The U.S. Education Department on Wednesday released proposed final rules on distance education. The regulations governing distance learning and innovation hew closely to a consensus proposal approved last year by a panel—consisting largely of accrediting agencies, college groups, financial aid administrators, and student representatives—the department convened in 2018 to negotiate new rules, reported Inside Higher Ed.
The package of recommendations approved last spring by the rule-making subcommittee on distance education and innovation was generally supported by educators and online learning supporters, who said the changes in federal law would clarify some murky definitions and give institutions more flexibility to create and enroll students in nontraditional academic programs, Inside Higher Ed reported. However, consumer advocates and other critics warn that the plan would scale back oversight of colleges and allow more low-quality institutions to enroll students and access federal student aid.
The proposed final rules would:
amend the definitions of "clock hour" and "credit hour" to provide flexibility to distance education and other types of educational programs that emphasize demonstration of learning rather than seat time when measuring student outcomes, while still allowing those programs to participate in the Federal Student Aid programs authorized under title IV of the HEA (title IV, HEA programs),
- amend the definitions of "distance education" and "correspondence course" to account for changes in distance education technology and the types of programs offered by institutions, e.g., competency-based education (CBE) programs,
- clarify, through new definitions, the requirements of regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors for a course to be considered distance education and not a correspondence course,
- define "incarcerated student" and "juvenile justice facility" to clarify the Pell Grant eligibility requirements for incarcerated students,
- allow students enrolled in foreign institutions to take courses at domestic institutions,
- define "subscription-based programs" and establish the conditions for disbursement of Title IV, Higher Education Act assistance in such programs,
- clarify and simplify the requirements for "direct assessment programs," including regulations for the determination of equivalent credit hours for such programs,
- define a "week of instruction" for asynchronous online programs to clarify how that term applies to distance education or correspondence courses,
- amend regulations to ensure the treatment of students enrolled in distance or competency-based programs in a manner consistent with their peers in traditional programs, and
- amend regulations regarding financial responsibility to codify and clarify requirements when there is an institutional change of ownership or control.
The department, in its news release about the proposed regulations, linked their publication to the onset of COVID-19, despite the fact that the release was months overdue and the rules drafted before the outbreak of pandemic.
"With our support, colleges and universities were among the first to transition to online and distance learning so learning could continue during the coronavirus pandemic," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was quoted as saying in the news release. "Frankly, though, they are working within the confines of stale rules and regulations that are in desperate need of rethinking. We know there are fewer and fewer 'traditional' students in higher education, and this current crisis has made crystal clear the need for more innovation. It's past time we rethink higher ed to meet the needs of all students."
Although it is unclear why the department tied the regulations' publication to the coronavirus crisis, some speculated that it might be to justify a 30-day comment period, which is shorter than is typical, and to ward off any suggestion that the government should not issue major regulatory guidance at a time when many people are distracted by a national crisis, Inside Higher Ed reported.
U.S. Education Department Press Release
Inside Higher Ed