Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

The rules, and possibly the game, are changing

Devon Cancilla, Vice Provost, Online Learning

Devon Cancilla, Vice Provost, Online Learning

As a faculty member teaching environmental chemistry, I rarely paid attention to federal legislation involving higher education. My job, after all, was to teach, do research, and participate in service. I knew little about the process of accreditation other than having to provide my CV and the syllabi of my courses to the department once a year. What did “they” actually do with them anyway? I also paid little attention to how students ended up in my class; when I showed up to teach, there they were. I cannot tell you how many of my former students have become gainfully employed in the field of environmental science as a result of completing their degrees. I certainly never puzzled through the connections between my course, legislation, student enrollment, outcomes, retention, completion, accreditation, gainful employment or other factors together. I was just happy to be left alone to teach my courses and do my research. Looking back, I wish I had understood more about those factors. It may have helped me be a better teacher and perhaps even a better member of the broader university community.

As I moved out of the traditional classroom and further into the online environment, I became increasingly aware of the extent to which teaching is embedded in a larger educational experience. Students’ experience depends on many factors, and it really takes a team effort to deliver a quality education. The classroom experience I provided, whether online or face-to-face, was only one component of a very complex higher education equation full of variables. Change the variables and the outcome changes.

HEA Reauthorization logoThe reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) will change one key set of variables that affects students’ educational experience. First signed into law in 1965, the HEA is undergoing its eighth major revision. Unlike earlier reauthorizations, this one will most likely have a significant impact on institutions across higher education. The convergence of a number of factors, including rapid advancements in the use of technology, concerns over student debt, and the call for greater accountability, has prompted legislation that is attempting to modernize the rules of the game under which higher education operates.

Some would argue that the proposed legislative changes are actually about creating an entirely new game. For example, will universities continue to be the only pathway for obtaining a degree? Can alternative educational providers – private companies, employers, and other non-university content providers – provide pathways to degrees? Should financial aid be awarded to students completing courses from these alternative providers? Where do nanodegrees and competency-based education fit into the equation? These are among the issues being discussed as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and literally all of these scenarios have been made possible through the use of technology.

As I moved out of the traditional classroom and further into the online environment, I became increasingly aware of the extent to which teaching is embedded in a larger educational experience.
But if this is a new game with new rules, the playing field has to be level. This is where accreditation comes into the picture. Think of accreditation standards as the actual rules of the game and accreditors as the referees. The referee’s job is to make sure that all the players on the field are playing by the rules. This is why understanding accreditation is so important. The better we understand the rules, the more likely we are to succeed. We also need to understand that there are new teams, such as private sector companies or alternative providers, poised to enter the league. As these new teams come into the educational league, they are generally unbound by the long standing traditions associated with higher education and which have evolved based on the old rules of the game. The new teams may be more agile and better prepared to adopt new approaches, often facilitated through the rapid adoption of new technologies such as learning analytics.

Competency-based education, reusable learning objects, nanodegrees, and stackable credentials are all becoming the new reality. Whether those of us who were trained in traditional academic settings are ready or not, students are switching allegiance to these new teams. Or, at the very least, students are increasingly drawn to the old teams more willing and capable to adapt and try new things.**

In 2019, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), UMKC’s accrediting body, will make its site visit to determine the reaffirmation of UMKC’s accreditation. The referees will be evaluating UMKC against the rules of the game, including the rules for online education. HLC will apply a rulebook: the Guidelines for the Evaluation of Online Programs.

Online courses, unlike face-to-face courses, can be reviewed in their entirety and judged against nationally recognized design standards. For example, it is now easier to compare courses from an academic institution, such as UMKC, with courses from an alternative provider. Which course is better designed? Which course has most effectively utilized the subject matter expert (the instructor)? Which course provides better opportunities for regular and substantive interactions among students and between students and faculty? Which course is ADA compliant? Which course effectively authenticates students enrolled in the course?

Change Ahead road signThis relates to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act because these factors will be recognized as important, and the rules for online education will be applied to university and alternative providers alike. This is why it takes a team to deliver quality online programs. To support this university’s great instructors, those subject matter experts who will be teaching in new ways and to a wide range of students, we will need to form a team to understand and meet applicable standards. The team will include instructional designers, who will work with faculty to help implement standards. We will need assessment specialists to help us understand what we are doing well and where we could do better. And we will need strong IT support, to make sure that we can take advantage of the many exciting technologies that will enliven and improve online education. We will need to work out how to provide advising and tutoring for online students (think retention and completion – another HEA target).

Yes, the rules are changing, and alternative providers understand this. We don’t want to be stuck on the sidelines. The Higher Education Act reauthorization provides us with challenges and opportunities, and we need to make sure that we aren’t caught napping while the other teams are already on the field.

** For a nice summary of online education in the U.S., see the “Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States” published by the Babson Survey Research Group and WCET.