Regulators who make the rules for higher education accreditation are being closely watched now for the rules governing online learning. Three industry groups who are concerned have put forward their own policy recommendations. The groups are the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET).
The recommendations are concerned with competency-based education (CBE), regular and substantive interaction, and state authorization. The Department of Education's ongoing accreditation rulemaking session (which may also require congressional action) may develop outcomes-based Title IV eligibility standards for gauging colleges' effectiveness with a wider range of instructional modalities.
One big topic of discussion concerns the current rules around regular and substantive interaction. This is the measure of how much contact instructors and students must have in online courses. Some educators feel the current rules put online learning at a "competitive disadvantage" relative to on-campus instruction.
One of the test cases has been the DoE's case against Western Governors University. But in January 2019 it canceled a $713 million fine owed by WGA that came out of a 2017 audit that concluded that the school's CBE model was not in compliance with federal standards for online education. In its January reversal, the DoE determined that the fully online nonprofit university "made a reasonable and good faith effort" to apply the rules to its model.
The DoE further stated that it is "hopeful that further clarification [around distance learning] will be part of future regulations that will help spur the growth of high-quality innovative programs."
According to Inside Higher Ed, a third of all higher education students take at least one online course. Many of those students live on campus or within a two-hour radius of the college, so that the older term of "distance education" has become far less relevant.
But online learning is still growing in higher education. For example, Florida International University now offers more than 100 degrees fully online, and added more than 15 degrees in the past year. Those offerings include 20+ STEM programs at the graduate and undergraduate level, and new bachelors’ degrees in economics, writing and rhetoric.
Not all universities and educators are as strong in pushing online learning. Researchers at George Mason University and the Urban Institute say students who lack strong academic preparation tend to struggle in an online-only environment. But that research has been questioned by others. And the discussons continue at many levels.