- A new report takes a critical view of fully online courses and competency-based education (CBE) as regulators and stakeholders discuss the topics during the negotiated rulemaking session that kicked off this week. Critics of the report said its outcomes were colored by data from when the for-profit sector was much larger, meaning newer online learning success stories weren't given enough weight, Inside Higher Ed reported.
- In their review of research on student outcomes in fully online courses, researchers at George Mason University and the Urban Institute contend the model has "contributed to increasing gaps" in educational success across socioeconomic groups while failing to lower college costs. Students who lack strong academic preparation struggle in all-online courses, they said, and need opportunities to improve their learning skills and "not just have access to a specific body of information."
- They caution against weakening federal requirements around "regular and substantive" interaction between students and instructors, which they call "online education's Achilles' heel." They argue that although online learning technology is improving, it should supplement and not replace face-to-face exchanges. A hybrid model has the best outcomes, they said.
The report comes at a key moment for online education. The topic has its own subcommittee during the rulemaking session. Up for discussion among that group — and to be brought forward to the full committee — are competency-based education, the definition of "regular and substantive interaction," and how the often-conflated "correspondence course" and "distance education" are defined.
Yet views are mixed. At the negotiating table are several higher ed representatives with stakes in online education who will likely encourage rule makers to favor flexibility that allows them to continue to qualify for Title IV funding while using CBE, disaggregated faculty and other alternative educational models.
Others argue for more clear-cut definitions around online education, such as how much face-time students and instructors should have, who can be considered an instructor and which regulatory bodies get to decide on the merits of new educational models.
The industry got a preview of the U.S. Department of Education's view last week, when it rejected an earlier report that found the use of CBE and disaggregated faculty by Western Governors University (WGU) didn't give students and instructors "regular and substantive interaction" and therefore disqualified the online nonprofit college from receiving Title IV funds.
That decision canceled a $713 million fine, and it suggested the department sees flexibility as an option. In its draft proposal for new accreditation rules, the department recommended giving colleges more say in how they define the credit hour and loosening the requirements for "regular and substantive" interaction. However, its proposal raised concerns over its calls to reduce oversight of accreditors and of college programs, which critics argue will erode the quality of education.
Last month, Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos told higher ed leaders that the industry "is due for a rethink," and she called on them to expand educational pathways.
With competing voices at the table, some say it's unlikely the negotiators will reach an agreement on new accreditation rules. If they can't, the department will write them.