I Was Stopped In My Tracks


Karen L. Pedersen, Ph.D., Chief Knowledge Officer, Online Learning Consortium

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Most mornings, I begin my day by reviewing various higher education news outlets to see what is happening in the field. Last Friday, I was stopped in my tracks when I read Paul Fain’s article, “The Faculty Role Online, Scrutinized” in Inside Higher Ed.

The featured overview of the story read “The Education Department’s inspector general is auditing Western Governors U over the faculty role in its competency-based programs. The high-stakes audit is relevant to other colleges and forms of online learning.” Wow! That certainly prompted me to fully read the article. This is huge!

The focus of the article is on competency based education (CBE) and whether Western Governors University faculty have ‘regular and substantive contact with learners’, a requirement for federal aid eligibility to qualify as distance education.  If the inspector general (IG) deems that isn’t the case, then the learning would be considered correspondence study, not distance education study, and could result in a fine for the university, based on the financial aid that was distributed to students. Plus, this finding would have ripple effects for a growing number of higher education institutions!

What concerned me even further is this paragraph in the article:

A critical report from the inspector general also might threaten other forms of higher education that rely on some form of automated and nontraditional forms of instruction, experts said, including massive open online courses, degree programs that use adaptive learning technology, and emporium-style math labs. The White House has praised high-profile forms of all three offerings as being promising innovations.  (Fain, 2016)

I’m sure we’ll learn more about the WGU situation when the inspector general issues their final report. In the meantime, it leaves other emerging learning innovations wide open for IG involvement.

In my current position, I’ve come to really appreciate the role of all of the players in the changing higher education landscape.

First, we have lots of innovative higher education institutions across the country who, through advances in cognitive science and enhanced efficacy research, are looking to next generation digital courseware and other teaching and learning approaches to shape and reshape the educational approach in the United States. Then we have the US government who through the White House, Congress, Department of Education and the DoE Inspector General, all shape and reshape the policies and practices that accelerate or inhibit innovation.

As shared in a recent OLC blog post, these institutions are operating within the regulations stated in the Higher Education Act of 1965. A regulatory Act that celebrated its 50th birthday last year surely isn’t responsive to the needs of today’s students, nor the evolution of teaching and learning approaches at our higher education institutions. Needless to say, institutions continue operating under this aging, but updated, Act while working with the Department of Education that is trying to carve out a space/place for experimentation or demonstration projects and a White House that is encouraging innovation as a way to remain competitive globally. After working under regulations that contradict current progress by the DOE and White House, institutions, in finality, are overseen by the IG that must try to balance out the contradictions within which institutions operate.

Whether we use the term bleeding edge, cutting edge, or leading edge (you decide), those higher education institutions that are the trail blazers need a trustworthy, dependable playing field. Higher education, for the most part, is a very collaborative industry. Research and insights gleaned from one institution, or a collection of institutions, often inform the work of many others. Case in point is the recent blog post on CBE and the overview of a report issued by Public Agenda. Clearly we need higher education institutions that are leading the field with new ideas, approaches, strategies, and research that inform our collective directions forward. If there was ever a time for you or your institution to be plugged into the policy agenda, that time is now!




Fain, P. (2016, January 15). The faculty role online scrutinized. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com

Public Agenda (2015). A Research Brief on the Survey on the Shared Design Elements & Emerging Practices of Competency-Based Education Programs. Retrieved from http://www.publicagenda.org


About the Author

Karen L. Pedersen, Ph.D., Chief Knowledge Officer, Online Learning Consortium


Dr. Karen Pedersen was recently selected as the Chief Knowledge Officer for the Online Learning Consortium. In this role, she has responsibility to gather, curate and leverage the intellectual capital created by and disseminated through the organization to create and enhance services and resources provided to constituents.

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