Congressional representatives lacked such basic knowledge of online education in 2011 that many thought distance learning was still primarily done through correspondence classes, according to a survey conducted that year.

congress-elearning-educationShortly after that poll’s results were released by a group of online colleges called the Presidents’ Forum, two members of congress formed an eLearning caucus to educate policy makers. Eighteen months since its official launch, the members of the caucus may still have their work cut out for them.

“We’ve come a ways since then,” said Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who created the caucus with Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. “More members have direct experience. Awareness is increasing. But we certainly still have a long way to go.”

Since its creation, the caucus has yet to push for any policy decisions, though members of the group pursue their own policy goals concerning education.

Polis, for example, is exploring how education can move away from the Carnegie Unit, the credit hour system that’s been the controversial backbone of American education for a century and a subject of frequent criticism in online learning circles.

Instead of fighting for certain legislation, the caucus’ goal has continued to be primarily one of education. It has so far played host to four panels for congress members and their staffers, with a fifth, which will focus on open data, planned for February.

Julie Peller, director of federal policy at the Lumina Foundation and a former Capitol Hill staffer, spoke at one of the panels in 2013.

The presentation, a June luncheon briefing called “Innovations in Higher Education,” included speakers from Western Governors University, the New America Foundation, and the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

Peller said even after the caucus’ events, there continues to be a lack of understanding among members of congress as to how sophisticated online learning has become, and who it is meant to serve.

“There’s this thought that most participants are just coming for one or two classes, that online education is just used for shorter-term certificate programs,” she said. “The number of students taking online courses, either completely or as part of a brick-and-mortar program, is not widely-known or discussed.”

More than 3 million American students, or 14 percent of the college population, take courses entirely online, according to according a survey conducted by Learning House Inc. and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

More than 6.7 million students — 30 percent of the student population — took at least one online college course in 2012, according to the Sloan Consortium.

Paul Shiffman, executive director of the Presidents’ Forum, said in 2011 that congress members had trouble understanding online learning as they came from “a place and a time identified primarily with traditional education.”

Now, Shiffman said, an influx of younger congressional staffers is starting to repair that disconnect.

“They’ve been exposed to it,” Shiffman said. “Certainly everybody in congress who is walking around with their iPad and iPhone have a much broader understanding of the technology and its learning opportunities than before.”

Increased focus on online learning from the White House and the U.S. Department of Education has also brought more attention to the issues, he said.

It’s an improvement, he noted, but not one that translates “to statute and structures that are going to enable the federal government to fulfill its role of providing financial aid to predominantly online, non-campus based learners.”

The questions that many in congress ask remain basic, Peller said.

Policy makers get tripped up when discussing simple ways schools prevent cheating in online courses, she said, let alone when discussing advanced adaptive learning or assessments.

“What these very issue-specific caucuses do is bring practitioners to the halls of congress and just highlight the really basic ideas,” she said. “I think that’s helpful, just providing a space to ask questions.”

Polis, who was once chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education, said he’s encouraged by the turnout for the caucus’ events, which he described as “extremely well-attended” by members of congress or their staff.

“The goal has been to increase awareness of eLearning, online education, and the issues that affect it,” he said. “We plan to continue to have a good schedule of briefings, to bring these issues to the broadest audience of policy makers.”

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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