Online learning caucus coming to Congress

Members of the eLearning caucus have not been announced.

Two members of Congress formed an eLearning caucus last month–a much-needed Capitol Hill forum, educators said, after a recent survey showed Congressional representatives and their staffers lacked a basic understanding of online education.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., a conservative House member, and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., among his party’s most liberal members, created the eLearning caucus Oct. 5 to “promote research on successes and failures in eLearning so that federal education funds are used prudently, and to ensure policy is aligned with practice,” according to a “dear colleague” letter written by Noem and Polis.

A poll conducted this year by the Presidents Forum, a group of online colleges that primarily serve adult learners, showed policy makers were unfamiliar with up-to-date web-based learning. Many on Capitol Hill thought distance learning was still conducted primary through correspondence classes, and survey respondents said online programs were only equivalent to classroom learning if a large institution created and administered the curriculum.

“There was very little understanding of the impact of current technology,” said Paul Shiffman, executive director of the Presidents Forum. “Both staff and [Congressional] members come from a place and time identified primarily with traditional education. They have not been in contact with most recent methodologies … so there’s a void of knowledge there.”

The corridors of power in Washington, D.C. aren’t exactly teeming with online college graduates, said Russell Poulin, deputy director of WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET).

“Start going down the type of folks who end up being staffers on the Hill, and a lot of them have gone to private institutions or large public universities that have been slower to pick up on online education,” he said. “It’s hard to fault these people, because it’s just not in their background. It’s human nature not to be aware of something that has never been in your experience.”

Congressional caucuses are often formed to provide a public forum on policy issues and a chance for legislators to collect and analyze pertinent information before the issue comes to the full Congress.

Caucuses often tackle narrow issues. The Caucus for Competitiveness in Entertainment Technology, created in February and nicknamed the “video game” caucus, explores the impact of games in education.

Educational technologists familiar with the caucus said caucus membership hasn’t been made public yet, and a spokesman for Polis said that while the caucus hasn’t formally launched, “we’ve drawn a great deal of interest” from legislators.