Yesterday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released her final regulations for online education, otherwise known as “distance learning.” In a press release, DeVos said, “These regulations are a true ‘rethink’ of what is possible for students so that they can learn in the ways and places that work best for them.”
But many worry these regulations put innovation and institutional burden reduction interests ahead of quality and consumer protection needs. In fact, some version of the word ‘burden’ appears 52 times in the final rule; the word ‘safeguard’ only appears 9 times.
Federal higher education law requires distance education programs to provide “regular and substantive interaction” between instructors and students, so students aren’t left on their own to learn – they’re paying to learn from experts for a reason. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t define it, which can create some confusion.
DeVos’s regulation provides a definition of that for distance education. When DeVos originally proposed a definition in the Department’s rulemaking, it was one many viewed as too lax. However, DeVos’s final regulation adopts a more provides some parameters that are consistent with how the rule works in practice today.
For an action to be considered “substantive,” an institution must perform two of the following actions: direct instruction, assessment, respond to questions about course materials, facilitate a group discussion regarding course content, or other instructional activities approved by accreditors. Still, some worry those are too vague, especially the last requirement given how some accreditors are known for certifying low-quality schools.
A more troubling change though is the allowance of vocational, “clock-hour” programs to go online. The regulations would permit these job training programs to go online with asynchronous instruction — as opposed to synchronous were students log on at a set time for class. This essentially allows vocational schools that are meant to provide hands-on training to offer programs online through video or other means, without the instructor present to engage and provide feedback.
It’s hard to conceive how these programs could be executed effectively online, but it seems impossible to do so with asynchronous learning. How could a cosmetology student properly learn in such a format? Imagine going to get bloodwork from a phlebotomist who learned how to draw blood by watching YouTube videos instead of with an instructor showing him how to do it or improve.
There is good reason to worry about online education generally. Research has shown that low-income students, students of color, and academically underprepared students experience poor outcomes in online learning. The same study found that attainment gaps were larger across socioeconomic groups in online courses compared to traditional ones. Moreover, surveys show that employers have consistently viewed online degrees as inferior to face-to-face learning.
And these programs are disproportionately offered by for-profit colleges, who enroll large numbers of low-income students and students of color. That’s why quality assurance—and therefore regulation—is so important.
These regulations were in the works before the coronavirus struck and they will last after it, as they go into effect next summer. Flexibility was needed for the pandemic—which is why the Department of Education provided waivers then—but students need protection from schools that fail to provide a quality education, both in the pandemic and after.
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