Online learning caucus coming to Congress

Members of the eLearning caucus have not been announced.

Two members of Congress formed an eLearning caucus last month–a much-needed Capitol Hill forum, educators said, after a recent survey showed Congressional representatives and their staffers lacked a basic understanding of online education.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., a conservative House member, and Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., among his party’s most liberal members, created the eLearning caucus Oct. 5 to “promote research on successes and failures in eLearning so that federal education funds are used prudently, and to ensure policy is aligned with practice,” according to a “dear colleague” letter written by Noem and Polis.

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.

“There was very little understanding of the impact of current technology,” said Paul Shiffman, executive director of the Presidents Forum. “Both staff and [Congressional] members come from a place and time identified primarily with traditional education. They have not been in contact with most recent methodologies … so there’s a void of knowledge there.”

The corridors of power in Washington, D.C. aren’t exactly teeming with online college graduates, said Russell Poulin, deputy director of WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET).

“Start going down the type of folks who end up being staffers on the Hill, and a lot of them have gone to private institutions or large public universities that have been slower to pick up on online education,” he said. “It’s hard to fault these people, because it’s just not in their background. It’s human nature not to be aware of something that has never been in your experience.”

Congressional caucuses are often formed to provide a public forum on policy issues and a chance for legislators to collect and analyze pertinent information before the issue comes to the full Congress.

Caucuses often tackle narrow issues. The Caucus for Competitiveness in Entertainment Technology, created in February and nicknamed the “video game” caucus, explores the impact of games in education.

Educational technologists familiar with the caucus said caucus membership hasn’t been made public yet, and a spokesman for Polis said that while the caucus hasn’t formally launched, “we’ve drawn a great deal of interest” from legislators.

Chris Fitzgerald, the Polis spokesman, said the caucus’s objectives would “depend on the priorities of the membership,” but could include funding issues, access to online classes, blended learning, and credit recovery for web-based students.

In their invitation for Congressional members to join the eLearning caucus, Polis and Noem cite a series of statistics that could offer a preview of what the lawmakers will focus on in the coming year.

More than 5.6 million college students–or 30 percent of all U.S. college students–took at  least one online course in 2009. Four million K-12 students took some form of online course in 2009, up from 45,000 during the 2000 school year. Women, according to the “dear colleague” letter, “disproportionately take postsecondary eLearning courses.”

The eLearning caucus, for example, could examine efficient online teaching strategies that prove successful at a few colleges and universities, and scale those approaches to a national level, said Shiffman, who also serves as vice president for government relations at Excelsior College, an online school based in New York.

“It would benefit institutions, as well as the country, if policy makers had a resource where they could learn more about technology-based learning,” he said. “Right now, policy makers don’t have a full view of what the technology has enabled for learning purposes.”

Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin communications professor who tracks public opinion and emerging technologies, said Congressional groups like the eLearning caucus are where policy issues are tackled before monied interests and “hyper partisanship” play a major role.

“They help form a comprehensive picture before the whole lobbying machine starts ramping up, and [lawmakers] can have a good understanding and can decipher good information from bad information,” Scheufele said. “A lot of these caucuses are trying to pick up these issues early in the cycle. … Caucuses have traditionally provided a way of providing detailed discussion instead of just opening this up to a lobbying battle in D.C.”

Ed-tech advocates familiar with the eLearning caucus did not expect for-profit colleges–many with large online programs and teams of Washington lobbyists–to have undue influence on caucus members.

“One can’t deny that the for-profit sector has invested greatly in distance learning, but one can argue that’s because there was a tremendous need,” Shiffman said, adding that for-profit schools could see the eLearning caucus as a chance to heal their battered public image. “The idea that this could be a vehicle for the for-profit sector doesn’t seem founded on anything. In the marketplace now, there are many for-profit colleges that will be interested in bettering their image through this [caucus].”

eLearning caucus members will likely invite input from every sector of higher education–from private to public to for-profit, Scheufele said.

“The idea of providing online education is one that many schools have picked up on,” he said. “This is a chance for everyone to come to the table and talk.”

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