Online Students Deserve a Real Education

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

April 14, 2020

By James Murphy & Michael Dannenberg

Millions of college students and professors are getting their first taste of online college this spring as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s telling there have been no loud cries to keep this ad-hoc learning going next semester and beyond, but that remains a possibility so we need to make sure that colleges are providing real instruction online. 

We also need to make sure that the millions of students who enrolled in distance learning long before the current crisis emerged are regularly interacting with expert instructors in a substantial way, not merely reviewing PowerPoint slide decks and posting comments on class e-boards. The federal government should, whether by Congressional legislation or by Education Department regulation, ensure online college does more good than harm. 

If Secretary Betsy DeVos gets her way that won’t happen, at least not under proposed regulations for distance learning released on April 1st (we kid you not on the date).

Online colleges are not new. They’ve been failing millions of students academically for years. In 2017, approximately 13 percent of American undergraduates were enrolled exclusively online. We should worry about those students. A 2019 study found that fully online coursework increases socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps. Graduation rates for students who attend on-line, full-time lag 20 to 30 percentage points behind those who attend a school full-time where very few students learn exclusively online. 

These poor outcomes are especially concerning now, because if the past is prologue, the looming recession will drive many students, especially older ones, to enroll in online higher education programs, particularly for-profit ones that gladly accept unprepared students and offer them little in the way of support in order to capture federal financial aid dollars. 

Current Department of Education regulations say that online education must at a minimum include “regular and substantive interaction between students and the instructor,” which sounds perfectly reasonable except “substantive instruction” isn’t defined.

Last year, after an intensive and formal negotiated process, various stakeholders, including student, consumer, and college group representatives, unanimously recommended a pretty decent standard. “Substantive interaction” engages students in “teaching, learning, and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion” and includes at least two of the following: “(i) providing direct instruction; (ii) assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework; (iii) responding to questions about the content of a course or competency; or (iv) dynamically facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency.” 

Once you look past the stiff language, this makes good sense. Teachers interact with students by teaching, grading, answering questions, and fostering group discussions. If you went to college, we bet you got some if not all of those interactions in your coursework.

The problem is that toward the end of that “negotiated regulation” process, which included representatives for for-profit colleges and distance education accrediting agencies, the subcommittee arrived at a fifth criterion that could satisfy the requirement for substantive instruction: “other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.” 

Other instructional activities? That could be anything. And they need only be approved by an accrediting agency, which to be clear is an association of colleges financed by dues paid by the colleges they accredit. Plenty of these agencies do a creditable job, but some of them have been such terrible watchdogs that the Obama administration moved to shut them down before DeVos reversed course and reinstated them.

This fifth criterion–if it can even be called that–invites online colleges to shop for an accrediting agency that will apply a minimum standard of online education quality in a way that serves themselves rather than students. We think students need something more reliable than a private agency enforcing an empty standard to protect them. 

The Department of Education added insult to injury by providing just thirty days for higher education experts, reformers, and critics to comment on the new regulations. Under normal circumstances that might be sufficient time, but in the midst of a national crisis, it almost looks like Secretary DeVos does not want any comments.

A better solution would be for Congress to take the matter out of Besty DeVos’s two trusted hands and define distance instruction in the Phase IV recovery bill

Perhaps a better solution would be for Congress to take the matter out of Besty DeVos’s two trusted hands and define distance instruction in the Phase IV recovery bill. Congress could make the negotiators’ definition of distance learning (minus the whatever at least one accreditor says goes loophole) effective now, thus protecting all the students who may be learning online next fall, and leave room for the next administration’s Secretary of Education (fingers crossed) to implement regulations that ensure online education is actual education and doesn’t exacerbate inequity in teaching and learning.

We’re at a critical moment for online learning. Now is not the time for April Fool’s Day jokes from Secretary Betsy DeVos.

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