Well, unsurprisingly, Western Governors University was issued a reprieve by the US Department of Education on Friday. Despite clear violations of the existing guidelines that distinguish distance education from correspondence education via “regular and substantive interaction between students and faculty” they will not have to pay back $713 million in Federal Financial Aid. This decision lines up neatly with the recent proposals by DeVos to revise definitions of the credit hour and expand “instructors” to “members of the instructional team.”
Here it is folks, that point in the road we’ve been traveling down for the last twenty years in higher education–we must clearly articulate the value of the contact between students and faculty.
The ride to this point has included many stops.
The higher education community argued seriously and productively about online education. We know that learning online is not the same as the classroom experience, but when done well, it can be a good learning environment. It does afford access to busy adults who cannot get to a campus. If the students are ready for online learning, and that is an important if, they can get a good education online.
At the same time, we have embraced (to various degrees) the ways in which new learning technologies can enhance the classroom. We’ve been putting supplementary materials online, allowing students many opportunities to encounter and review materials important to their courses. Often there are group assignments, review tests, or even supplementary explanations in video or written format to support student success. Sometimes we call it flipping the classroom. Sometimes we call it homework. Either way, it points out that learning can happen independently, with materials curated by a faculty member.
We have also embraced the diagnostic potential of digital texts and evaluations. Pearson, famously, is at the forefront of this, turning textbooks, into interactive learning environments, and adjusting material based on the responses of the students. Adaptive learning is being used in classrooms to try to enhance student success. Those classrooms may be supervised by faculty, but are frequently filled with tutors and TAs.
Let’s not forget the routine use of graduate assistants and teaching assistants as part of our “instructional teams.” This is an old practice that frequently limits student contact with faculty. Over the years we have moved to better training for graduate assistants, requiring classes in teaching methods, or at least bringing GAs together for weekly meetings about the material they are covering. Like distance learning, questions were asked about the effectiveness of the graduate assistants, and we had to move to demonstrate their value. That impulse was a good one, but it leaves us with more questions.
In all of these steps, we moved toward more carefully defined outcomes. These include learning outcomes in courses and degrees, as well as student success measures such as retention, timely graduation, and post-graduate activities. These outcomes became points of comparison for all of the above – online vs. on-ground, traditional vs. interactive texts, student success in courses taught by GAs vs. FT-Faculty. It turns out that when we compare institutions who serve similar students, and follow similar definitions of the goals of an undergraduate education, the outcomes are surprisingly similar. (Take a look at https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/ to compare some of these outcomes.)
So now what? We’ve got to get serious about defining the quality of learning that takes place when a student has regular interaction with a person with advanced knowledge of a discipline. We have to be able to show why that matters in the whole of a student’s education. We have to show that these benefits are a matter of equity and that we should not just provide that kind of education to the elite. And we have to do it honestly, assessing the weaknesses in the educational paradigms we’ve created in an effort to truly transform.
I was struck by the final paragraph in Inside Higher Education’s coverage of this decision. They quote Spiros Protopsaltis, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Education Policy and Evaluation and a former Education Department official,
“However, the critical issue is that we should not lower the bar to accommodate any particular online model, whether it’s WGU or any other school, but instead we should raise the bar for quality and rigor,” he said. “Given the evidence on the importance of interaction between students and instructors for student success, requiring and enforcing such interaction is imperative.”
Just because one institution has strong outcomes while failing to meet that standard, he said, does not mean the Education Department should lower the bar for the entire online industry.
Here’s the thing, Protopsaltis has acknowledged that the WGU model has strong outcomes. This is the real issue, folks. If we don’t address the reasons for those strong outcomes, and make a case for something more, then WGU is our future. Or perhaps the future is just some really great libraries.