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WCET Policy Summit: The 2020 of US Federal Regulations and the Potential Impact on Higher Education Practice


Author: Dr Katherine Weber, Partnership Manager at FutureLearn

Less than a month ago, the US Department of Education released a set of proposed changes to the Higher Education Act (HEA).

Understanding these proposals and their implications for distance education were at the top of the agenda for WCET’s Policy Summit, which took place online from April 20-24. 

Speakers included WCET’s own Executive Director, Russ Poulin; Diane Auer Jones, Principal Deputy Under Secretary at the US DoE; and Aaron Lacey, a partner at Thompson Coburn LLP.


Understanding new proposed regulations around distance education in the US

Overall, the proposed regulations emphasise greater flexibility for higher education providers and for students. They explicitly recognise team teaching as a permissible model, encourage the establishment of more competency-based education and direct assessment, and pave the way for easier transfer of credit from one institution to another. 


Distance education vs. correspondence courses

For those of us focussed on online learning, one change is especially important. This has to do with the definition of distance education, which can include online learning. 

In the US, distance education, unlike a correspondence course, is eligible for Title IV funding from the federal government. Misclassifying a correspondence course as distance education and making use of federal funds can have severe financial penalties. In 2012, St Mary-of-the-Woods College was found to be providing correspondence courses rather than distance education, and charged with refunding federal financial aid dollars to the tune of $42 million.


Regular and substantive interaction

Historically, distance education has been distinguished from a correspondence course by the fact that it provides “regular and substantive interaction.” But because this was never clearly defined, higher education providers ran the risk that programs they believed were distance education might be misclassified, putting them at financial risk. 

The proposed regulations attempt to clarify this phrase. Substantive interaction must involve “engaging students in teaching, learning, and assessment.” Regular interaction means that a course or competency must “provid[e] the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a predictable and regular basis,” that each student’s progress must be monitored, and that an instructor must “promptly and proactively engag[e] in substantive interaction with the student when needed.”

Although the intention of the change is in part to allow higher education to innovate more freely online, some of the language may introduce constraints. As this piece from WCET Frontiers notes, because “regular” interaction requires both predictable and regular interaction and proactive engagement based on monitoring, “the proposed definition effectively shackles any distance education coursework to a time-bound model that may not be appropriate for the student, course, and program.” 

The proposed federal changes were open for public comment until May 4, 2020. Pending a final rule to be issued by November 1 of this year, and they will go into effect in July 2021.


2020 and beyond

Another issue at the forefront of the Summit, of course, was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has effectively moved all higher education online for the remainder of the academic year, without a clear timeline for safe reintroduction of on-campus learning. 

The CARES Act stimulus package included nearly $13 billion in aid for higher education providers and students, and the guidance from the DoE includes flexibility for moving programs online. At the moment these waivers apply through September 30; the presidential election will take place on November 3. Although there is bipartisan support for many Department of Education initiatives, it’s safe to assume that a change in administration would result in a change in priorities.

While there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding higher education over the next year, we can be sure that online learning will be the focus of most institutions at least in the near term.

What is the quality of the learning that has become distance education not through thoughtful planning but by necessity? And how much of that learning will stay online when the pandemic is over?

In her session at WCET, Diane Auer Jones shared this call for collaboration: 

“If distance isn’t done well, it could actually have a negative impact on the innovators that are doing a great job. So I think it’s in everybody’s best interest for those who know how to do it well, who have resources, to please reach out to those who are new at this and help them — share that expertise.”

At FutureLearn, we’re working to share our own resources with our partners and to help them collaborate to meet the needs of their students, and all learners, online.

WCET is a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality and reach of technology-enhanced learning programs.

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