Bridging the Gap between Traditional Academic Policies and Online Academic Policies: A Case Study of Class Attendance

Concurrent Session 6

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Brief Abstract

The importance of addressing online policies, in particular class attendance policies, within institutional regulations to maintain compliance with federal regulations.

Extended Abstract

How does a university fully incorporate its online learning components into institutional regulations that were originally written and designed for traditional, brick-and-mortar courses? This is a compelling question that almost all universities are faced with as issues arise from technological and pedagogical idiosyncrasies of the online format. This paper will take an in-depth look at how a large, public, flagship university is currently handling this process and the importance of this mission. 

In the fall of 2015, the university established an Online Teaching Cohort as a policy working group for revising current policy to incorporate online issues. Students, staff, and faculty increasingly questioned higher administration on issues dealing with online learning, and higher administration had no policies to turn to for guidance. Within each meeting, the Online Teaching Cohort members utilized their experiences as a member of the faculty, staff, or student body in the online educational setting to revise institutional policies and come up with best practices for online learning. Determining how to assess attendance in online courses was a topic of major concern.

The group realized that there are many issues of concern regarding this matter. First, how does an instructor determine attendance in an online course? How is attendance defined? Second, how does an instructor of an online course determine attendance for the return of Title IV federal funds? Third, how does an institution remedy university policy on class attendance to include this information?

To answer the first question, the Federal Student Aid Handbook from the U.S. Department of Education (2016) supplies a recently revised definition of attendance in distance education courses:

In a distance education context, documenting that a student has logged into an online class is not sufficient, by itself, to demonstrate academic attendance by the student. A school must demonstrate that a student participated in class or was otherwise engaged in an academically related activity, such as by contributing to an online discussion or initiating contact with a faculty member to ask a course-related question. (p. 5-60)

Examples of types of attendance include:

student submission of an academic assignment, student submission of an exam, documented student participation in an interactive tutorial or computer-assisted instruction, a posting by the student showing the student’s participation in an online study group that is assigned by the institution, a posting by the student in a discussion forum showing the student’s participation in an online discussion about academic matters, and an e-mail from the student or other documentation showing that the student initiated contact with a faculty member to ask a question about the academic subject studied in the course. (p. 5-60)

            Therefore, it is clear that universities must include this language in their class attendance policies in some format. The student must be aware of what constitutes attendance in an online course. Additionally, instructional design for online courses must be in a format that is conducive to recording the various types of attendance stated above.

The second question is somewhat harder to answer. The federal government defines policies on the return of Title IV funds such as the Federal Perkins Loan and the Federal Pell Grant, which are a major source of federal student aid. These federal policies require a student, who withdraws from all courses prior to completing more than 60 percent of a semester, session, or term, to return a portion of his or her federal aid. However, it is up to the school to determine the last day of attendance for the student before determining the percentage of the term completed. This issue can be quite messy in an online course where attendance may not be checked on a regular basis or if the student “unofficially resigns” -- the student did not alert the instructor or university of his or her last date of attendance. The university studied does not take attendance; it is up to the instructor of a course to assign attendance policies in the syllabus should he/she wish to take/grade attendance. Therefore, the last date of attendance is usually the date the withdrawal process begins, or for “unofficial withdrawals”, this date is the median point in the term. The university also allows the student’s last date of contact for the course either through attendance, examination, quiz, or assignment to count as the last date of attendance. Part of the university’s withdrawal process also requires instructors to provide evidence that the student attended the course at least once. It is quite a quandary for the university if the instructor did not have a way to check for attendance, in particular, in a very large class. And, it is even more difficult for online courses where simply logging on to a course does not satisfy attendance. How, then, should an instructor determine attendance in an online course, whether it be to prove the student attended at least once or to show the last date of attendance?

A possible solution could be found in instructional design. If online courses are set up where students must complete an assignment or participate in a forum within a certain timeframe, determining attendance can be a fairly simple task. An instructor should indeed have academic freedom on how to teach the course and grade participation/attendance; however, the course design template should be followed to an extent by all within the institution, so that the identification of participation and attendance are clear.

To answer the third question, the institution should decide whether or not online policies should be included in the general attendance policy of the institution or within a policy section specifically for online and distance education. Because online education is an integral part of the institution studied, it is clear that online attendance policies should be incorporated into the general attendance policy statement. A vast majority of students at this university enroll in online courses during their studies. Additionally, the market for non-traditional students in higher education (distance learners) is growing at a faster rate than the market for traditional students. At present, non-traditional students make up close to 40 percent of the college population. (ACE, 2016) It would be unwise to exclude policies that correspond with a large portion of the student population.

Upon researching thirteen peer institutions’ general class attendance policies, only one university defined online course attendance and the repercussions of prolonged absence within its institutional regulations. In fact, the other twelve institutions made no mention whatsoever about online class attendance in any policy or regulation, not even within its online web portals. This absence of guidelines for online or distance learners can cause students to feel isolated and separate from the university, when in fact, the institution should do everything in its power to include these students. There is nothing different from online students and traditional students except in the teaching format; both are enrolled in the university.  Additionally, having an attendance policy that does not correspond to the entire university community can create possible litigation issues as well as inefficiencies within the university, in particular within the financial aid department, when determining last date of attendance.

References

American Council on Education (2016). Retrieved from http://www.acenet.edu/higher-education/topics/Pages/Nontraditional-Students.aspx

U.S. Department of Education/Federal Student Aid (2016). Withdrawals and the Return of Title   IV Funds 2016-2017. Retrieved from https://ifap.ed.gov/fsahandbook/attachments/1516FSAHbkActiveIndexMaster.pdf