The Committee on Education and Labor in the U.S. House of Representatives passed the "College Opportunity and Affordability Act" (H.R. 4137) on November 15, 2007. This means we are nearing the end of the long road leading to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). The House committee bill now joins the bill passed by the U.S. Senate (S.1642) in July 2007.
House link: H.R. 4137, go to part H, section 496-A
Senate link: S. 1642, go to part G, section 491 (formerly 496)
At some point the language differences between the House and Senate will need to be hammered out. However, with regard to accreditation concerns for distance education, the House committee bill is identical to the Senate bill. The current language would allow college and university accrediting agencies to address the quality of a school’s distance education offerings without the need to create separate standards, procedures or policies related to distance education (for a while this looked to be the direction that they were going).
However, the most troubling language included in both bills is that accreditors must require that colleges take some steps (undefined as to which steps) to establish that the student who registers for a distance education course or program is the same student who participates in the course or program, who completes the course or program, and who receives the academic credit for that completion.
Lastly, institutions will be required to report to the Secretary of Education (apparently) on their distance learning offerings and enrollments. Why? Well that's not entirely clear.
The Instructional Technology Council (full disclosure: I'm on the board) would like to work through the American Association of Community Colleges to try to influence this legislation before it is finalized and sent to the President for his signature. In particular we are concerned about the language relating to authentication of distance students.
- We believe that this language assumes that there is a problem (fictitious students) when we have no clear evidence that a problem exists.
- We believe that this language assumes that colleges are not already taking steps to assure that credit is only being granted to real students who do real work.
- We believe that this language is not a clear directive as to how we should deal with this (nonexistent) problem.
- We believe that the legislators crafting this language have no idea what we distance educators have been dealing with for the past 10-15 years while striving for quality offerings through online delivery and other methods.
- We believe that this language will create far more problems than any that might currently exist (the phrase "mountain out of a mole hill" comes to mind).
- We believe that distance education is being unfairly singled out when the same questions can just as reasonably be applied to "traditional" face-to-face learning (which we maintain is also NOT reasonable, but it is JUST AS reasonable).