Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Distance Education and Reauthorization

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).
Finally, I admit that maybe this isn't necessarily what "WE" believe, but it is what I believe. What do you believe?


Anonymous said...

I believe that it is appropriate for colleges to take steps to ensure that the person who takes a class is the same as the person who registers for it. There should be no difference between offline and online courses in this regard.

In small offline courses a professor generally recognizes each student. It is possible that the person showing up isn't the same as the person who registered. However, to pull this off requires that an imposter spend a lot of time in class to be seen and recognized by the professor. This limits the probability of it occurring.

I especially like this legislation as it pertains to for profit schools. There is an economic motivation to just take money in exchange for a piece of paper. The profit motivation can, and sometimes does, lead to institutions not caring about whether the person taking an online course is the same as the one who paid for it. They don't care as long as someone paid for it.

Anonymous said...

I truely believe that they are on the right path with this bill. There should be some checks and balances builded into online learning ensuring that the people who register are the people that are taking the course. In a traditional course the instructor takes attendance and in a sense ensures that the person who is there for the class or test is the person who registered for the class. Let's not let the perception of online learning be cheaten because we cannot verify who is taking the test and doing the homework. There is potential technology (digital signature, web cams, etc.) that can be used to verify the person who is taking the class.

So we should look at this as an exciting development for online learning will be the same as a traditional class where we already do this. Now the challenge is solving the technology problem of ensuring people are doing their own work.

Frankie Condon said...

I suspect the next set of questions go somthing like this:

Who's on the team that reconciles the two bills? Of those, who has any sympathy for the potentially enormous costs of this (I'm assuming it's an) unfunded mandate?

How might the costs of implementing the necessary range of solutions to this speciously assumed problem be calculated?

(I spent about 2 hours recently tracking down data related to a verifiably suspicious academic integrity issue; the language of this bill sounds more like I or others in my position might be spending our time on some sort of fishing expedition, baitless, with neither nets nor poles. Nets have lots of holes in them; poles only catch on fish at a time.)

In reconciliation, are they able to remove language common to both passed bills?

Not sure how this might be related, but our local town council, in approving a development plan within the local flood plain, allowed as how they'd trust the developers to "do the best they could" not to develop this property in ways that would change the flood levels - no environmental impact assessment required ...

So - it seems if we get some names, we might be able to lobby some specific folks.


Anonymous said...

I have considerable experience teaching online. In my experience, I get to "know" the average student's personality and work better online than I do in the classroom. Precisely because I'm unable to "see" my online students, I'm more tuned in to their writing style, sense of humor, etc. In many cases (at least the ones I know about) that makes papers or discussion posts authored by someone else quite obvious.

I'm suggesting that it may well be just as difficult, if not more so, for an imposter online "to pull this off" as it is for one in my classroom, where there are always students who attend sporadically and whose names, despite my best efforts, I'm never sure of even by the end of the semester.

Having said that, I'm not necessarily opposed to efforts to verify the identities of online students. I just don't understand why online students should be singled out.

Moreover, why stop with the students? I've heard rumors about more than one instructor at my institution having his or her spouse help teach his or her online courses. Perhaps we should also verify who is actually teaching the online courses...

Barry Dahl said...

I'm adding additional comments that came to me via email:

From H.D.

Barry, I feel we do have a right to be concerned with the language in the legislation. If examples of "how" we are to prove if the student is who they say they are and they can be guaranteed that it will stop it from happening, then by all means...

I don't think we can ever really know for sure if the student who is taking the course is really the one registered. If students want to lie to themselves and others, they will do it no matter what instructors, colleges, or the government tries to do about it.

My thoughts are that students who truly want a quality education, will be honest with the system. This is all we really have to go on, is it not?

Barry Dahl said...

From P.K.

I know of students who have “borrowed” papers from brothers/sisters/friends and submitted them as their own work. These examples are from face-to-face classes.

Other people who I have met in the community have admitted to having someone else write their papers for them. My roommates in college did that on a routine basis. One is currently teaching and has tenure.

If we need to prove that students in our on-line classes are honest, I think we need to treat the face-to-face students in the same manner.

Barry Dahl said...

L.G. said:

I guess it is something for which new technology, or new application of technology, could help. When I've taken commercial certification
tests, a clerk checked my driver's license against my exam registration.

And the clerk watched each cubical thru closed circuit TV to make sure
we weren't using notes from out pockets.

How would that apply in a course being taken from home by hundreds of students around the country (around the world)? That's where
technologists have to be inventive.

Therefore, the gov't could spend money creating a plan. And then
legislate. Seems we have cart before the horse her. That's why I would like to see brought up.

Barry Dahl said...

J.M. said:

Hello everyone,

To sum it all up,,,,I truly don't think the bodies that govern our country should be governing our education standards. Did they gain their PhD's in Education or in Law? I'm willing to bet it's in the latter if at all.

My philosophy has always been, if a student wants to cheat badly enough, they're going to. Whether they get someone to do their work "for" them, whether in an "in class" process, online, or blended. It's not going to make a difference and setting up "nets" to supposedly catch them in, won't help. For each net, there is always an escape. Even "Turnitin" isn't foolproof as we all know and as M. pointed out.

As long as legislators instead of educators control processes at our institutions, (remember, their sole purpose in life is to look good to their constituents and there are more students and parents than there are teachers), education policy will take some weird slants. The example that Barry refers to is just another in a long line.

Must I point out Minnesota's possibility of limiting 2 year schools to 60 credits and 4 year schools to 120 credits sometime after 1/1/2009? Gee, wonder who came up with that one and why? Our legislators thanks to our students complaining that they must pay too much money for their education. If that gets passed, they'll pay the same money for a portion of their former education. Boy, that'll really do them a service when trying to gain employment after college, huh? :-)

Barry Dahl said...

S.H. said:

I think missing from the discussion is the underlying reason why Congress is attempting to pass this law. That Congress is proposing this indicates a feeling on their part that the integrity of the system is suspect.

Public institutions serve not only our students but society in general. To a slightly lesser extent this is true for for-profit institutions. The value of a degree to an employer is trust that bearer is the one who actually learned what he/she is supposed to have learned. Society has a legitimate interest in ensuring that there isn't widespread fraud.

While no one is claiming that there is widespread fraud it is prudent to take reasonable steps to prevent it. It is lofty to say that students who cheat only cheat themselves but this isn't the case. Generally public monies are spent to subsidize higher education and the public reasonably expects that they are getting their money's worth. Also, many businesses require a college degree in order to be employed.

These jobs are generally higher paying and so there is an economic incentive to get a degree with the least possible expense in terms of time, money, and effort. Since the country has lost many of its high paying manufacturing jobs this economic pressure has increased.

Instead of fighting the proposal lets address what underlies the motivation for it and not get sidetracked in an online courses versus offline courses debate.