education at a competitive disadvantage relative to on-campus instruction. “Incentivize, don’t punish, institutions for being innovative and creating programs that expand educational opportunity,” they write, asking for “clear regulations” around regular and substantive interaction that are applied “in a uniform way.”
New online learning technologies that offer students a range of interaction with program materials and instructional teams should encourage a broadening of current regulations, they write.
The Ed Department’s rulemaking session is underway, but other recent actions by the federal agency suggest it may view these groups’ ideas favorably. For one, in January it canceled a $713 million fine owed by Western Governors University following a 2017 audit that found its CBE model was not in compliance with federal standards for online education.
Due to “the ambiguity of the law and regulations and the lack of clear guidance available at the time of the audit period” — from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014 — the department determined the nonprofit fully online university “made a reasonable and good faith effort” to apply the rules to its model, which includes the use of a disaggregated faculty instructional team.
Announcing the decision, the Ed Department said it “is hopeful that further clarification [around distance learning] will be part of future regulations that will help spur the growth of high-quality innovative programs.” In December, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos discussed her department’s priorities in a meeting with industry leaders, saying it’s time to “rethink” higher ed, reviewing some regulations and expanding postsecondary pathways to reach more students.
Some are more cautious about the push to broaden the rules for online instruction. A recent report from researchers at George Mason University and the Urban Institute says students who lack strong academic preparation tend to struggle in an online-only environment, thus widening educational attainment gaps across socioeconomic groups. Critics of the report, however, argue its conclusions are based on data from when the for-profit sector was larger and don’t consider newer online learning successes.
There’s some evidence that groups that are keen on preventing the Ed Department from removing too many restrictions from the online sector are finding success. Earlier this month, the department revised its proposed online learning rules to cut language letting accreditors define distance education requirements. It also revised language around the role of subject-matter experts, requiring them to lead rather than simply be included in, instruction teams. And they made academic credentials a criteria for a subject matter experts, in addition to work experience.