Analysts doubt Congress will finalize HEA reauthorization in 2013.

Online education advocates will have a legislative dog in the fight to reauthorize the Higher Education Act next year, thanks to a rare bipartisan charge to include web-based courses in national policy discussions.

The HEA, a law first passed in 1965 and last reauthorized in 2007, is due for an update next year. And while the occupant of the White House and the composition of Congress could be much different by January, educational technology leaders for the first time have a team of Congressional representation in the newly-formed eLearning caucus.

The caucus, formed in October by Congress members from the House’s political poles, will help push eLearning to the forefront of the legislative haggling sure to ensue when HEA reauthorization takes center stage, policy experts said.

This could bring clarity to a number of long-standing issues in the ed-tech community, including the definition of online credit hours, widespread student loan fraud at online schools, and the politically charged issue of for-profit colleges and their expansive web-based offerings.

Russell Poulin, deputy director at WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), said the eLearning caucus would help connect legislators with longtime online educators and campus officials whose careers have hinged on their understand of federal and state education policies.

“I think what we found [in 2007] is that we didn’t have much of a presence at all,” Poulin said. “I believe when the staffers wrote the legislation, eLearning just wasn’t in their background. They went to Ivy League schools, so they didn’t know who to turn to about online education. The caucus can help connect lawmakers to people in the know because this is a case of [Congressional staffers] not knowing what they don’t know.”

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.

If, during next year’s HEA reauthorization talks, Congress can agree to online programs focus on competencies and outcomes, eLearning could see massive growth over the next decade, education analysts said.

eLearning leaders have long pushed for a web-based model that allows students to advance in their studies based on understanding, not only credit hours earned.

“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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