March 13th, 2017 by Jon Becker

About 6 weeks ago, I wrote about efforts underway to advance online/distance education across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since then, I’ve talked to some folks involved, attended a hearing in the General Assembly, and received updates from folks “in the loop.” The tl;dr version of what has happened since that last post is that we now have a state-supported initiative aimed, at least for now, at degree completion via distance education. The Online Virginia Network (OVN) is now a thing, and, for now, is mostly a collaboration between Old Dominion University and George Mason University to advance a degree completion agenda by streamlining the process for enrolling in an online program at one of the two institutions. Their new website, which I think is pretty slick and simple to navigate, is mostly just a portal to information about programs offered at the two universities. The OVN1 also has new oversight in the form of a board that’s loaded with state legislators. How the OVN grows in the future feels undetermined to me, but maybe that’s OK. We’ll see…

[UPDATE: I was properly informed that the OVN isn’t really officially a new thing, yet. House Bill 2262 breezed through the House of Delegates and the Senate, but has not yet been signed by Governor McAuliffe. So, what exists now (particularly the website) lives, at least budgetarily, under the auspices of the original Virginia Degree Completion Network. My guess is that the Governor signs the bill, though maybe with some small amendments.]

At the hearing at the General Assembly about the OVN that I attended, the only speakers were representatives from ODU and GMU. The legislative committee asked them a few questions, and throughout the short hearing, there were some numbers thrown around about “the market” for the OVN. One person said that there are 1.1 million Virginia residents with some college credits and no degree; another person said the number is more like 600,000. SCHEV’s Tod Massa, wrote about this last summer and estimates 648,000 such residents, and even breaks it down by how many credits they actually have. However we slice it, there are LOTS of Virginia residents with some college credits but no degree.

Related, as part of my “reassignment” this semester, I’ve been doing some research about the distance education landscape in Virginia. I’ve been asked to gather data and produce some information about VCU’s standing relative to other institutions. My starting point has been IPEDS data which yielded the following charts.

There’s some interesting information in those charts2, most of which I already knew. For example, at the undergraduate level, the Virginia Community College System is the dominant player. And, particularly among the 4-year publics, ODU is the big kahuna. Looking at the data also reminded me that Virginia, as a whole, is not considered a big distance education state. In fact, according to the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), Virginia’s percentage of instruction by e-learning is ranked 15th out of 16 SREB states.

So, if by the logic of the OVN, there is such a big “market” of people with some college credit but no college degree, why such a small percentage of instruction offered through distance education? And, if that’s the case, maybe Virginia is ripe for the plucking by outside providers?

For that last question, we now have some data. As part of the national State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), participating institutions have to report the number of distance education students served from outside their home state. And, the fine folks at NC-SARA have made those data publicly available.  Somewhat to my surprise, those data show almost 35,000 Virginia residents involved in distance education at out-of-state institutions. We don’t know the extent to which they’re enrolled (single courses? A whole program?) or at what level (undergraduate? graduate?), but we can see which out-of-state institutions are enrolling the most Virginia residents. The table below only lists the top 7 states in which institutions serving Virginia residents are domiciled, and the top 3 institutions within those states.

WV 8899 American Public University System (8588) (for-profit)
West Virginia University (108)
University of Charleston (71)
AZ 8788 University of Phoenix (5718) (for-profit)
Penn Foster College (1480) (for-profit)
Grand Canyon University (1127) (for-profit)
MN 3944 Walden University (2282) (for-profit)
Capella University (1519) (for-profit)
Rasmussen College (58) (for-profit)
CO 1985 Colorado Technical University (695) (for-profit)
College for Financial Planning (295) (for-profit)
American Sentinel University – Aurora (257) (for-profit)
NH 1625 Southern New Hampshire University (1625) (for-profit)
IA 1575 Kaplan University (1575) (for-profit)
AL 1508 Columbia Southern University (1073) (for-profit)
Troy University (197)
The University of Alabama (80)

Notice anything? It’s almost all for-profit institutions domiciled outside of Virginia, to the tune of probably close to 30,000 of the 35,ooo Virginia residents involved in distance education. For sure, many of these students are military personnel, as we have some big military bases and I’ve seen firsthand how aggressively the for-profit providers recruit military personnel to their programs. But, is this a big “market”; is this a lot of potential in-state tuition money lost to out-of-state (mostly for-profit) providers?

Well, I looked at SARA states closest in size to Virginia. First, I looked at Washington, a state slightly less populous than Virginia. According to the NC-SARA data, just over 20,000 students are enrolled in distance education offered by out-of-state providers. Proportionally, that’s a bit lower than Virginia. I also looked at Georgia, a slightly more populous state than Virginia. Almost 58,000 Georgia residents are enrolled in distance education offered by out-of-state providers. Proportionally, that’s a bit more than Virginia. These are back-of-the-napkin calculations, but I’m guessing that, ultimately, Virginia is about typical in this realm. Tens of thousands of our residents are enrolling in distance education at out-of-state, mostly for-profit institutions.

Are we making up for that lost tuition by enrolling out-of-state students in our online courses and programs? Well, according to the NC-SARA data, the answer is not really. There are 58,917 out-of-state students being served by Virginia institutions. However, the vast majority of those are students attending Liberty and/or other private institutions. In fact, by my calculations, 1,187 out-of-state students are enrolled in some form of distance education through a public institution in Virginia.

What does this all mean? Very roughly, for every 1 student who pays out-of-state tuition via distance education to a public institution in Virginia, we lose 35 students to out-of-state (mostly for-profit) providers.

This doesn’t include Virginia residents enrolled at institutions in non-SARA states at the time SARA conducted this first round of data collection. North Carolina, our neighbor to the south, wasn’t in SARA at the time and I’m certain some of our residents are enrolled through UNC Online. Furthermore, this doesn’t include the number of Virginia residents getting a degree from Liberty University via distance education. I can’t immediately find how many in-state students they have, but their own website says their online enrollment exceeds 94,0003. I have to figure that includes tens of thousands of Virginia residents. Ultimately, though, the 1:35 ratio above is probably a conservative estimate.

So, back to the Online Virginia Network… if my rough calculations are correct, as a state, we’d do well to figure out ways to serve our residents better. We’re not going to keep every student in state or enrolled at one of our public institutions, but I’m certain we can recoup some of the tuition lost to out-of-state and/or private providers. And, this is where I think and hope the Online Virginia Network (OVN) can come into play.

This all, of course, doesn’t get into issues of quality. I can’t speak to the quality of online courses and programs at Liberty. I have heard some unconfirmed rumors about their criteria for hiring instructors and they worry me.  And, frankly, as much as I have my suspicions, I don’t *really* know about the quality of online courses and programs offered by the for-profit providers. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book, LowerEd, is a brilliant, insightful look at the practices within the for-profit education industry. Tressie’s book is more about practice and policy (and sociology) than it is about educational quality, but she does report on the less-than-stellar outcomes for students served by these providers. These outcomes include high dropout rates and poor job-placement rates while students have taken on massive amounts of debt. That’s not what we want for citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  So, I also hope that the Online Virginia Network is truly attentive to issues of quality. I’ve written about the rules of engagement for online learning and the thicket of guidelines and regulations that bound the world of distance education. Despite those guidelines and regulations, we know that crappy online courses and programs abound. Thus, my dearest hope is that the Online Virginia Network (OVN) is truly attentive to issues of educational quality and not just a mechanism for funneling citizens into programs of limited quality and poor outcomes.

  1. sounds a bit like an evangelical TV network to me []
  2. NOTE: I did not include Liberty University in any of the charts. They’re too much of an outlier. []
  3. Yes, 94,000. That’s not a typo… []

Posted in Online Learning Tagged with: , , , ,

April 17th, 2016 by Jon Becker

As a lawyer dude who lives in the world of online learning, the news about a complaint filed by a class of students at George Washington University has me intrigued. According to Inside Higher Education,

Four graduates of the university’s online master’s degree program in security and safety leadership last week filed a class-action lawsuit in the District of Columbia Superior Court, saying the program doesn’t live up to its promise of being designed for an online setting and not a physical classroom.

I haven’t read the complaint, but the IHE story says that the students are “…suing the university for fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and violation of D.C. consumer protection laws.” In other words, the students claim that the university is making money off of them by providing an educational experience that’s not at all what was promised to them. This framing is important; you can’t just file a lawsuit claiming that the program sucked. You need an actual cause of action, and these students are going the consumer fraud route. They could have tacked on a claim of educational malpractice, but those lawsuits are almost never successful.

More specifically, according to the GW Hatchet, and independent student newspaper at GWU, the students appear to claim that, among other things:

  • Course materials included “often nonsensical PowerPoint slides pilfered from other instructors’ in-class lessons.”
  • Instructors were unqualified to teach online.
  • Instructors were “…consistently unresponsive and demonstrated an unfamiliarity with the subject matter and material.”
  • Misrepresentation of the program in advertisements to prospective students, including a claim that the program is “universally lauded by alumni” despite the fact that there were no alumni when the online program launched.

That’s some heavy stuff. Of course, it’s just the language from the complaint which is the initial salvo from the lawyers carrying out their ethical obligation of zealous advocacy. We’ll see how the university responds.

Yet, this development got me wondering if we’ll see more of these kinds of lawsuits. For lots of reasons, many colleges and universities are ramping up their online offerings. In the minds of some stakeholders, this is a fairly simple proposition. Fire up a learning management system, build some courses in there consisting of mostly content and quizzes, assign faculty members as instructors of record, and, voila, an online program. If only…

While the complaint against GWU is framed as, essentially, a consumer fraud case, there are a host of regulatory standards to which online programs are held. From the federal government to national reciprocity agreements to regional accreditation agencies, universities that wish to offer online programming are held to a complex web of standards. Consider just the following:

Federal Regulations

By federal law “correspondence” and “distance education” are defined in section § 600.2 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.  These definitions have been in place since July 1, 2010.

Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously. The technologies may include—

(1) The internet;

(2) One-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices;

(3) Audio conferencing; or

(4) Video cassettes, DVDs, and CD-ROMs, if the cassettes, DVDs, or CD-ROMs are used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (3) of this definition.

The key language in that definition is “…regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor…” If one or more of those technologies is used and there is no regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, courses and/or programs could be classified as “correspondence courses.” From there, “According to Section 102(a)(3)(B) of the HEA, an institution is not eligible to participate in the Title IV programs if 50 percent or more of its students were enrolled in correspondence courses during its latest complete award year.” So, if an institution of higher education wants to engage heavily in online learning, it behooves the institution to make sure it is truly providing “distance education” and not “correspondence courses” or else they risk losing federal financial aid. The distinction, there, is “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor.” I wonder if the GWU students believe the interaction between them and the instructors was “regular and substantive;” doesn’t sound like it.

State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA)

Institutions that want to offer online courses and/or programs to out-of-state students must make sure they are compliant with consumer protection laws in the states where those out-of-state students are domiciled. To avoid having to deal with 50 different laws, the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements was formed. As of the writing of this post, 34 states were participating in SARA. In those states, over 500 institutions of higher education are now participating in SARA.

Among other things, institutions that participate in SARA are expected to abide by the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education developed by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) in 2011. The C-RAC guidelines are a set of 9 principles, each of which has  a set of actions, processes and facts that institutions might use to demonstrate that they meet the guidelines. The principles/guidelines are perfectly reasonable/sensible, and the suggested evidence is exhaustive. For example, as evidence of principle #3, an institution might need to demonstrate that “the institution’s faculty have a designated role in the design and implementation of its online learning offerings.” Also, an institution might need to demonstrate that it “…ensures the rigor of the offerings and the quality of the instruction.”  Finally, in support of principal #4, we see language similar to what’s in the federal definition of distance education. That is, the C-RAC guidelines suggest that institutions might want to ensure that “[c]ourse design and delivery supports student-student and faculty-student interaction.”

Thus, if an institution wants to stay in good standing with NC-SARA, it must be in compliance with the C-RAC guidelines which are perfectly reasonable, but comprehensive standards to ensure quality in online offerings.

Regional Accreditation

Higher education accreditation agencies each have their own set of expectations around online learning. My institution is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) which has Guidelines for Addressing Distance and Correspondence Education. These guidelines contain a set of expectations and a list of questions that an evaluator might ask of an institution as part of the accreditation process. Among those expectations is the following:

Comparability of distance and correspondence education programs to campus-based programs and courses is ensured by the evaluation of educational effectiveness, including assessments of student learning outcomes, student retention, and student satisfaction.

This notion of comparability is very much a part of the complaint filed by the GWU students. From the IHE article:

“In sum, plaintiffs were deceived into spending tens of thousands on tuition alone for a program that functionally required them to teach themselves the material,” the complaint reads. “They paid more than their peers who completed the same degree in a classroom, and yet received far less.”

These federal regulations, state reciprocity agreement guidelines, and expectations of accrediting agencies provide a comprehensive web of standards/guidelines/principles/expectations around online learning. In other words, lest anyone think that institutions of higher education can quickly, easily and negligently provide online courses and/or programs, the rules of engagement around online learning in are really comprehensive.

So, whether or not we see more complaints and/or lawsuits like the one filed by the GWU students, institutions of higher education WILL be held accountable for the quality of their online offerings.

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