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2014 May 13 - 01:15 pm

A Keen Eye

Distance Education Programs Face New Scrutiny

For community college distance educators, these are heady yet challenging times.

Even as changing demographics and an improving economy drive down overall enrollment at their institutions, students continue to sign up for online education at a healthy clip.

According to the Instructional Technology Council, which has been surveying community college distance educators every year since 2004, enrollment in online classes at community colleges increased by 5.2 percent between 2012 and 2013. By comparison, over the same time period, overall enrollment at community colleges dipped by 3.3 percent. Distance enrollment has been outpacing traditional enrollment for several years.

“ITC’s national survey of distance education programs once again confirmed that student enrollment in online courses continues to grow at a higher rate than overall student enrollment at colleges and universities,” the 2013 ITC survey report said. “Although most online programs no longer see the double-digit growth they experienced only five years ago, a robust, steady increase in the popularity for online learning continues. Students have ‘voted with their feet’ by enrolling in distance education courses when they are available.”

About 1.9 million community college students — or 26.5 percent of all those enrolled in two-year colleges — are enrolled in at least one distance education class, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which in 2012 began collecting and reporting data on the number of students enrolled in distance education courses at postsecondary institutions in the U.S.

“There has always been a huge student demand for distance education,” said Christine Mullins, the ITC’s executive director. “We used to have growth rates of more than 20 percent. Now it’s 5 percent. That’s slower, but still more than overall enrollment. For community colleges, distance education is the growth area.”

But with the ascendancy of distance education comes a new reality for online educators. As distance education cements its place in the educational mainstream, administrators and faculty are facing new new challenges. As the new kid on the educational block, distance educators face heightened scrutiny from state and federal regulators, all while proving that online education produces the same — or better — academic outcomes than traditional face-to-face classes.

“It sometimes has the feeling of being punitive,” said Fred Lokken, a dean at Truckee Meadows Community College, co-author of the ITC report and member of the group’s board. “But distance education is the newest modality. There are similar problems facing traditional instruction, but they have been around for a long time. So it feels like we are being singled out. There has been a lot of focus on distance education since 2008.”

As Congress contemplates reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, several issues have emerged pertaining specifically to distance education.

Chief among those issues is a controversial Education Department effort to draft new rules requiring colleges to get approval to operate in every state where they enroll online students.

The so-called “state authorization” rules raise a host of questions for colleges, according to the ITC report. It says: “Should colleges seek authorization from each state in which they have correspondence or online students? Should they wait to receive notice from the appropriate state agencies before taking these steps? Should they obtain authorization from every state in case future distance learning students enroll in their courses? The process can be expensive and time-consuming, especially for colleges that have a lot of out-of-state distance learning students.

The rules and regulations in each state vary.”

The proposed rules are strongly supported by consumer groups, who contend it would protect students from inferior programs and ensure strong state oversight of online education programs. But colleges complain that the rule would place an undue burden on their institutions and reduce access to online education.

“It’s couched as a consumer protection issue, but it seems designed to prevent what is attractive about distance learning — anywhere, anytime learning,” Lokken said. Lokken and others believe that Congress is eager to weigh in on this issue and new regulations likely will be part of a reauthorized HEA.

Distance educators are confronting the issue head-on. A nationwide effort is under way to encourage state legislatures to approve State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA) under which states agree to recognize distance education courses from colleges located in other SARA-member states, without imposing additional fees or more quality controls, as long as they are in good standing with the regional accreditation agencies.

Colleges are also being prodded by regulators to take steps to fight financial aid fraud. In February, the Education Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued an audit report directing the department to develop a plan to combat financial aid fraud, with a focus on distance education. The OIG said the rise of distance education has created “unique oversight challenges and creates new opportunities for fraud, abuse, and waste in the Title IV programs.”

College distance education administrators acknowledge that financial aid fraud is a real issue. But they also worry that whatever plan emerges could impose costly new regulations on distance education programs. Said Mullins: “There is fraud that is taking place. Colleges want to get a grip on that, and they are taking steps to fight it. But what colleges need is the flexibility to do so.”

Colleges already are taking steps to combat financial fraud, including creating interdepartmental “fraud squads” to monitor potentially illegal activity; improving training of financial aid staff; disbursing financial aid dollars throughout a semester, rather than in a lump sum at the beginning; and waiting two weeks before disbursing financial aid.

“Colleges are putting up barriers to prevent these financial aid rings from getting away with it,” she said.

While distance educators must jump through an increasing number of regulatory hoops, they are also trying to concentrate on their primary mission: educating students and helping them to completion.

“We want to create learning environments that are conducive to student success,” said Jean Runyon, virtual campus dean at Anne Arundel Community College.

Runyon said that as online programs have matured and grown more sophisticated, their focus has shifted away from merely offering some courses online to a commitment to enhance the integrity and quality of the college’s online program.

“We’ve always been accountable to our stakeholders,” she said. “Distance educators want to make sure that the outcomes for our programs are the same as in the traditional settings.”

“As educators, we have to determine how these technologies can be leveraged to improve student success. The courses have to be designed and taught. Students need interaction with their instructors and their peers.”

“Distance education used to be about the distance,” she said. “Now it’s about the education.”

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