Mon. Jun 17th, 2019

Ed Dept. backpedals its proposed distance learning stance with latest revision

Dive Brief:

  • The Education Department has revised its proposed rules around distance education to clarify the role of subject-matter experts and their interaction with students, Inside Higher Ed reported. The changes are part of the department’s ongoing negotiated rulemaking on accreditation.
  • The latest proposal nixes language letting accreditors define distance education. The revision also calls for a subject matter expert to lead, rather than simply be included in, an instructional team. It also ensures subject-matter experts are responsible for assessing student learning, and it includes academic credentials in addition to work experience as criteria for a subject-matter expert.
  • The revisions also add specificity to the definition of “regular and substantive” interaction between students and instructors. Regular is now defined as once-per-week interaction for courses worth three or more credit hours and every two weeks for courses less than three credit hours. Some subcommittee members proposed an alternative definition that accounted more for academic progress than duration, which favor emerging models of online learning.

Dive Insight:

In late January, Diane Auer Jones, the Ed Department’s principal deputy under secretary, reassured an audience of accreditation professionals in Washington that the agency was “not wedded” to the language of its original proposals under negotiation now.

“Clearly we came to the table with some very provocative ideas,” she said at the annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). “We just wanted to open the conversation.”

The latest draft rules around distance learning show the department is making at least some effort to incorporate feedback and address concerns from some negotiation committee members and other stakeholders.

Jones acknowledged in January the “consternation” she has heard from accreditors over proposals that in many ways would lighten the department’s oversight, perhaps significantly, of their work guaranteeing educational quality.

Meanwhile, Jones said at a separate event last month that the department was not trying to eliminate the previous definition of “regular and substantive” requiring courses to include subject-matter experts interacting with students. She indicated at the time that a new definition may consider artificial intelligence programs or a learning team to be viable sources of subject-matter expertise.

Many groups have pushed back on plans to loosen the rules. Some have cautioned that weakening the definition of “regular and substantive” instruction could end up reducing student access to subject-matter experts or cause them to use pre-recorded materials more frequently. Others are concerned that institutions may seek to inflate credits in order to get more federal financial aid funding.