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.

“There is an important issue not just in establishing some standards, but finding the right level of communication that these very different types of agencies and organizations within each of the states can actually utilize,” said Johnstone.

“I think that in New York we have a good notion of what we’re doing, and we have a good notion of what accrediting bodies are doing, but we have a very vague notion of what the other 49 states are doing,” said Connell.

“We’re such a diverse set of institutions and ways in which we govern ourselves [that] it’s hard to pull this together,” said Longanecker.

Not every online education program supports a set of universal online learning terms. Some for-profit institutions fear that these policies will just add another set of fees.

“Everything I’m hearing is just driving up my costs, which is bringing down my affordability, which is bringing down my access,” said Rich Schneider, president of Norwich University. “This is so redundant and so decentralized; it’s very, very expensive. … We are a quality institution, as many are. I just see that the role of the continued regulation is going contrary to what we’re trying to accomplish for affordability and access.”

But Longanecker said he sees this as a risk worth taking.

“The consequences of getting a bad education are so substantial, particularly the way students finance it today. That’s what raises particular attention to this; that this is considered a major opportunity in a person’s life, and if we do not serve them well, we are strongly affecting their capacity to have a good life,” Longanecker said.

Panelists also discussed the possibility of poor quality of education from institutions based outside of the United States.

“What do we do with the institutions that move to Jamaica and set up their distance learning from there?” asked Connell. “The 50 states can’t do anything about that. This is now an international issue that has to be addressed internationally, because we don’t have jammers on our borders to prevent online learning from being beamed in from other countries.”

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Laura Ascione

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