OIG Report on WGU, Part 3: A Brief History of ‘Regular and Substantive Interaction’

Thank you to Van Davis for this third entry on our series examining the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General’s Audit Report of Western Governors University. Today, Van examines the changing nature of definitions used over time. Is it just me or is it hard to comply with changing definitions? Thank you, Van!

 Watch for a new pop-up session on these issues at the WCET Annual Meeting next week. See you in Denver.

-Russ Poulin, WCET

A little over two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released its long-awaited and much anticipated financial aid audit of Western Governors University (WGU). Since then, there have been a number of great discussions of the report as well as its potential impact on higher education. Today, in the third post of our series on the audit, we are going to take a trip down memory lane and revisit a post that we wrote last year that reviewed all of the available information at that time on “regular and substantive interaction,” the issue at the heart of both the audit findings and the source of much discussion among online educators.

A little history on “regular and substantive”

If you follow graphic novels, or even Marvel or DC movies, you know that every hero and villain has an origin story, and “regular and substantive interaction” is no different. The ‘80s saw an explosion of postsecondary vocational education programs offered via correspondence. Unfortunately, the Department of Education found substantial amounts of fraud among these programs, leading to the expansion of the Department of Education’s regulatory authority in 1992. Under the Higher Education Amendments of 1992, institutions at which more than 50 percent of its students were enrolled in correspondence education were no longer eligible for Title IV financial aid.

After realizing in the late ‘90s that these regulations were hampering the development of distance education, Congress authorized the Distance Education Demonstration Program in the 1998 Higher Education Amendments. The Demonstration allowed students in selected distance education programs to utilize federal financial aid.

As a result of the increased regulations, Congress defined correspondence in 1992 in 81 FR 92262. Central to that definition of correspondence is this piece (emphasis added):

“A course provided by an institution under which the institution provides instructional materials, by mail or electronic transmission, including examinations on the materials, to students who are separated from the instructor. Interaction between the instructor and student is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are typically self-paced.”

After the success of the Distance Education Demonstration Programs and in response to the explosion of distance education, especially online courses and programs, the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act – the Higher Education Opportunity Act – added to statute the definition of distance education (emphasis added):

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 statute goes on to specify four categories of technologies that include: the internet, one-way and two-way transmission broadcasts, audio conferencing, and, in some cases, recorded material.

So why this trip down memory lane? These definitions, and the “regular and substantive interaction” language embedded in them continue to be at the heart of debate over the financial aid eligibility of both competency-based education (CBE) and online education. And, in terms of the most recent OIG report, the definition of “regular and substantive interaction” appears to have shifted.

Defining “regular and substantive”—then and now

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The OIG first applied “regular and substantive interaction” in its 2011 audit finding against St. Mary-of-the-Woods College (see Russ’s excellent post for more background) where it focused on the technologies used for interactions between faculty and students. According to the audit, faculty teaching distance education courses at St. Mary-of-the-Woods rarely used technologies such as a learning management system or online discussion forums. As a result, the OIG ruled that “instructors did not deliver lectures or initiate discussions with students. Tutoring and other instruction resources were provided at the student’s discretion.” Thus, St. Marys-of-the-Woods was offering correspondence education and ineligible for federal financial aid.

In December 2014, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter in an effort to clarify what constitutes “regular and substantive interaction” within the context of competency-based education. In that letter, the Department indicated what “regular and substantive” was not (emphasis added):

We do not consider interaction that is wholly optional or initiated primarily by the student to be regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors. Interaction that occurs only upon the request of the student (either electronically or otherwise) would not be considered regular and substantive interaction.”

However, that still begs the question—what constitutes “regular and substantive interaction?” The same Dear Colleague letter went on to list several different types of educational activities, that at least within the context of competency-based education, might constitute “engagement” including:

  • “Participating in regularly scheduled learning sessions (where there is an opportunity for direct interaction between the student and the faculty member);
  • Submitting an academic assignment;
  • Taking an exam, an interactive tutorial, or computer-assisted instruction;
  • Attending a study group that is assigned by the institution;
  • Participating in an online discussion about academic matters;
  • Consultation with a faculty mentor to discuss academic course content; and
  • Participation in faculty-guided independent study.”

Sadly, though, the letter quickly goes on to state, “Note that not all of the educational activities described above fulfill the requirements for regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.” Nowhere does the letter go on to elaborate or clarify this last statement.

So, we’re back to the question—what’s regular and substantive interaction?

Question mark drawn on a chalkboardThe recent OIG audit report goes a bit farther in defining “regular and substantive.” Unfortunately, those definitions have no basis in statute. On pages 14-16 of the report, the OIG lays out what they believe to be the “ordinary meaning” of “regular and substantive” interaction between students and instructors. Instructors are, according to the OIG, “someone who instructs or provides knowledge about the subject matter of the course,” and that includes only course mentors and evaluators. Substantive interaction is defined as “relevant to the subject matter” and involves a “student interaction with a course mentor or required an individual submission of a performance task for which an evaluator provided the student feedback.”

Most importantly, the OIG goes on to define what is NOT substantive, and here’s where online education programs should especially pay attention. Substantive interaction does NOT include:

  • Computer-generated feedback on objective assessments
  • “Recorded webinars, videos, and reading materials if the course design materials did not require the students to watch the webinars and then interact with an instructor.”
  • Contact with mentoring staff who are not directly providing instruction on the course’s subject matter.

Finally, the OIG tackles regular interaction and defined it as “occurring with some reasonable frequency considering the school-suggested length of the course.”

What does this look like on a practical basis? We can find a hint at that on page 5 of the report where the OIG recommends that WGU should: “Ensure that the school-defined academic year will include at least 30 weeks of instructional time and each of the weeks will include at least 1 day of regularly scheduled instruction or an examination” (emphasis added). But where did this definition come from?

In March 2011, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter on program integrity. Although that document did not directly address “regular and substantive interaction,” it did delve into the definition of credit hour and “week of instructional time.” It is in that definition of “week of instructional time” that we find the following (emphasis added):

“In general, a week of instructional time is any seven-day period in which at least one day of regularly scheduled instruction or examination occurs… Thus, in any seven-day period, a student is expected to be academically engaged through, for example, classroom attendance, examinations, practica, laboratory work, internships, and supervised studio work. In the case of distance education and correspondence education, academic engagement would include, but not be limited to, submitting an academic assignment; taking an exam, an interactive tutorial, or computer-assisted instruction; attending a study group that was assigned by the institution; contributing to an academic online discussion; and initiating contact with a faculty member to ask a question about the academic subject studied in the course.”

Concluding thoughts

In its recent audit report, the OIG appears to take this six-year-old description of an instructional week as the basis of what “regular and substantive interaction” might look like. In some ways we may be a little closer to at least an understanding of what the OIG believes constitutes “regular and substantive interaction.” But the OIG does not make regulatory policy; they are only supposed to interpret regulations. Unfortunately, without Department of Education clarification or Congressional action to actually define “regular and substantive interaction,” we aren’t much closer to a legal definition of what has increasingly become a key term for all forms of distance education.

In last week’s post, we laid out some suggestions about what you should be doing in light of the most recent report—react but don’t over-react; engage faculty; engage administrators; engage government affairs staff; and be open with students and employer partners. And you should do all of those things.

Image with galaxy that says "don't panic and grab your towel"But we would also argue that the broader distance education community now has an opportunity to substantially engage in what may be the most critical conversation yet—how do we walk the line between crafting regulatory language that ensures that the students enrolled in all forms of online education receive a high-quality education, without stifling the very innovation that can improve student access and success?

In the meantime, let’s all find our towels and take our cue from the cover of the greatest travel book of them all– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t Panic.

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Van Davis
Associate Vice President
Higher Education Policy and Research
Blackboard, Inc.



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Blackboard Ally: Tackling Accessibility in Higher Education

2017WOW_Logo_0Today we continue the WCET Frontiers series on the 2017 WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Awards. These awards honor member institutions and organizations that develop technology-based solutions to challenging educational needs.

We welcome Blackboard to discuss their award winning program Ally. Thank you for your work to increase student success!

Enjoy the read and enjoy the day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

Problem: How can institutions tackle the accessibility of their online courses and course materials?

Accessibility is a hot topic in education today for good reason. Thanks to advances in educational technology, we are seeing an increased demand for more options and more flexibility when it comes to how students learn. Up until now, conversations around accessibility were often limited to how accessible the platforms are that students and instructors use, but stopped short when it came to how people interacted with the courses and content in those platforms.

Universal Design for Learning

With such vast amounts of courses and content, where do institutions go from here? It can be difficult not to fall back on a more reactive approach to the challenge of making online courses accessible. This can mean a lot of manual remediation and wait time for the students while alternative formats are created on a request by request basis. This also means more time and resources devoted to retrofitting course material while trying to create new material at the same time. By enabling more flexible and inclusive learning experiences, coupled with a shift in mindset and the implementation of new tools, institutions can take a more universal approach when it comes to online learning. This is where Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, comes into play. Instructors/instructional designers should keep in mind the following key concepts within UDL:

  • Equitability – Design your courses to be useful and usable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility – Design your courses to consider a wide range of preferences and abilities.

How can courses be made equitable and flexible? How can these concepts optimize every student’s experience?

Solution: Taking a more proactive, inclusive approach to learning.

Shifting mindset is easier said than done, but moving to a more inclusive approach can be achieved by a small shift and adjustment of standard working routines. For example, consider student engagement in class in the form of a discussion. Some students may feel comfortable speaking up face to face while others may find a virtual classroom setting makes it easier for them to interact with their peers. By providing options, students are provided with equal opportunity to learn in their own style that meets their needs. With this example, universal design has just been incorporated into the course.

As another example, consider PDF materials and how students use them. PDFs can sometimes make up about half of all course material in online courses, but many documents are not always designed to be compatible with screen readers or other assistive technology. In addition, sometimes the documents themselves are scanned or have other issues which make them hard to read or view on another device. Having options and alternatives for these documents from the start can increase the accessibility but also improve the quality and usability of the materials for all students. Not only is this incorporating universal design, it is creating a more inclusive learning environment to enable student success.

Proactive, inclusive approach to learning

This is why we are so excited about Blackboard Ally as another way to help encourage this proactive, inclusive approach to learning. Blackboard Ally was developed to help institutions understand and tackle accessibility in a way that benefits all students. One of the driving forces behind the creation of Ally is the belief that accessibility should not be connected only to disabilities. Accessibility should be about providing better access to everyone and improving the quality of the educational experience for everyone.

How does it work?

Using inclusivity, sustainability and automation as its key pillars, Blackboard Ally integrates seamlessly into the Learning Management System and the workflows that students and instructors already use to help make digital course content more accessible. It does this in three specific ways:

  1. Alternative Formats – Blackboard Ally will automatically run instructor course materials through an accessibility checklist that checks for common accessibility issues. Using advanced Machine Learning algorithms, Ally will generate a range of more accessible alternatives for the instructor’s original (e.g., audio, ePub, electronic braille) and will make these available to all students in the course.Screenshot of Ally showing options for downloading accessible PDF versions
  2. Instructor Feedback and Guidance – Using the insight gained from its accessibility checks, Ally will also provide instructors in-context feedback about the accessibility of their course content and guidance on how to fix the identified accessibility issues.Screen shot of Ally showing the accessiblity score of an image
  3. Institutional Reporting – Blackboard Ally provides an institution-wide course content accessibility report that allows for deep insight and understanding into how the institution is performing and evolving from a course content accessibility point of view.Report of accessibilty over time (accessibility score with and without Ally)

The Results

The response to Blackboard Ally has been equally exciting. It was recently awarded a 2017 WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) award, which is traditionally given to organizations and institutions that “implement exceptionally creative, technology-based solutions to contemporary challenges in higher education.”

The Ally team works with institutions around the world to continue to gather feedback and improve, and contribute to the momentum and scale that’s required to help institutions make the shift to a more inclusive environment.

If you’re interested in staying up to date on Blackboard Ally, please be sure to sign up for the Ally User group to participate in the discussion.

author headshot Nicolaas Matthijs


Nicolaas Matthijs
Product Manager, Blackboard Ally
Institution:  Blackboard, Inc.




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Digital Credentials for Faculty Professional Development

I’ve held many conversations with higher education professionals about how to encourage the use of instructional technologies in the classroom. Many times the conversation revolves around the newest innovations, what tool is the most user-friendly, or which new tech will capture student’s attention. Eventually, the conversation typically ends with us talking about faculty training and support. How do we motivate our faculty to be attend technology training sessions?

Luckily, today we are joined by Preston Davis (Northern Virginia Community College) and Luke Dowden (University of Louisiana at Lafayette)  to learn about how their institutions incentivize faculty participation in teaching with technology professional development. Thank you both for your advice!

Oh, and I can’t wait to check out their WCET Annual Meeting session about digital credentials! Read on to learn more!

Enjoy the read and enjoy the day,

~Lindsey, WCET

Higher education institutions are facing increasing pressure to demonstrate innovation. Students, faculty/staff, and employers have different priorities and expectations, especially when it comes to the use of technology. The need to incorporate instructional technology tools into an effective learning environment is apparent, and there is no shortage of products and services available to faculty and students alike. The problem with the use of these available instructional technologies often lies with training faculty to effectively use technology in their classroom, whether physical or virtual. Moreover, most faculty, regardless of institution type, are trained in their discipline (e.g. math, english, nursing) and have little to no preparation in teaching or teaching with technology.

Northern Virginia Community College and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette have identified faculty preparation to teach online as a high priority and are using digital credentials to incentivize faculty participation.

At Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), Dr. Preston Davis adopted a new approach to faculty training in instructional technology with the following objectives (note: among all the faculty objectives, the following apply to this story):

  • Provide accessible, convenient, high-quality training for faculty and staff across the college in the use of instructional technologies for teaching and learning,
  • Provide training and certification in Blackboard, hybrid instruction, and online instructional tools with a focus on quality training outcomes,
  • Emphasize synchronous and asynchronous virtual workshops over in-person trainings,
  • Leverage existing resources such as video tutorials to quickly build out effective trainings and job aids,
  • Recognize faculty initiative through digital credentials that acknowledge their professional development accomplishments.

NOVA is a large community college serving over 70,000 students in the Washington DC metro area at six campuses and online. Providing training support to over 3,000 faculty/staff members spread throughout one of the most heavily populated regions in the nation is no small task. Our approach to this is a comprehensive training program that leverages online technologies, and uses certifications and digital badges to encourage and recognize participation.an example of a digital badge (green circle with a head icon, gears inside of the head to showcase thinking skills)

Badges are digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a web page or other online venues.

NOVA’s Instructional Technology Training Digital Badges provide faculty participants with a digital credential as evidence of completing professional development workshops and programs focused on instructional technology.

Examples of digital badges

These badges are useful for faculty evaluations, appointments and promotions.

A collection of badges can also function as a distributed portfolio that may be accessible from a variety of social media sites, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google Plus.

When badges serve as part of a résumé or portfolio, they tell current/prospective employers and professional organizations a more detailed story about the technology skills and interests of faculty, including both the hard and soft skills that were acquired.

We developed our new digital badge initiative to complement our certification programs for teaching hybrid and online courses. We currently offer tracks in advanced Blackboard tools, Google Apps for Educators, Microsoft Office, and Free Tools for Enhanced Teaching and Learning. These programs are open to all faculty and staff, and apply to teaching in all modalities. This is a new initiative at NOVA, but early feedback indicates that faculty are very interested in our updated training program and see the value in being able to showcase their knowledge and use of technology to support learning outcomes and student success.

Aligning Digital Credentials with Training Pathways

At the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Dr. Luke Dowden and the Instructional Support Team within the Office of Distance Learning have aligned digital credentials to existing training pathways. According to Dowden, faculty are required to be ULearn certified in order to teach a hybrid or online course at UL Lafayette. Faculty may select from two pathways. Distance Learning also internally certifies online courses using the Quality Matters Rubric standards, which is another opportunity for faculty to earn a digital credential as a peer reviewer or by having their course certified. “We have aligned our initial iteration of digital credentials to the University’s tenure and promotion standards of research, teaching and service. We intend to expand our digital credentials through this ecosystem,” stated Dr. Dowden.

Since launching the first credential in 2016, a total of four have been created with 573 issued and 18,600 views of the credentials on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.Examples of certifications within three categories: 1. Certifications: Certified Course Designer, Certified online teacher, 2. Service: Course Reviewer, and 3. Research: Conference Presenter, Dowden credits his team member, Carey Hamburg, a Senior Instructional Designer, for his diligent work to create digital credentials that balance the University’s brand while recognizing a specific achievement.

Digital Credential Platforms

There are many platforms that can be used to create and distribute digital credentials, a few examples include:

  • Credly– Cred.ly helps users create badges, upload their own designs, and give credit through the platform. It is available as a web-based version and an iOS app.
  • Open Badges– Open Badges by Mozilla allows users to create and issue badges that do not have to be tied to a certain platform.
  • For All Badges– iOS app that works in conjunction with For All Rubrics to align your rubrics with the badging system. The app also integrates with Mozilla’s Open Badges platform, and allows students (or staff members) to save badges to their “backpack.”
  • Badgewallet – Android app for earning, managing and distributing digital credentials.


Want to learn more, or share your own experiences with digital credentials? Come to Luke and Preston’s presentation: Want Buy-In on Digital Credentials? Start with Faculty at the WCET Annual Meeting October 25-27, 2017. See you in Denver CO!


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Wm. Preston Davis
Director Educational Technology and Online Instructional Services
Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA)




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Luke Dowden
Director of Distance Learning
University of Louisiana at Lafayette




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The OIG Report on WGU, Part 2: React…But Don’t Overreact

It has been more than a week since the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued its Final Audit Report declaring that “Western Governors University Was Not Eligible to Participate in the Title IV Programs.” Word cloud with words: Hysterics, panic button, have a fit, alrm, sare, panic, lost it, go to pieces" written several times.Both of us (Russ Poulin, WCET and Van Davis, Blackboard) have been following the activities surrounding the audit (competency-based education, regular and substantive interaction, the definition of faculty) for some time. Last year we wrote a post trying to compile and interpret previous OIG and Department of Education information about “regular and substantive interaction.”

This is the second in a series of blog posts on the OIG Report. This post begins with some additional background. We also want to be the first to provide advice as to what this means for distance educators and suggest some issues you and your institutional colleagues should consider.

What Has Happened Since the Report Was Issued?

During the last week, there have been numerous articles and opinion pieces denouncing the OIG’s recommendations. They consistently highlight WGU’s stellar reputation and the fact that it performs better on many higher education metrics than most other institutions. A sampling of articles:

Knowing that the audit was coming, WGU produced a web page with text and video responses in which they are emphatic that the institution followed all laws and regulations in the care for and disbursement of federal financial aid. Last week, Jarret Cummings of EDUCAUSE joined us for a conversation with Robert Collins, WGU’s Vice President of Financial Aid, who echoed this message.

What You Need to Know

A red button with the word "panic" on itIn the whole discussion, there are some key details that have been lost that we want to highlight for you. We believe that these may be helpful in discussions with your colleagues.

  • Only institutions with more than 50% of their coursework declared “correspondence education” are at risk of losing their aid given the concepts used in the Report. So, react, but don’t overreact. Here is the background provided on this issue in the Report on page 1:

“In 2006, Congress removed restrictions that limited participation in the Title IV programs by schools offering distance education programs. Congress provided that distance education courses (then referred to as telecommunications courses) would no longer be considered correspondence courses as long as the distance education courses offered by a school exceeded 50 percent of its total course offerings…Schools also continued to be ineligible if courses offered by correspondence exceeded 50 percent of the total course offerings or student enrollment in correspondence programs exceeded 50 percent of total enrollment. Additionally, students enrolled in correspondence programs continued to be limited to a half-time Federal Pell Grant Program (Pell) award. In 2008, Congress further amended the HEA to require that distance education programs ‘support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor.’

  • The ruling also does not apply to any institution that has received authorization by the Department of Education to offer financial aid on the basis of direct assessment.
  • WGU is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Normally, an institution’s accrediting agency reviews the academic issues prevalent in the OIG Report. WGU was in good standing with its accrediting agency on these issues.
  • The Office of Inspector General is a semi-autonomous (our term) unit of the Department of Education. It performs reviews and audits that are recommendations to (in this case) the financial aid unit of the Department for their review and action. The ultimate authority to act on the recommendations lies with the Secretary of Education.
  • We have yet to talk to anyone who believes that the Department of Education will accept the Report. There are differences of opinion on how long it will take before action is taken and on exactly what actions the Department will recommend to remedy the situation. We believe it will be resoundingly rejected, but will the rejection help only WGU or will it be couched in broader language that might apply to all institutions?
  • Although the report’s findings were aimed only at WGU, we simply don’t know at this time whether or not these standards will be applied to other institutions. It is especially uncertain if the OIG’s interpretations of “instructor” and “regular and substantive interaction” will be applied to non-CBE modalities like adaptive learning or even general distance education. It is a concern.

How Can This Be Resolved?

This issue needs a Congressional solution, but Congressional action is hard to come by these days. The pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act would be a great place for a solution, but we are hearing that reauthorization may be delayed until 2019. (Collective heavy sigh.)

Meanwhile, the Department of Education needs to address these issues beyond just WGU; ED needs to provide clear direction regarding “regular and substantive” and acknowledge that the Inspector General’s definition is prohibitively narrow and does not acknowledge evidence of quality outcomes. Although the use of negotiated rulemaking has a mixed track record, absent of a legislative response, it may be time for the Department to use the process to issue regulatory language clarifying “regular and substantive.” Another possible solution would be passage of legislation that creates statutory definitions and standards for things like “instructor” and “regular and substantive.” And since CBE continues to enjoy bipartisan support, a legislative response is possible. However, any such response would need to go beyond addressing WGU’s situation and should instead address the larger issue of how to foster innovation while still assuring quality educational outcomes and the centrality of faculty that “regular and substantive” language is thought to protect. While the issue of compliance for non-traditional innovations is open, let’s solve as much of it as we can.

What Should You Be Doing?

The recommendations of the Report may cause hesitancy by faculty, administrators, and board members to shy away from any innovation for fear of putting federal financial aid (Title IV) eligibility in jeopardy. Our main message to you is to react, but don’t overreact. Done properly, this Report can be used to prompt healthy reflection on quality, faculty and student interaction and other practices in your distance education, CBE, and other courses.

We do have suggestions on actions that you may wish to take:

  • If you think compliance could be a problem for your institution, we recommend engaging in a series of conversations. Keep the focus on improving learning, but also keep an eye on compliance requirements.
  • Engage faculty. Encourage and sponsor proactive conversations about how to assure quality across all of your course and program offerings, not just in CBE or distance education. Conversations are especially important with leads and key faculty of academic programs that might be affected.
    • Consider the OIG Report’s definition of “regular and substantive interaction”. Which interactions do they count as interaction and how do they define a faculty person? We find that it helps to clear your head of any preconceived notions of what interaction entails prior to reading their interpretation. Their definition is very, very narrowly prescribed and their notion of “interaction” sounds more like dissemination to us.
    • Would your courses be in compliance? If not, how many would not? This is particularly interesting for places that make extensive use of lecture capture videos or use an unbundled faculty model.
    • Stepping away from compliance concerns, what does quality interaction look like?
    • If changes need to be made in courses, it is good to get campus-wide understanding and support.
  • Engage administrators. Engage in conversations with affected administrators from your institution, such as financial aid administrators, the provost, compliance officers, legal counsel, and (especially) leads and faculty for academic programs that could be affected.
    • Find out if you have a financial aid review or an accrediting visit coming in the near future. If yes, start thinking about responses.
    • Do you want to continue to call your programs self-paced (see previous advice on this point) or claim they can be “completed on your own”? The recent report makes it clear that how your program is marketed can impact compliance.
    • Help administrators understand that any changes to courses needs to involve faculty and instructional design resources. In fact, instructional designers are even more important in light of the audit findings as they are the ones best suited to work with faculty on developing activities and interactions that will meet the Inspector General’s definition of “regular and substantive.”
  • Engage government affairs. Get the compliance issues raised in the Report on the list of your government affairs officers.
    • If you make extensive use of CBE, distance education, or other modes of instruction that break from the traditional model, you may wish to contact your Congressperson and/or Senator now to express your opinion on the OIG Report.
    • The government affairs person should have this topic on their list of issues to discuss any time they engage with Congress members or their staff.
  • Be open with students and employer partners. Develop a response so that you are prepared in case students have anyA graphic of a news paper questions. Students might read the papers and worry that their financial aid or entire degree is in jeopardy because of the recommendations of the OIG Report. Employers may be concerned about the quality of the academic program. Being proactive with a prepared response will help everyone understand the situation. If the issue becomes more widespread, be prepared to proactively communicate with students and employers more broadly.

We will continue to follow this issue and keep you informed. Our next blog post will be an update of last year’s post on “regular and substantive interaction.” We gathered the documents we could find on the subject and attempted to bring all the interpretations together in one analysis. We will use that work as a starting place and indicate where there are additions or changes in how compliance was interpreted in the WGU case.

Oh…and one last thing: be ready for action should the time come. We believe that the Department will be strong in its rejection of this Report, but it’s been a surprising year. It pays to be ready… but don’t overreact.

Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat
Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies



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Van Davis
Associate Vice President
Higher Education Policy and Research
Blackboard, Inc.




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Learning Design for Innovation

Hello and welcome to today’s WCET Frontiers blog post, with guest author John Gillmore, Research Fellow with the Institute for Learning Environment Design at the University of Central Oklahoma. John is here to discuss a new system of course, program, and curriculum innovation: the Learning Environment Design for Innovation (LEDi) model. This is an exciting example of innovation in higher education directly benefiting the learning success of our students.

Thank you John for explaining this new model for us!

Enjoy the day and enjoy the read,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

The landscape in higher education is changing. Colleges and universities are having to reexamine traditional practices and consider new ways of doing things. This takes something called “innovation.” Innovation is somewhat of a buzzword these days, but the only way to adapt to this new ecosystem is to come up with new ideas or methods. So how do you support innovation in academia, a sector that is known to be quite rigid in structure?

How are Higher Education Institutions Addressing Innovation?

Higher education institutions are approaching the problem in different ways. Some are outsourcing their change management to publishers, technology companies, or consultants. This is an expensive and risky proposition with mixed results. Others attempt to tackle the problem on their own, but they often find that planning and leading change initiatives prove to be too time consuming and challenging. Politics and good-old-fashioned resistance to change are typically the victors of these efforts.

Introducing Learning Environment Design for Innovation

In response to these challenges, The University of Central Oklahoma has developed something called the Learning Environment Design for Innovation (LEDi) model. The LEM model used in a case study to plan and organize a debate activity in an online courseLEDi, a concept based in Design Thinking, provides leaders, learning designers, and facilitators with a simple and straight forward process for implementing course, program, and curriculum innovations. The system provides value by promoting relevant and effective learning that is planned and implemented efficiently.

Why It Was Developed

The system was borne from the need to effectively plan and communicate learning designs. Like many academics that have attempted this before, we found the lack of a universal medium frustrating. Fortunately, an important communication breakthrough facilitated both of these things and paved the way for the LEDi system: a revolutionary visual design method called Learning Environment Modeling™.Job shadowing to create portions of a model for learning

Learning Environment Modeling™ is an easy-to-use tool for designing all levels of learning – from courses to programs to institutional curriculum. It also enables users to communicate these designs easily and effectively. LEM is elegant in its simplicity and new users are able to learn LEM very quickly.

How It’s Being Used

LEM model compenents on a white boardThe system is being used successfully at UCO for all types of curriculum design. Individual UCO departments are using the system to collaborate, redesign, and align programs with impressive efficiency and effectiveness. As an added benefit, those charged with leading assessment procedures appreciate the level of precision in the learning blueprints – this makes it easy to show how curriculum links to learning outcomes.

In addition, UCO instructional designers use LEDi and Learning Environment Modeling™ to develop and design every new and renewed online course. This system allows instructional designers to focus on learning design instead of being simply “course builders.”  LEDi and Learning Environment Modeling™ promote effective learning design and collaboration. When using this system, faculty and designers come away with a better understanding of the environment and a higher level of confidence.

So Effective, We Began Sharing It with Others

Two users of the modelOur efforts with LEDi and Learning Environment Modeling™ were so successful, we began sharing it with other institutions, first with other Oklahoma colleges and universities, and more recently with those in other states. To accommodate these efforts, UCO launched the Institute for Learning Environment Design, or ILED. ILED provides training and consulting using LEDi and Learning Environment Modeling™. In addition, ILED offers the Certified Learning Environment Architect™ program: a professional credential-of-choice designed for leaders who are responsible for facilitating academic innovation. See our university website for more information, or to order the Learning Designer’s Guide to LEM book at http://iled.uco.edu.

John Gillmore (author) showing the model

John Gillmore
Research Fellow
Institute for Learning Environment Design
University of Central Oklahoma

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On the OIG/WGU Finding, Part 1: When Interaction Is Not Interaction

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report concluding:

“We concluded that Western Governors University did not comply with the institutional eligibility requirement that limits the percentage of regular students who may enroll in correspondence courses. Therefore, the Department should require the school to return the $712,670,616 in Title IV funds it received from July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2016, and any additional funds it received after June 30, 2016.”

The OIG report header reading: "Western Governors University Was Not Eligible to Participate in the Title IV Programs: Final Audit Report"

This recommendation is based upon the OIG’s interpretation “regular and substantive interaction.” The phrase appears in Chapter 34, §600.2 of the Department’s definitions of the term “distance education” as a means to delineate it from “correspondence education.” Institutions can grant Title IV aid for only a limited number of correspondence courses.

Western Governors University (WGU) created a webpage describing its position regarding how its leaders feel they complied with the regulations.

Blog Post Series

This is the first in a series of blog posts regarding the OIG’s actions. Today we focus on our history on this issue and on the notion of “interaction.” In a future post (or posts?), we are planning to talk about:

  • The notions of “regular” and “substantive,”
  • the specific application of “regular and substantive interaction” in the WGU case,
  • what that might mean to others offering competency-based education (CBE) and distance education, and
  • what you should do about it.

Improving Quality and Access Do Not Matter?

In our initial look at the report, Van Davis (Associate Vice President of Higher Education Research and Policy) and I took particular note of this comment on page 6 of the OIG’s report on WGU:

“We (OIG) did not assess whether the school’s model was improving educational quality or expanding access to higher education. We are not withdrawing our findings or the corresponding recommendations.”

While we will say more about the report in upcoming posts, we felt that saying that it does not matter whether an institution actually serves students well is an astonishing. This is a severely troubling statement.

Departmental Guidance on “Regular and Substantive Interaction”

The interpretation has been difficult. I have been following this issue since I first reviewed findings of an audit report on St. Mary-of-the-Woods College back in 2012. That post consistently remains one of our top viewed posts each year. Last I heard, the recommendations in this report have yet to be resolved. A final resolution for WGU might have a similar fate.

That report was issued five years ago. In the intervening time, the communications from the Department of Education in communicating its expectations on how institutions are supposed to comply have been few and far between. In August, 2016, WCET published a great post by Myk Garn (Assistant Vice Chancellor for New Learning Models with the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia) on “Why We Need to Stop Using ‘Self-Paced’ in CBE Descriptions.” Because of the minimal guidance, the issues raised by Myk, and my worry that people were relying on the St. Mary-of-the-Woods College blog post as their guidance, Van Davis and I reviewed all the materials we could find. After reviewing “Dear Colleague” letters, the financial aid handbook, and audit reports, we penned the post “Interpreting what is Required for ‘Regular and Substantive Interaction’” in September, 2016 to assist institutional personnel seeking to comply with the regulation.

From the St. Mary-of-the-Woods report to our review last year and culminating with the OIG findings on WGU, OIG interpretations and how it applied those interpretations changed. Many of the essential points remain the same, but important new criteria have been added over time. Van and I were communicating yesterday on some of the criteria applied to WGU and wondered “where did that come from?” We will get into more specifics in a future post.

Bottom line: The Department of Education is usually very clear in stating the criteria and measures that will be used in assuring compliance with federal financial aid laws. This is not the case on this issue.

When is Interaction Not Interaction?

The idea of “regular and substantive interaction” is anchored in a noble goal that we all support. We do not want federal financial aid dollars going to fraudulent educational activities. There were fraudulent correspondence courses in the past in which the instruction was left mainly to the student’s own devices. As a result, severe limitations were placed on the number of correspondence courses that could be included in an institutions financial aid package.

The notion of “interaction” was used as the main line of demarcation between correspondence and distance education. The problem is that the notion of quality academic interaction is not really what is defined in the regulation. In the Department’s definition of “correspondence course”:

“Interaction between the instructor and student is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are typically self-paced.”

The OIG is looking for interaction that is:

  • Initiated by the faculty person.
  • On a schedule set by the faculty person.

That’s not interaction, that’s dissemination. Both Merriam-Webster and I have a richer view of “interaction” as an activity that is more give and take and not one-way:

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the excerpt reads "Definition of interaction: mutual or reciprocal action or influence."

The problem with applying that definition to competency-based education is that:

  • Interaction with a student is far more frequent than in a traditional course. Ironically, CBE courses are being called correspondence courses (which have almost no interaction) simply because of who initiates much of the activity.
  • The student has more control over the schedule for interaction. CBE is popular with adults who need flexibility in their timing. In correspondence education, students were allowed to float on their own with long stretches of inactivity. That does not happen in good CBE instruction as there is frequent contact to make sure that the student is progressing toward his or her goals.

Bottom line:   In talking about the high ideals of interaction to the public, the OIG is playing off the Merriam-Webster notion of interaction that is probably resident in most of our minds. Meanwhile, in applying their definition in practice, they are expecting compliance with an historic model of faculty lecture, dissemination, and control. CBE is not someone lecturing for 54 minutes and asking “any questions” in the last minute. That’s not good interaction in any instructional setting, including face-to-face. Such poor interaction is simply not possible in CBE instruction.

What Might Happen?

The OIG is making a recommendation and this is not the final word. From Michael Goldstein (Cooley, LLP):

“The IG’s report and recommendations go to Federal Student Aid, which decides what, if any, action should be taken. (The “if any” is directly from the IG transmittal.) That involves a further, and often lengthy, review process. The ultimate decision authority is the Secretary.”

Lengthy? Remember that the St. Mary-of-the-Woods report was released in 2012.

Watch for more to come in upcoming posts.Photo of Russ Poulin


Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
rpoulin@wiche.edu     @russpoulin

WOW Award: Oregon State University’s Virtual Microscope for Distance Students

This year I had the exciting opportunity to coordinate our WCET Awards initiative. The most valuable aspect of this initiative was the chance to learn about the meaningful, student-focused work being done by various institutions and organizations in higher education. The WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Awards honor member institutions and organizations that develop technology-based solutions to challenging educational needs. 2017WOW_Logo_0

I am pleased to announce the winners of the 2017 WOW awards: University of Central Florida, Blackboard Inc., Oregon State University Ecampus, and Healthcare Learning Innovations, a division of American Sentinel University.

Over the next several weeks, each of these institutions will be featured here on WCET Frontiers.

Today, we welcome Oregon State University Ecampus to discuss their award winning 3D Virtual Microscope. Congratulations to OSU Ecampus and thank you for your work to increase student success!

Enjoy the read and enjoy the day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

The Problem: Biology Students Needing Access to Microscopes

It was a fundamental question in search of a much-needed answer: How can distance students taking introductory biology courses online truly learn to operate a microscope without being in a physical laboratory?

The simple answer was that they couldn’t.

Students could buy a compound microscope to use at their homes, but with costs ranging from $50 for the cheapest ones on the market to well over $1,000 for the advanced variety, it was an untenable solution.

They could enroll in a campus-based course at their local college and use its labs. Commuting to and taking a class on campus, however, would further drain adult learners of their most valuable and fleeting resource: time.

The ultimate cost was that the lack of a sufficient, interactive online lab experience delayed and, in some cases, prevented many students from completing their degree requirements.

Those days, thankfully, are over.

The Solution: Create a Virtual Microscope

Oregon State University now offers a series of three biology courses online that effectively puts a microscope in the hands of every distance learner. Believed to be the first virtual microscope of its kind, this academic breakthrough is the result of a partnership between OSU’s Department of Integrative Biology, the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, and Oregon State Ecampus, the university’s online education division.

The groundbreaking lab series recently won a WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) award, given to institutions that “implement exceptionally creative, technology-based solutions to contemporary challenges in higher education.”

It was a significant challenge. But trying to do something that’s never been done before is Oregon State’s comfort zone.

Easier Said than Done: Here’s How We Did It

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of what it took for Oregon State to create the virtual microscope experience and, thus, eliminate a significant barrier to degree completion:

  • Six months of research and development
  • One year producing a 3-D microscope animation project
  • The collaboration of 30-plus OSU faculty, department heads, Ecampus multimedia developers, instructional designers and other staff

Dr. Bouwma, instructor with OSU EcampusDr. Andrew Bouwma and Dr. Genevieve Weber are the faculty members who piloted the development of the lab series. The end goal was not just to increase access to education but also to make that educational experience rigorous and engaging. The comprehensive development process was necessary to ensure the labs meet the same learning outcomes as OSU’s on-campus labs.

“I teach on-campus and online biology courses, and I wanted to find a way to give my online students the same, meaningful experience my on-campus students receive,” Bouwma said. “I started using the virtual microscope in my online classes immediately, and it’s been an effective tool in my teaching since it allows me to give my students more realistic assignments in cell biology, which I believe improves student engagement.”

The first step in building the virtual microscope was to design a way to replicate the in-person experience in an online, interactive environment. That massive undertaking was tasked to the OSU Ecampus multimedia development team, which pushed the limits of what’s possible in online education.

“I took the exact microscope that the students on campus use, and I measured it down to the millimeter so that I could model the virtual one precisely,” said Ecampus multimedia developer Nick Harper. “Then, using 3-D modeling software, I was able to manipulate basic shapes like cubes and cylinders to build an accurate digital model of a real microscope.”

Then came a year’s worth of animation work, using game development software that would enable students to manipulate all of the microscope’s controls – adjusting the brightness, increasing the zoom, focusing the viewer and so on. PHoto of the 3d microscopeThe Ecampus staff then mounted a camera on a real microscope and took photos of slides that were central to Bouwma’s instruction and programmed those images to create the virtual simulation.

“Ultimately, we were able to create a solution for students to maneuver a microscope’s settings and adjust the images the same way they would in a face-to-face environment in a lab,” multimedia developer Mike Miller said.

It Worked – with Minor Setbacks- and Has Been Expanded

It was a safe bet that the virtual microscope and corresponding online lab courses would be in demand among distance learners, but it has exceeded even Oregon State’s high expectations. Since the series was launched in 2015, OSU has had to add sections for each course in the online series because each one enrolls incredibly quickly.

The virtual experience has not been devoid of hiccups, of course. There have been some challenges with tech support along the way, but luckily the instructors are so familiar with the material and software that they answer questions quickly. Members of the Ecampus multimedia team also have been able to lend a hand when needed.

Oregon State has also added more slides, fine-tuned the virtual microscope’s features as needed. It’s also being used in other Ecampus classes, and it’s been added to the university’s open educational resources (OER) library, giving anyone in the world access to this innovative and, for many, essential tool.OSU 3d microscope 2

Success = Need + Collaboration

“When I describe this project to others, I tell them that this is the kind of collaboration that all others should aspire to,” said Shannon Riggs, the Ecampus director of course development and training.

“Everything was created based on student need, and that really galvanized all the people who worked on the project. It helped us approach the project with enthusiasm and passion – to boost student success and break down barriers to degree completion.”




Tyler Hansen
Marketing Communications Manager
Oregon State University | Extended Campus




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NC-SARA Institutions Report Enrollments

This week we are excited to work with NC-SARA to release two NC-SARA documents, the 2017 enrollment report and a paper comparing NC-SARA enrollments to IPEDS data from 2015.

Today on Frontiers we welcome Marshall Hill, Executive Director of NC-SARA, to provide an introduction to those documents. Thank you Marshall!

Enjoy the day and enjoy the read,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

We are pleased today to release two documents relating to SARA: NC-SARA 2017 ENROLLMENT REPORT and a short paper that compares those reported enrollments to 2015 IPEDS distance education data — NC-SARA Reported Enrollment Mirrors National Distance Education Data with Some Notable Exceptions.

Both reports were prepared for NC-SARA by Terri Taylor Straut, Senior Research Analyst at WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies).
Chart: 2017 reported enrollment. SARA Total (970,548 or 82.9%) and Non SARA total (200,177 or 17.1%)

The two documents, based on fall 2016 distance education enrollments reported to NC-SARA in the spring of 2017, summarize and analyze the reported enrollments of 1,477 SARA institutions.

Those institutions reported combined out-of-state enrollments of 1,170,725 students.

The majority (82.9%) of reported enrollments were in SARA states; 17.1% were in the three states that were not SARA members at the time of reporting (CA, FL and MA).

The institutional response rate for the enrollment survey was 98.9%; non-responding institutions have been contacted and have committed to report in the future.

Reported Enrollment in SARA States Reported Enrollment in Non-SARA States Total Reported Enrollment
2017 Reported Enrollments 970,548 200,177 1,170,725
Enrollment % 82.9% 17.1% 100%

SARA institutions each spring report their enrollment data to NC-SARA. These analyses cover the second annual reporting period. An Excel file of the reported data is available on the NC-SARA website.

As of today, 48 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands are members of SARA; in addition, Massachusetts has passed SARA-enabling legislation. More than 1,600 institutions participate in SARA.

Marshall Hill headshot


Marshall A. Hill
Executive Director




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Developing Effective Courses Using Adaptive Learning Begins with Proper Alignment

Similar to the birth of eLearning in the 1990s, the rush to implement adaptive learning has led to the development of poorly designed courses that are not properly aligned and fail to effectively implement the principles of multimedia learning. As a result, many institutions often proclaim their use of adaptive learning as a failure. Much of their disappointment with the initial results can be directly linked to the design of the course itself. One of the wonderfully unique strengths of using adaptive learning to deliver courses at the university level is the ability of the tool to illuminate gaps in the course design.

Oftentimes, universities make a swift decision to incorporate adaptive learning into a course, program, or department (and sometimes across departments when prompted by grants and other financial incentives) as one way to address their student success strategic initiatives. While adaptive learning is an excellent tool for improving student success across a university campus and its feeder system, little attention is usually given to the role of the faculty when redesigning courses for use in such a platform. Additionally, there is a gross underestimate of the time required to design and develop courses that are both aligned and adhere to the principles of multimedia learning. In an effort to most effectively take advantage of the power that lies in the use of a strong adaptive learning platform, faculty should be involved in the process from day one and the use of instructional designers should be considered a valuable use of resources.

Regardless of the delivery modality, poorly designed courses impact student success. It is past time we pay more attention to this critical issue as we now have tools that can provide support to students on a one to one basis. Attention to the development of a properly aligned course is imperative for student success. More often than not, however, most faculty completely ignore or lack knowledge of what proper alignment is, how to use it, and why it is important.

What is Proper Alignment?

Proper alignment means there is a direct connection, or correlation, between the course goals, the objectives, the assessments, and lessons. Proper alignment ensures that students learn what you intend for them to learn and are able to perform the tasks you expect them to be able to perform. One of the most effective ways to ensure proper alignment of a course is through the use of the backward design model. In this model, faculty begin with the end in mind and design the actual lesson last.

Headline reads

Beginning with the End in Mind: Course Goals

Faculty should ask themselves, “What do students need to know and be able to do by the end of this course?” Whatever it is that students should know and be able to do at the end of the course is the stick by which all other decisions about the course and its design should be measured. If an objective, assessment, or lesson does not contribute to that ultimate goal(s) of the course, it should not be included.Picture of a target with a dart firmly implanted in the bulls eye.

Faculty and other course developers should have a very narrow focus for each course they develop and always ask if each assessment and each lesson will help their students achieve the goal(s) for their course. Additionally, faculty should know that less is usually more in education. There should be no more than one, maybe two, overall goals for any particular course. Much thought should be given to exactly what the goal of each course is or should be.

When deciding to move a course into an adapted learning platform, it is crucial that the course has a clearly defined goal and that you are able to define what success means, especially if your university is working to meet student success initiatives. Defining success helps the adapted platform partner better meet your needs by providing yo u the most important data and identifying possible gaps in the course and curriculum.

Properly Aligned Learning Objectives

Anytime you have a large goal, you should have smaller goals that help you reach that larger goal. I like to explain to the students in my teacher education courses that a course goal and its objectives are like a ladder. The course goal sits at the top of the ladder and each rung on the ladder is an objective that students need to master in order to reach that course goal.

Another critical component of effective learning objectives is that they must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time sensitive). This can be quite challenging for faculty to grasp. Each learning objective set must meet the SMART criteria to increase the likelihood of student success in any course.

When designing a course for delivery using an adaptive learning platform, you must map out the objectives and determine if these objectives must be learned in a particular order such as is typically the case with math courses as they follow a more linear path – you must be able to add and subtract before you can multiply and divide. Here, you are beginning to tap into the power of the adapted platform to highly personalize the course to each student’s needs based upon their incoming knowledge.

Properly Aligned Assessments

Hopefully by now, you have clearly identified your course goal and the learning objectives that will be needed to help students reach that goal. Now you are ready to think about how you will know if students reach the goal and how you will measure their progress toward meeting that goal along the way. My professional opinion is that effectively assessing students continuously is the backbone to learning.Cartoon of a

The days of giving a midterm and final should be over in higher education although I am clearly aware that it is not. This is clearly a training issue. Unless you have been trained as an educator, you may not have ever been taught how to teach. Unfortunately, just because you are an expert in your field does not mean you can do an effective job of teaching others. This is where the university must take a stand and begin requiring that faculty receive professional development and training around pedagogy/andragogy.

To determine how much students are learning throughout the course, the use of formative assessments are key. Here, you are assessing for learning. In an adapted course, these assessments allow you to provide detailed feedback and adjust the lesson for students on an individual and dynamic basis. Effective feedback is critical to increasing learning and it is essential that the feedback is timely. In an adapted course, feedback is immediate regardless of the time of day or night. No teacher can or ever will be capable of doing this without the assistance of a digital tool, such as an adaptive platform.

In my experience, getting faculty to understand the importance of and commitment to the development of effective assessments is the most challenging part of designing a course to be delivered using adaptive learning. While not new, variablized questions – assessment questions with multiple correct and incorrect answers – is an excellent assessment type to maximize the power of adaptive learning. While it takes a little time to get the hang of, the use of 5 variablized questions can allow an adapted platform to produce over 100 different versions of those questions! When each question is properly tagged to each objective, strong evidence for student success can be clearly identified. This is where the use of adaptive learning gets exciting! There’s nothing like seeing the results from your hard work developing a properly aligned course from top to bottom.Cartoon of a chalk board with the words

Properly Aligned Lessons

I teach students that the last component they need to develop in the backward design of their course is the actual lesson. After you know the goal, the objectives needed to reach that goal, and how you will assess students’ progress toward that goal, you are now ready to design the lesson. To me, this is the easiest part of the design process. By now the picture is clear and you are best able to develop a lesson that is not only aligned to the goal and objectives of the course but also ensure that you will teach in such a way that will best prepare students for the ways in which you will assess them.

At the end of the day, I am either helping my students succeed or helping them to fail. Too often in academia, we like to pass the buck off to the students. However, this practice is not fair unless we can ensure that our courses are properly aligned and that we are asking students to complete activities and assessments that will help them move up the ladder to reach the ultimate goal of the course.

The use of adaptive learning can allow faculty to design lessons to ensure that all learners are capable of succeeding by properly aligning their courses. However, as you now might be able to more clearly see, the development of effective courses, rather delivered face-to-face, in a hybrid setting, or in an online format, will require the involvement of faculty and, in many cases, the use of instructional designers. Additionally, faculty must be supported with course releases or other appropriate support needed to develop effective courses that can increases student success.

While the use of proper alignment is a critical aspect of course design, the proper use of multimedia principles are also needed. Catch my next blog post for an overview of the multimedia principles and how they are used to design effective courses.

Niki Bray
Instructor & Instructional Designer
School of Health Studies
Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE)
The University of Memphis
Former WCET Fellow on Adaptive Learning

Target image credit: http://hopbeinc.blogspot.com/2012/09/setting-smart-goals.html

Learn more about WCET!

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Leadership From the Place You Stand

Welcome to Kate Jordahl the Director of Strategic Planning & Operations for the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative. Kate is here to discuss opportunities to help our students and our higher education communities by stepping up to lead. Whether you choose to aim for a leadership role, or lead within your own position (and without a title), Kate’s story is an inspiring one for all of us.

What leadership opportunities will you look for to serve your institution and students?

Thank you Kate for this excellent post and for the beautiful accompanying photographs.

Enjoy the read and enjoy the day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

Where do you stand? There are opportunities to help our students from every vantage point.

Hillside with grey clouds

@Kate Jordahl, Hillside One Poem Book No. 3 Wild Geese

I speak to you as an artist, an educator, and an administrator and as someone who has worked in colleges for 40 years starting from my first job in the financial aid office at University of Delaware to positions as classified staff, adjunct faculty, full time faculty, dean, and, now, as a statewide online education leader.

As I think about my journey, what I see consistently is that colleges are in need of leadership and we are all in the position to answer that need.

Leadership is not defined by a role, but by a mindset. My journey from Professor of Photography to Director of Strategic Planning & Operations at the Online Education Initiative (OEI) is both logical and circuitous.

I want to share the benefits of stretching and stepping up to leadership, whether it is changing positions or expanding your faculty role to be a faculty leader. I want to share my story of transitioning from photography faculty to faculty leader to director with the OEI and encourage you to look around and see how you can serve your campuses and students on a larger scale.

Where Can You Make a Difference?

From my experience, this is a win-win opportunity.

“For unparalleled online learning in the 21st century, faculty leadership in transforming 20th-century teaching practices, pedagogy, content, and materials is more important than ever for unlocking student potential and talent to reach higher levels of achievement and a better life in the decades ahead!”

 Martha Kanter, Executive Director, College Promise Campaign & Senior Fellow, New York University former Under Secretary U.S. Department of Education and Chancellor, Foothill-De Anza Community College District

My Commitment to Students Began as a Faculty Member

How does a Photography professor become the Director of Strategic Planning & Operations? Perhaps my path will help you discover your path.

I am a faculty member who loves teaching. I have a Masters of Fine Arts, and I teach photography. I exhibit my photographs and have work in museums. This is a passion. To make photographs, exhibit them, create books and help students follow the path of their creativity is incredibly rewarding. In my classroom, I help students learn how to express themselves with visual language and develop an essential understanding of the impact of images on our culture. I have had amazing experiences over the years in helping my students succeed in the creative realm of photography and then transfer that sense of success to their other studies.

“The illiterates of the future will be ignorant of the use of camera and pen alike.” 

Moholy-Nagy 1936

I have a number of goals as a teacher. Essential to these is that I bring the authenticity of making and sharing my own work as a model to my students. I love the art and techniques of photography, and in my classes, I share this passion with my students. I believe as a photography teacher I have a responsibility to be a working photographer. I strive to inspire my students by sharing my work and my process.

@Kate Jordahl, Cascade, One Poem Book No. 3-Wild Geese

By continuing to learn and grow in photography, I have kept the promise I made in my initial interview at Foothill College – To earn my place in front of the classroom by practicing what I teach.

Within this passion and dedication, I became aware of the larger need and the bigger picture both for my students and my college. For the students, I decided to teach many of my classes online. While I continue to believe that my presence in the on-campus classroom has great value, I needed to meet my students where they were and serve them with quality within their busy lives.

My Commitment to Students Inspired My Administrative Journey

In the midst of this, I had an opportunity to be an interim dean. After my tenure as an interim dean, I was able to return to my faculty position, keeping some of the best parts of being dean and honestly, losing some of the ‘not so’ best parts.

A photo of a lake with two vintage baots, tethered to a long, wooden plank. Behind the boats is lake water, and a bank of the lake with trees.

@Kate Jordahl, Boats, from A Journey to World Heritage

One example of what I found energizing was working across campus in the shared governance arena, and so I joined the Academic Senate and became chair of the Committee for Online Learning (COOL). These projects and others became as rewarding as the work I did in the classroom.

From this work, came many opportunities including being elected to be the faculty representative from Foothill College on the selection of to the common course management system for the California Community Colleges. This solidified my deep interest in online education and the mission I felt in improving online classes for all of our students.

When the opportunity came to join the OEI as Director of Operations, I felt it was the time to stretch, try something new and to find my voice as an administrator. Transitioning to administration is not an easy choice for many of us, especially those of us who love our field, our students and the actual process of teaching. It can be challenging to decide that there is a time to be an administrator.

For me, I found an inspiring and interesting project to work on and, most importantly, I feel that I am in a place to make a difference that would benefit students greatly. As part of the OEI team, I can reach beyond the students in my classroom and help students across the state of California.

How Can You Contribute Your Leadership?

view thorugh a courtyard, gray stone doorway, down into a hallway.

@Kate Jordahl, Through the Courtyard, from A Journey to World Heritage

That is a bit of my story. Now think of your story.

Look around and to see where your passions lie and where you can, either from your position as a teacher or in another position, be a leader and help make education better. How can you be part of the many projects that need doing in addition to teaching? Perhaps it is time to consider what you can do as an administrator.

One of the real benefits I have felt is being able to use many of the skills I honed in the classroom for communication, for explanation and for process with my colleagues and help them do their job. That I can work with colleagues – – faculty, classified staff, and administrators, to make the OEI thrive and therefore help students, is incredibly rewarding.

There will be a time to return to my students and my classroom and at that time I will carry all of my experiences from the OEI with me and will be a better teacher as a result.

“Our faculty are the key to our ability to reach more students and to provide them greater opportunities for economic and social mobility. Providing leadership in moving our community college system toward leveraging education technologies to improve student outcomes is critical for the success of our colleges.”

Eloy Ortiz Oakley
Chancellor, California Community Colleges

Lead from Where You Stand; Keep the Focus on Students

Leadership is the place you stand not the role you have and not the job title you have. I think of all the amazing faculty leaders that I know who make a difference in the lives of students every day. And that by being present, organizing events, by joining the senate or curriculum committee or, when it is time, stepping up to be an administrator, they are doing their authentic work.

I have always been determined whatever my position, to keep my faculty perspective and bring the power of that role and my awareness of students needs with me to every conversation.

It is faculty members with our knowledge of student life, our understanding of the classroom that can bring the faculty voice to the table and be able to speak for all the students and faculty while making things happen on a larger scale.

“I was given the opportunity to assume a leadership role at my college in an interim capacity. Through that experience, I learned that my years of work as a faculty coordinator had prepared me well for the position. I am now leading the transformation of online education at my college. It is exciting, exhilarating, and rewarding.”

 Marsha Reske
Dean Distance Education, Virtual Education Center
American River College

There is no time like the present to look around and see how we can contribute. To explore how we can make our classrooms, our departments, our colleges, our districts and our states better places for our students and to serve our primary passion, to help our students succeed.


Jordahl author photo

Photo by Geir Jordahl

Kate Jordahl
Director of Strategic Planning & Operations
CCC Online Education Initiative (OEI)





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