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Push is on to streamline online learning

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 3:34 a.m. MDT

The Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, led by former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, presented guidelines for a system of interstate reciprocity in education Thursday. (Shutterstock) The Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, led by former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, presented guidelines for a system of interstate reciprocity in education Thursday. (Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — A former secretary of education is pushing a plan to streamline the way colleges and universities offer online education across state lines.

Richard Riley, who served in the Clinton administration, on Thursday unveiled a system of interstate reciprocity intended to increase efficiency and decrease costs in higher education.

The plan calls on states to voluntarily adopt a set of standards for the delivery of online education. States would monitor their in-state schools' adherence to the standards, with the understanding that other schools are being monitored by their home states. Riley said such an agreement would alleviate the need for states to monitor all institutions offering distance education.

"The importance of this work cannot be overstated," Riley said in a prepared statement. "The nearly 7 million students using online technology to access postsecondary education will benefit immensely from the consumer protection and quality assurances built into the commission's proposed system of interstate reciprocity."

Riley presented the plan on behalf of the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, which is composed of educators, elected officials and former policymakers from around the country.

Riley said the agreement would result in greater access to higher education opportunities for students while providing appropriate quality assurance of distance education. While participation by states is voluntarily, officials on the commission expect the plan to be widely adopted.

"Furthermore, this system will increase opportunity and access for students across the country, bringing us closer to the goal of leading the world in college completion rates," he said.

Distance and online education has proliferated on college and university campuses as an alternative option to the traditional classroom setting, particularly for nontraditional students such as working parents.

In 2012, 47 percent of dual-enrollment students — those earning high school and college credits simultaneously — earned the credits through an online or distance delivery method, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Utah's public colleges and universities now offer about 1,500 courses online, and 49 degree programs can be completed in their entirety through online learning, according to Utah System of Higher Ecudation spokeswoman Pamela Silberman.

According to the commission, laws and policies at both the state and federal levels have not kept up with the growth of distance education. That brings a patchwork of individual state regulations and varying degrees of complexity and costs.

"Universities are going through a period of extraordinary change in which they must adapt to the demand and need for increased online learning," Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said in a prepared statement. "The commission's plan provides a clear regulatory path forward for institutions to grow their distance education programs and meet the evolving needs of students."

Silberman said students who take online courses from Utah's public colleges and universities were not likely to be impacted by the reciprocity system. She said that because Utah's public schools do not actively campaign for out-of-state online learners, the scenarios where an out-of-state student would run into regulatory red tape are relatively minimal.

"I think we’re very supportive of the idea of reciprocity," she said. "That said, this is not going to significantly change what Utah is doing."

Silberman said the Utah System of Higher Education does not track the number of Utah students who take online courses from out-of-state schools. There are between 8,000 and 9,000 students who live outside of Utah who participate in Utah online courses, she said, but the majority of those students live in the Intermountain West region or are otherwise connected to the state through family or work.

E-mail: benwood@deseretnews.com

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