Panel: Troubles abound in online learning regulation

Panelists say they encounter difficulties in online learning regulations from state to state.
Panelists say they encounter difficulties in regulations for online education programs from state to state.

Difficulties in adopting national standards to regulate online education programs sparked a lively debate during a panel discussion at the Oct. 12 Presidents’ Forum on Online Learning in the 21st Century, hosted by Excelsior College.

The panel, moderated by Sally Johnstone of Winona State University, addressed the complexity of managing standards for online education programs across state lines. Panelists addressed struggles specific to their own states, as well as national issues to consider as the standards debate continues.

“I would characterize New York’s interest as being one of concern about the quality of education that New York residents receive, whether that education takes place in a traditional classroom setting or online,” said Byron Connell, associate commissioner in higher education for the New York State Education Department. “Therefore, our concern is that there be strong assurances of quality for online [education] programs across the country so we don’t sit there and fret over the quality of the education that our residents are engaging.”

David Dies, executive secretary for the Wisconsin Educational Approval Board, echoed similar sentiments regarding standards for online education programs.

“It really boils down to a level of trust,” Dies said. “Do we have faith in the other states’ abilities, the functions that they’re performing, and can we in some way accept the work that they’ve done to satisfy our requirements?”

But regulating the industry has proven far more complex than some supporters originally thought.

“There are hundreds of online institutions. We don’t have the ability to perform as our statutes say we’re supposed to do, so we’ve had to find some creative ways to continue to perform our consumer protection responsibilities that are core to our operations,” said Dies.

In addition to the massive number of institutions offering online education programs, each state has different regulatory policies, making a blanket rule of law nearly impossible.

David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, is attempting to sort through the different attitudes toward online learning regulation.

“I’ve got two states that are what you might call accreditation junkies. They believe in pretty strong regulation of the for-profit sector,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of states that sort of do the job because they have to, and then I have three that are laissez-faire states. They don’t give a damn whether these institutions do much or not.”

And the lack of communication between the different states’ regulatory boards hampers the process, panelists said.

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Laura Ascione

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