“I hope part of the discussion is a robust analysis of what aspects of HEA promote eLearning and what aspects of the law harm eLearning or inhibit it and need to be examined for their efficacy,” said Christopher Murray, vice president for education policy at Dow Lohnes Government Strategies in Washington, D.C. “A lot of them are not completely necessary regulations, and I think that will become clear.”

Poulin said he’s confident Congressional leaders will be far more willing to embrace a nontraditional college model in the 2013 HEA reauthorization talks than they were in 2007.

“Lawmakers should ask, if a student can complete a class in five weeks instead of 15 weeks, shouldn’t we move people toward that more efficient model,” he said. “We should really be trying to figure out how to improve learning rather than anchoring everything into old models. … Let’s not institute a 1900s model of education.”

Unlike previous HEA reauthorizations, traditional colleges and universities now operate growing online programs, adding institutional heft to the support for federal policies customized for online courses.

“The traditional sector is more and more engaged and up front in the importance of online learning,” said Ken Salomon, chair of education policy at Dow Lohnes. “I think people are finally starting to see that it’s part of the solution.”

HEA reauthorization – and Congressional debate over eLearning rules – could take a legislative backseat to pressing issues like the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, Medicare fixes, and sequestration, or the built-in policy that would slash billions from the federal budget if across-the-board spending cuts aren’t agreed to in the meantime.

And if Republican Party nominee Mitt Romney wins the presidential election in November, Murray said he expects the former Massachusetts governor to focus on a range of economic issues before addressing HEA reauthorization.

Salomon said he remains skeptical that a deeply divided Congress can finalize HEA reauthorization in 2013, but discussion of eLearning-related federal policies should emerge in the second half of the year.

“If there’s a political will to do it, and depending on the party lineups after the next election, lots can happen next year,” he said. “It would, however, be unprecedented to start negotiations and finish in the same year.”


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