Online Education Advocacy Group Launches as Dept. of Ed Proposes Loosening Regulations

EdSurge | April 2, 2020 - To advocate for and on behalf of effective online teaching and learning practices, four organizations are joining forces to establish the National Council for Online Education.

The partnership linking the Online Learning Consortium, Quality Matters, University Professional and Continuing Education Association and WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies has been in the works for about a year, says Deb Adair, executive director of Quality Matters.

The collaborative effort stems in part from each organization’s participation in 2019 in rulemaking negotiations with the U.S. Department of Education about distance learning regulations. One task involved figuring out how to define the “regular and substantive interaction” that must take place between students and instructors in online classes in order for them to qualify for federal financial aid.

On April 1, the same day the council launched, the Department of Education announced proposed rules that would make it easier for colleges to offer new models for online programs, and also allow more kinds of higher education providers access to aid money, reports the Washington Post.

The new council and the proposed governance changes were in the works well before the coronavirus pandemic pushed colleges to rush to recreate their face-to-face classes in virtual formats, sparking widespread debate about whether emergency remote instruction counts as “real” online education. Yet both developments take on new significance because of COVID-19 and the effects it has had on higher education.

Offering guidance about effective online learning in response to the pandemic has jumped to the top of the new council’s priority list.

“Higher education, to do what they’ve been able to do in such a short amount of time, it’s amazing, but it’s still not online education,” Adair argues.

In a joint statement, the council’s members advocate that “online learning involves the careful and deliberate development and implementation of courses and programs that are designed to be offered online. High quality online courses and programs should be guided by instructional design and pedagogical practices specifically created for online education.”

The council aims to help distinguish “this quick pivot to put your stuff up on Zoom” from what carefully designed distance courses can achieve, Adair says, adding, “The fear is that fundamental misunderstanding of what online learning is and what it takes to do it well is going to work against future online efforts, and it will prejudice how student and parents think about online education, and could prejudice how legislatures and folks with other kinds of oversight positions look at online education.”

Countering possible bias against online education is one of the council’s broader goals, too. Nuanced research about the efficacy of online learning isn’t always appreciated inside or outside of higher ed institutions, Adair says, citing the work of the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee as an example of such scholarship.

“Online [learning] has this perceived close association with for-profit education. And for-profit education in the U.S. hasn’t always had a stellar history or reputation because there have been bad actors,” Adair explains. “There are think tanks and individuals that cannot let go of that association and have looked to online learning in general with a very jaundiced eye.”

Indeed, skeptics of online education cite studies suggesting that it “has failed to reduce costs and improve outcomes for students” and that “the gaps in student success across socioeconomic groups are larger in online than in classroom courses,” according to a 2019 paper written by researchers Spiros Protopsaltis and Sandy Baum, which argued against the weakened requirements for online courses that the Department of Education proposed this week.

In the face of such critiques, Adair says, the National Council for Online Education hopes to represent experienced instructional designers, faculty and the entire online learning community that “would like to have an advocate and an honest broker here in these conversations.”