In this podcast, we discuss how new online education regulations are creating problems for colleges and universities. The implementation of some of the latest higher education regulations is in limbo, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. However, higher education institutions need to keep an eye on how decisions to move to online or digital courses will be governed by other regulations that are still in place. In addition, leaders need to analyze how the hiatus of some regulations could lead to unexpected impacts for an institution.
This podcast’s guest is Dr. Russ Poulin, the executive director of WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET).
Online Education and Substantive Interaction
All Neg Reg 2019 guidance has been published, including the latest one on online education. This regulation includes the definition of distance education, which officially will go into effect July 2021 but can be implemented earlier by individual institutions.
For years, there was not a clear definition that delineated the difference between distance education and correspondence education. Now the big difference is that some definitions, including regular substantive interaction, are being developed. These definitions must be general enough to cover the wide variety in higher education institutions.
Substantive interactions previously were defined as having conversations that were relative to the subject. For example, if the content focused on Shakespeare, the conversations that went along with the content should not be about what happened in the basketball game. Now, the definition has changed to include a number of different activities, such as instruction, feedback on the instruction, assessments on instruction, etc.
Higher education leaders need to start reviewing this new definition to ensure that their courses–whether distance education, correspondence education, or other types of distance offerings–are in alignment. Otherwise, the institution’s federal financial aid could be placed at risk if an institution offers too many distance education courses that do not have regular substantive interactions.
The definition also begins to bring in competency-based education, which includes regular predictable interactions and the ability of the faculty member to assist the student when the student needs it as opposed to a fixed schedule. The Department of Education is saying this should happen once a week for a standard course; however, this timeframe should be adjusted if an institution is offering a shorter course.
The Neg Reg calls for regular interactions as part of a competency-based course, but this may cause issues for CBE institutions in figuring out how to do this. In competency-based education, the interaction is triggered by the student; however, the regulation puts the onus for this type of regular interaction on the faculty. This regulation also serves as an aid in starting to signal when interactions need to happen for computer-assisted, adaptive classes.
Some of the Neg Reg implementation was thrown into turmoil as the COVID pandemic swept the nation. There has been a lot of forgiveness among federal officials, accreditors, and most states in terms of these rules.
However, not every rule has waivers. For example, institutions need to understand that the accessibility rules are now in effect and need to be followed.
In addition, as more courses are digitized and offered online in some format, institutions need to know which rules are in place and which are not. The Department of Education set aside a number of regulations in the spring term and then extended those until the end of the fall term (or end of the crisis). With that, there are serious challenges if institutions aren’t thinking about assessments. Institutions may have an extended gap in assessment data, which could prove to be a huge challenge.
Online courses need to deepen from the original emergency conversions (which many institutions were forced to do in March) to become rich learning opportunities for students that include meaningful assessments. However, many institutions are struggling with assessments. Some institutions had to increase proctoring for high-stake tests in the wake of the pandemic. This led to pedagogical discussions about assessments and cheating. By spreading the assessments out and diversifying the types of assessments, there is a better demonstration of learning while also cutting down student cheating.
Additionally, online opens the door to using different artifacts–such as videos or simulations–that can help get the content across. However, the creation of these artifacts needs more thought and planning.
WCET developed a policy playbook to help institutions convert courses to online or other modalities. This came out of the “Every Learner Everywhere” which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As institutions transition traditional courses to become online courses, the rules change. Institutions need to be aware of these rules since they differ in a digital context as opposed to in a face-to-face course. The playbook has an important addendum noting that the time for forgiveness for waivers will not last forever. Accreditors soon will be asking hard questions that institutions need to be prepared to answer.
The presidential candidates have major differences in their platforms related to higher education. It’s important to consider these when voting.
If re-elected, President Trump and his administration may not have huge plans for traditional higher education. However, they are very interested in career-focused education and expanding federal financial aid beyond traditional institutions to include providers who offer short-term paths to careers.
If Joe Biden is elected, some of the decisions made by the Trump Administration—such as Title IX, distance education, and other Neg Reg regulations–probably will be reversed. There also could be a consumer-protection focus.
Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders
Dr. Poulin suggested several takeaways for higher education leaders:
- When an institution moves from face-to-face courses to digital courses, this transition also triggers other changes. Presidents need to make sure that someone on the university’s staff is paying attention to compliance. While there is some forgiveness now, that won’t go on forever.
- If Biden is elected, there will be changes in regulations so institutions need to remain flexible.
- Honor the campus heroes who helped institutions transition to a digital format. What started as a sprint around spring break has turned into a marathon.
- A new regulation that defines distance and online education officially will go into effect July 2021 but can be implemented earlier by individual institutions. This regulation broadens the area of substantive interactions to include a number of different activities, such as instruction, feedback on the instruction, assessments on instruction, etc. Higher education leaders need to review this new definition to ensure that their courses–whether distance education, correspondence education or other types of distance offerings–are in alignment. Otherwise, federal financial aid could be placed at risk.
- Increased substantive interactions also need to be part of competency-based education. This should include regular predictable interactions and the ability for the faculty member to assist the student when the student needs it as opposed to a fixed schedule.
- Some of the Neg Reg implementation was thrown into turmoil by the COVID pandemic, leading to a lot of forgiveness among federal officials, accreditors, and most states in terms of these rules.
- Not every rule has waivers. As more courses are digitized and offered online in some format, institutions need to know which rules are in place and which are not.
- Assessments are deepening and broadening beyond a single exam. This conversation needs to continue since the implementation does have Neg Reg implications.
- WCET has developed a policy playbook to help institutions convert courses to online or other modalities and identify which regulations need to be addressed.
- The presidential election may have ramifications for higher education and the Neg Reg implementation.
Links to Articles, Apps, or websites mentioned during the interview:
- Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education
- WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technology