Distance Learning Regulation Needs Simplification, Officials Say

Former education secretary Richard Riley heads effort to make it easier for students to take online classes by standardizing state regulations.
 8 MOOCs Transforming Education
8 MOOCs Transforming Education
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In an effort to make it easier for students to take classes online, a commission headed by former education secretary Richard Riley set out a series of recommendations it wants states to adopt.

If adopted, the recommendations would eliminate vastly different regulations states set in place to govern academic institutions, making it easier for state colleges to allow students who live outside their borders to take their classes.

"Distance online learning is going to increase. This gives it some uniformity," Riley said during a press call to announce the regulations. Riley was Bill Clinton's secretary of education.

Riley chaired the Commission on the Regulation of Post-Secondary Education, which brought together representatives from organizations like the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. It issued a report Thursday: Advancing Access through Regulatory Reform: Findings, Principles and Recommendations for the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement.

The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) is an important step, Nancy Coleman, Boston University's director of distance learning, said in an email. BU is in the process of trying to comply with regulations in every state, which she described as a "complicated and expensive process."

"We are excited by the possibility [of SARA]," Coleman said. "The approval of SARA has a long way to go once it gets vetted and approved by state legislators, but we are hoping it passes."

[ California is seeing some positive results with blended online and real-world classes. Read more at California Expands Use Of MOOCs. ]

The commission's report has three aims: To bring uniformity to state regulation of distance education; to reduce the burden on institutions for providing opportunities in multiple states; and to ensure quality for students.

The commission estimates that it can cost a public university system $5.5 million to accept distance learners from all 49 other states. For a community college to comply with requirements in, say, five neighboring states it could cost $76,100. These estimates do not include staff time, which could add another $195,000.

Meanwhile, distance learners lack consumer rights common to other forms of interstate commerce. If a student pays for a class at a university outside their home state, they have little recourse for lodging complaints right now. That's a lot of potential unhappiness: Riley said nearly 7 million students in America are taking classes online at schools outside their home state.

There are currently four regional compacts on higher education, in the Midwest, New England, the South and the West. Those compacts will oversee efforts to adopt the recommendations within their regions. Three states -- Delaware, Hawaii and New York -- do not belong to a compact; nor does the District of Columbia. The 47 other states will be on hand next week in Indianapolis for a conference aimed at working through the Commission's report and beginning the process of adopting it, which will vary from state to state.

If state legislators adopt the recommendations, it should increase the number of students taking distance courses, according to Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and previously president of Michigan State University. "We know some states are uneasy about expanding their online offerings," he said. "It costs a lot to comply with regulations all over the country. This will make it easier."

McPherson said that at minimum, public universities face issues with distance learning if a student happens to move, partway through a course. "It's a practical compliance problem for universities," he said. "There is a need for some sort of system nationwide to take care of this issue."

McPherson acknowledged that the Riley Report recommendations are purely voluntary. Still, 47 states will send official delegations to a conference next week to hear about the agreement and how to take it state legislatures. If it does gain momentum, it will still take a year or two to come into effect in most states.

Currently, McPherson does not expect legislation to affect MOOCs, though colleges do offer courses through these platforms. To date, most of those courses are offered for free, so they are not regulated.

But at the Canvas Network, a burgeoning MOOC, Josh Coates told Information Week, "We have a waiting list of about half a dozen institutions that want to charge for their courses, for credit." Coates is CEO of Instructure, which runs the Canvas Network.

Coates said that the Riley Report was recommending things that are needed to spread online learning. He sees it as a step towards creating a system where it is easier to for colleges to accept credits from other schools. "That's the lifeblood of democratization of education -- making transferable credits a commodity that can be transferred."

For now, every step helps advance online learning, Coates said. "We can't democratize education unless these gears mesh."

Can data analysis keep students on track and improve college retention rates? Also in the premiere all-digital Analytics' Big Test issue of InformationWeek Education: Higher education is just as prone to tech-based disruption as other industries. (Free with registration.)