Engaging Faculty to Support a Student Persistence Agenda at N. Arizona University

What are the barriers on your campus to innovations that promote student persistence? That’s the question Michelle Miller, Director of the First Year Learning Initiative with Northern Arizona University, is here to discuss. At NAU, the Persistence Scholars program works with faculty to empower them become informed advocates for new practices that support student persistence.

Thank you Michelle for this great post!

Enjoy the day and enjoy the read,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

What are the biggest barriers to innovations that promote student persistence? As a course redesign veteran and someone who loves to learn about institutional reform, I’ve heard the same one mentioned time and again: getting faculty on board.

Faculty hold the keys to the student academic experience, which in turn, plays a critical role in retention and degree completion. As the eminent researcher Vincent Tinto puts it:

If institutions are to significantly increase the retention and graduation of their students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, their actions must be centered on the classroom. They must focus on improving success in the classroom, particularly during the first year and lead to changes in the way classes are structured and taught and, in turn experienced by students, especially those who have not fared well in the past. (Tinto, 2012, p. 15)

A Coordinated Institution-wide Effort is Needed, But Not Easy

We also know that the institutions that are most successful in retaining students are the ones in which there is concerted, coordinated effort across the institution to help students persist. To make the most of student persistence initiatives, everyone in the institution needs to be working together: leadership, advising, residence life and yes, faculty.

But of course, this ideal state of harmony is much easier to describe than it is to pull off. The deep institutional divisions on a typical campus – in which faculty may not even know the names of key leaders and offices involved in retention, let alone have a good collaborative relationship with them – dwarfs even the siloization we see among academic departments.

More problematic are the philosophical divisions that, if not actual, may be assumed. The perception among student support and leadership staff is that faculty are skeptical, and not in a good way, about new efforts to help students succeed.

Even if the majority of faculty don’t believe in outdated ideas, such as that college should be a weeding-out process or that the only way to promote retention is to admit better students, the more vocal critics can dominate the dialogue. And, faculty who want to advocate for student success may simply lack the skills and knowledge to act on that wish.

Our ‘Persistence Scholars’ Program Helps Faculty Become Informed Advocates

logo reading Giving faculty both the will and the means to effectively support a student persistence agenda is challenging. In response, we at Northern Arizona University created the Persistence Scholars Program, a blended-style professional development experience designed to empower faculty to become informed, effective users of and advocates for practices that support student persistence.

We designed this program grounded in the knowledge that academic persistence is an issue with a human side, but also an intellectual side, backed by a rich and informative literature about how academic persistence works among students from diverse backgrounds and in diverse settings. And, we believe, faculty are most empowered to support student persistence when they understand and care about it – something that happens when they have an opportunity to engage with the best of the academic work in the area, and hands-on experience applying what they are learning.

How do you engage faculty in a development experience like this, given all the other demands on their time? To address this ever-present problem, we turned to a blended strategy, one that offered maximum flexibility coupled with the opportunity to engage with concepts over a longer period of time. Faculty completed a set of pre-readings and a daylong interactive kickoff workshop, then enrolled in a nine-week online program focused on reading and discussing a selection of scholarly works on student persistence.

board with stick notes listing reasons students don't persist, such as family issues, lack of social support, negative experiences, lack of support, working long hours, don't ask for help

Why don’t students persist? Our kickoff workshop participants respond.

They also completed two brief, action-oriented projects: the Field Experience and the Application Plan:

  • The Field Experience was a perspective-taking and information gathering exercise in which we asked faculty to identify some aspect of student life that they could experience first-hand, then report back on what they did, why they did it, and what they learned.
  • The Application Plan asked them to articulate some way in which they would apply concepts from the program to next semester’s teaching or to some other aspect of their professional practice.

Lessons Learned from Our First Cohort

Our first group of Persistence Scholars has just wrapped up their work. What are the impacts and lessons learned, at this early stage of the game?

First, we were pleasantly surprised at the level of faculty interest in participating. With a small honorarium as an incentive, we recruited approximately 25 enthusiastic participants from a broad cross-section of programs and disciplines.

We are also encouraged by the depth and amount of engagement in the program. Participants were particularly active in creating and executing their Field Projects, and their choices reflect just how many different aspects of student life are open for this kind of exploration. These included:

  • Completing an in-person advising appointment while role-playing the part of a first-year student majoring in an unfamiliar discipline.
  • Interviewing student athletes about how they balance sports, academics, and social life.
  • Observing tutoring appointments at the student learning center.
  • Attending a class in an unfamiliar discipline.
  • Participating in a tour of an academic department from the perspective of a prospective student.
  • Touring facilities and interviewing staff at the campus center for diverse students.

Faculty were often impressed with the level of services offered to our students, and with the new things they learned about resources available at the university. Almost all said they were surprised by what they discovered about student life at our institution. And these Field Project activities were things that few faculty members would ever do outside of a structured experience such as the Persistence Scholars program.

How We Will Improve the Program for the Next Cohort and Advice for Others

Over Spring 2018, we’ll learn more about the longer-term impacts on faculty attitudes and practices as we follow-up with our alums and begin again with a new cohort of faculty. In the meantime, we can make some recommendations for institutions looking to develop similar programs:

  • Keep in mind that faculty across disciplines place a high value on empirical evidence and critical inquiry, and offer opportunities to directly engage them in the scholarship and knowledge base on student persistence.
  • To best use faculty time (truly the most limited resource there is on a university campus), employ a blended strategy and assign a carefully curated list of high-quality readings.
  • Foreground peer-to-peer discussion and dialogue through activities such as online discussion boards.
  • Encourage faculty to personalize what they’ve learned about student persistence with brief projects that emphasize experiential learning and application.

The Persistence Scholars Program has brought new enthusiasm, and new faculty supporters, to our student success efforts at Northern Arizona University. Stay tuned as we learn more about how to make the most of this unique approach!

author headshot michelle miller


Michelle Miller
Director, First Year Learning Initiative,
Professor, Psychological Sciences
Northern Arizona University




Key Readings and Resources for the Persistence Scholars Program:

Tinto, V. (2012). Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

DeParle, J. (2012, December 22). For poor, leap to college often ends in a hard fall. New York Times.

Inclusive Negligence: Helping Educators Address Racial Inequality at UWL (Video).  https://www.uwlax.edu/social-justice/resources/for-doing-social-justice-teaching/

Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L., et al. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale, (13). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1524360113

Cohen, D., Kim, E., Tan, J. & Winkelmes, M. (2013) A note-restructuring intervention increases students’ exam scores, College Teaching, 61, 95-99, DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2013.793168

Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Web Site: https://www.unlv.edu/provost/teachingandlearning

Pennebaker, J. W., Gosling, S. D., Ferrell, J. D., Apfel, N., & Brzustiski, P. (2013). Daily online testing in large classes: Boosting college performance while reducing achievement gaps. PLoS ONE, 8, e79774. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0079774

For more information about the Persistence Scholars project, please contact Dr. Michelle Miller by email,  michelle.miller@nau.edu, via her blog at michellemillerphd.com/blog/, or on Twitter, @MDMillerPHD

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Steps You Can Take Now to Address Accessibility at Your Institution

This week, WCET and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), in conjunction with the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE), a partner with WebAIM, jointly offer this blog on a topic of national interest to education communities. Thank you to Cyndi Rowland, Executive Director, WebAIM; National Center on Disability and Access to Education, for guest authoring today’s post! Cyndi is here to discuss the rise in complaints regarding accessibility of web and digital materials and the nine common action items from analysis of complaint letters and resolution letters from the Office of Civil Rights. We hope these action items will be a starting point for institutions looking to ensure accessibility of their educational materials and resources.

Enjoy the day and enjoy the read,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

In recent years, education entities have seen a rise in complaints coming from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) specifically on the accessibility of web and digital materials. I recently heard of one advocate who has initiated almost 1,500 complaint letters into OCR. The momentum is not likely to decrease, even as the current administration shifts some funding away from these offices. The advocacy groups, and the attorneys, are still out there working to strengthen accessibility for their constituents. Logo for the National Center on Disability and Access to EducationAs a team of technical assistance providers on this issue, both WebAIM and NCDAE see a fair number of districts, boards of education, colleges, and universities who need to respond to complaints or to a formal resolution letter from OCR about the inaccessibility of their web content. When this happens, they are under the gun to make fixes, and make them fast.

About a year and a half ago, a colleague from the California Community Colleges Online shared a unique activity he had performed with OCR complaint and resolution letters. He engaged in a content analysis on letters he had seen come out of the California regional office in San Francisco. He shared 6 components that were common across these letters at the time (Sean Keegan, personal communication, 2016).

logo for WebAIM with the words "WebAIM," "web accessibility in mind," and a logo of a silhouette of a head with gears inside the silhouetteAs WebAIM and NCDAE have performed technical assistance on this topic with several entities across K-20 we took a similar tactic. Performing a content analysis on complaint letters or resolution letters yielded a common set of action items that should be shared more broadly. OLC logoWhile our list contains 9 items, and not 6, we recognize that regional offices write letters unique to their region.

OLC logoWe have shared this list in the past via presentations, panels, and webinars. Yet the opportunity to host a joint blog with WCET and OLC is a perfect opportunity to get the message out broadly to education communities seeking focus on their accessibility efforts.

Below are the 9 items we routinely see in letters from OCR:

  1. Designate a person to coordinate IT accessibility. Accessibility across the organization is a complex process with many moving parts. As such it is vital to have an individual who, as part of their role, is responsible to coordinate accessibility activities and engage in continuous improvement on behalf of the enterprise. They can coordinate and document committee meetings, identify and track issues, locate needed resources, recommend budgets, and oversee the process. They can also provide annual reporting. Moreover, this is the person who can speak to broad issues of how much progress has been made, and where you continue to be most vulnerable.
  2. Define a policy specific to IT accessibility. Organizational policy is critical to sustained progress in accessibility. Far too long, local champions made headway without placing the work inside of a policy realm. When those individuals left the organization, the work often fell to the wayside. Inculcating a specific policy enables work, and budgets to be aligned with that policy. Finally, it is also a manifestation of accessibility as a priority and a value across the enterprise. You can read more about typical elements of a policy on the NCDAE site
  3. Provide a public link to an accessibility page and describe the process for submitting complaints and feedback. A list of checkboxes being checked with a pink highlighter penHaving a place to communicate your commitment to, and work toward, accessibility is important for the community that needs access. Yet, you have to remember that your journey towards accessibility will take years. Because of this, it is vital that users with disabilities have a place they can go to submit feedback or a complaint. This enables you to make a rapid (i.e., within a day or less) fix for them. It is vital that where you link the accessibility and feedback page is itself accessible; of course, the accessibility and feedback page must be accessible as well. Some letters require this notice or link be placed on every page rather than in one place. When this happens, organizations choose to put it in their footer. If you go this route, be careful that the template itself is accessible and individuals would be able to get to the footer to use the intended link.
  4. Develop a Plan for New Content. This is essentially your implementation plan. Drawing a line in the sand, what is your specific plan for the future to make sure your content is accessible? This should be in contrast to what is happening now. This is a complex endeavor and is often done in conjunction with policy development. NCDAE has resources helpful in writing an implementation plan and many others, including the University of Montana, publically share their strategy.
  5. Develop a Corrective Action Plan. OCR has been quite clear that they don’t just want to know what you are going to do to assure that no new inaccessible content is added to your site, but what are you going to do about the inaccessible content you have right now? There are many ways organizations are addressing the need for a Corrective Action Plan. Some plan to fix it all on a specific timeline and include this in their implementation plan (above, in item 4). Some identify what will be fixed and what will be placed as an archival element in a separate part of the website. Everything but the archive is then fixed on a specific timeline. If you do this, know that archival documents cannot be edited or updated in any way. If they are, you must make them accessible and they lose their archival designation. Also, you need to have a process in place to address any accessibility requests about your archival content; these requests must be addressed in a timely way (i.e., rule of thumb, under a day is best but more than 3 days could create trouble). Finally, some have constituted a rapid response team to address any request for accessibility of existing content within a day during the period where they transition to new accessible content. These individuals are given an administrative blessing to drop whatever they are doing to address accessibility requests that come in. They are also given whatever resources they need to get the job done. It seems like the IT equivalent of a SWAT or SEAL team who could be deployed at a moment’s notice. A good solution only if you can truly constitute your staff and their assignments in such a fashion.
  6. Define a process for evaluating accessibility as part of procurement. Educational organizations procure many things that are used online. Some of these are purchased (e.g., the LMS of the organization), but some procurement is free and simply pulled in for use (e.g., GoogleDocs for collaborative work), or developed internally (e.g., open education resources for online chemistry lab activities), or even selected but the low dollar amount puts them below a purchasing threshold for review (e.g., a $50 history curriculum put out by a professional organization). Making sure accessibility is part of any organizational plan to procure, develop, use, or maintain is vital. The first rule when you want to get yourself out of a hole is to “just stop digging”. Continuing to bring inaccessible items into your enterprise for which you have accessibility responsibility creates vulnerability you do not need. It also shifts the responsibility away from the vendor or creator. At the end of the day we all want accessible products we can select to use. NCDAE has an article on the criticality of accessibility in procurement. PEATWorks publishes some great resources on procurement as well. Making sure you have accessibility requirements in all RFPs and all contract language will be critical as you turn this around.
  7. Perform a technology audit on accessibility. Certainly, if you want to know where your efforts are taking you, you must first understand where you are now. Performing an audit will give you a sense of how localized or widespread issues of accessibility are for you, and the types of issues you will need to prepare to address. A laptop sitting on a table next to a small potted plant and a cup of coffeeMoreover, the data can be helpful as you create your implementation plans (e.g., you may choose to first fix highly visited public or student-facing pages or large courses). It can also be helpful as you look at how you will fix some issues (e.g. if 5 errors appear in your web template, fixing those will positively affect thousands of pages simultaneously). Audits are typically performed on an annual basis yet some large organizations perform them in smaller units across the enterprise throughout the year with a larger sweep once a year. Be aware, however, that NO automated tool can fully identify accessibility issues. Not all errors can be programmatically determined with today’s heuristics. WebAIM and NCDAE share a recommendation that you should consider a blend of human-evaluation along with broader automated samples. The first should give you issues of depth, the second should help you understand issues of breadth. Both are useful.
  8. Specifically seek out feedback from those with disabilities. While you have a mechanism for collecting complaints and fielding issues as they come along (i.e., See item 3 above), solicit user feedback. This shows that you are being both proactive as well as appropriately reactive. Make sure to do this across those with different types of disabilities. Find individuals that experience different types of access issues. They will most likely be persons with (1) vision problems including those who are blind, have low vision, or are color blind, (2) hearing problems including those who are deaf or have poor hearing, (3) fine motor problems such that they have a difficult (or impossible time) using a mouse or keyboard, (4) cognitive or learning disabilities, (5) multiple disabilities, such as someone who is deaf-blind, or someone who has cerebral palsy and is deaf, and finally, (6) while you may have individuals with photoepilepsy, you would not want to test blinking or marquee elements on these individuals, as it could cause a seizure.
  9. Provide training to individuals consistent with their role as they create digital materials or web pages. Today, training is required well beyond web developers. That is because, quite simply, web content is being created by many. For example, a faculty member who creates a PowerPoint presentation and uploads it into the LMS has created web content. This must be accessible. The staff member who creates a PDF on employment and links it to the HR website has created web content. This must be accessible. In both instances these individuals need to understand their obligation, and be given appropriate training and support to fulfill their new role. Of course, those individuals who have technical jobs are most likely developing or creating web designs, applications, or content as well. Finally, others may require training too. This would need to be consistent with their role and your overall plans for accessibility (e.g., procurement staff, contract staff).

The OCR letters we have seen require the organization to initially complete the issues above in about 18 months once approved. However, if you were to make a decision now to address these common OCR requests, you would create greater control and flexibility over the process. It is worth it in the long run to take this important matter into your own hands as soon as possible.

Headshot of author Cyndi Rowland


Cyndi Rowland,
Executive Director, WebAIM
National Center on Disability and Access to Education




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WCET Family Reunion 2017

You really should have been in Denver at WCET’s 29th Annual Meeting…or “family reunion” as Mike Abbiatti liked to call it. If you were there, you probably did not catch every session and every conversation. Let me help.  I’m here to provide some highlights of the Annual Meeting. Thank you to my WCET team members and WCET leadership who contributed their notes and takeaways for this post.

Pie chart with meeting attendee job titles (Admin: 37%, Other?? 33%, Academic officer 9%, Instructional designer 8%, Faculty 5%, CEO 4%, IT Admin 3%)There were 436 attendees at the Annual Meeting this year representing 45 different states from all over the U.S. Attendees also represented a wide range of higher education jobs. Railing against conventions, about a third identified with the mysterious “other” category.

Wednesday, October 25th

Wednesday morning was filled with pre-conference workshops.

I was thrilled to be invited to the Academic Leadership Forum, a meeting of chief academic officers. This year Tricia Bertram Gallant, Director of the Academic Integrity Office at UCSD presented on academic integrity. My takeaways:

  • Our students are human beings, not a morally corrupt generation. They may make bad decisions under pressure and cheat in class or on an exam.
  • Cheating can be a teachable moment to help students learn from the experience (and apply to future workplace).
  • We should keep academic integrity policies fair and efficient.
  • We should reward faculty/instructors for including integrity in research and teaching.

During the opening, Mike Abbiatti, Executive Director of WCET, awarded this year’s Richard Jonsen Award to The Honorable Peter P. Smith. This award, named after the WICHE Executive Director who founded WCET in 1989, is given annually to a WCET member whose career has been committed to improving postsecondary education through innovative uses of technology and for exceptional service to WCET.

Our keynote this year was given by Mike Hess, Founder and Executive Director, Blind Institute of Technology. Mike entertained us with a thought-provoking presentation on sensory capabilities. He challenged us to become better professionals and educators by:

  1. Requesting the first half of meetings be “tech free zones.”
  2. Focusing on clarity in our communications.
  3. Embracing different presentation styles/types that meet the communications needs of everyone (leverage audio, video, tactile, etc.).

Luke Dowden, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, commented that Mike’s presentation reminded him of the FISH! Philosophy principle of “Being Present,” when he stated that our brains “are single threaded processors” and can only process “one attention rich input at a time.” Luke is refocusing his efforts of being less distracted and more present in all his meetings.

Next up: concurrent sessions, such as Accessibilities’ Role in Postsecondary eLearning, a partnership between OLC and WCET. Cyndi Rowland, Associate Director, Center for Persons with Disabilities, Utah State University, provided a list of eight common expectations that are expressed by the Office of Civil Rights in their findings against institutions. Cyndi will continue this discussion in a post for WCET Frontiers this month. There seems to be interest in OLC and WCET presenting/developing additional accessibility resources around:

  1. What is required of institutions by law?
  2. What are best practices, regardless of what the law says.
  3. And, what influence can our members have on vendors to provide products that are already in compliance?

Purdue University’s Margaret Wu and Amy Haston provided advice and strategies for ending a relationship with an Instructional Technology. Participants discussed challenges when “calling it quits” and the presenters showcased examples of phasing out tools. Check out EdSurge’s coverage of the session.

During an Ask the Expert Session, education experts discussed state higher education regulations and policies. Both Evie Cummings (University of Florida Online) and Van Ton-Quinlivan (California Community Colleges) reminded attendees about the importance of clearly defined and applied outcomes measures for higher education.

Jessica Knott and Ryan Yang from Michigan State University described the advent of the MSU Hub for Innovation, including their agile process for large scale campus projects, open working space, project boards, and feedback processes. The MSU Hub is a great model for campus-wide, transparent collaboration.

Thursday, October 26

Thursday started bright and early for the WCET 5K crew (you go runners!).

During the general session and breakfast, we heard from inspiring, female, recent graduates in computer science, who shared stories about STEM classes and career prospects and trajectories. They suggested how we, as higher education professionals, can better support women in STEM fields: bring more coding opportunities into all classes (increase interest in tech fields for all students), increased cross-curricular collaboration, discussions about failure, and mentoring. Thank you to the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) for helping us put together this amazing session!

After he co-moderated the session, Joe Garcia, President of WICHE, announced the second annual Digital Inclusion Award. This Award is a unique recognition of an individual, organization, or program having shown significant impact on low-income and/or first-generation learner populations through digital inclusion.

I may be biased, but I enjoyed the session on the #DLNChat (granted, I was presenting). Participants engaged in an interactive workshop on using social media professionally, development of a Twitter based professional learning community, and we ran a mini-chat in the room. Thank you to Michael Sano and Renee Franzwa, my co-facilitators.

Did you know WCET members have a new benefit? The e–Literate Big Picture subscription service is designed to help institutions track the changing landscape in important learning platform topics and make sure that the decisions an institution makes today will still make sense tomorrow. Mollie McGill, WCET, and Phil Hill, E-Literate, discussed this new benefit. I understand there was also beer. And the hashtag was #BeerPuppy. What more can you ask for in a conference session?

At lunch, WCET awarded the 2017 WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Awards and the Sally M. Johnstone award.

Image of Sally Johnstone, Bucky Dodd, Dale Johnson

Congratulations to University of Central Florida, Blackboard Inc., Oregon State University Ecampus, and Healthcare Learning Innovations, a division of American Sentinel University (2017 WOW award winners) and to Dr. Bucky Dodd, 2017 Sally M. Johnstone awardee. Thank you to our wonderful MCs: Leah Matthews, Kara Monroe, Dale Johnson, and Mike Abbiatti.

Wednesday afternoon, WCET welcomed several federal higher education experts and officials to discuss administration higher education priorities and updates. According to Ken Salomon (Thompson Coburn), the House Committee on Education and Workforce will release the first version of a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in the next few weeks. The Senate is behind on working on the bill. Many feel final action is unlikely until 2019. The education technology community needs to make its wishes known with a common voice. WCET hopes to help fill this “policy void” however we can.

Our higher education press keeps us updated on higher education stories, what a big job! I was thrilled to help moderate a panel with Jeff Borden and our colleagues Jeff Young, Senior Editor from EdSurge, and Phil Hill e-Literate Co-Publisher. With questions on everything from Regular and Substantive to higher education in 2025 (college classrooms will look different due to enrollment changes and shifts to holistic student support models).

I joined other attendees to hear more about the recent Office of Inspector General recommendations regarding WGU and possible ways the distance education community can move forward. Thank you to the panelists, who discussed the history of ‘regular and substantive interaction’ and the issues raised by the audit. These findings should be of concern to all distance education providers and competency-based education institutions, whether distance or face-to-face. It is expected that the Department of Education will not accept the recommendations in the Audit Report.

I had a wonderful time at the Young Professionals meetup and sock-swap. Everyone who brought [new] socks exchanged them for a pair brought by another attendee (I got great fuzzy socks that will be useful this winter).

Thursday night group dinners, one of my favorite WCET traditions, were a blast! I enjoyed walking around Denver with my group, chatting, and eating great food.

Friday October 27

Friday morning began early for WCET yoga attendees, our Steering Committee, who met for a morning working meeting, and those who attended the networking breakfast.

I then attended the EdSurge hands-on workshop digging into the problems that can be solved through digital learning practices and products. I enjoyed hearing about challenges other institutions face. For example, my group wanted to work on retention of underrepresented/underprepared students. This workshop was an excellent example of using design thinking to collaboratively solve problems.

Honestly, my favorite part of WCET 2017 was the Stump the Expert Session. Our game show host/session moderator, Van Davis, entertained us by attempting to stump our higher education experts: Myk Garn, Stacey VanderHeiden Güney, and Tanya Joosten. Our esteemed judges, Russ Poulin, Nick White, and Cecilia Retelle Zywicki, withstood several attempts at bribery, and, I’m sure, judged our experts answers purely based on answers to several audience questions. Questions ranged from new credentials , likely uses of Artificial intelligence in higher education, and how higher education will look in 2030.

While poor Myk lost this year…

Tanya was crowned (is that the right word?) the 2017 WCET Expert!

The Annual Meeting is a once in a year opportunity to connect with extraordinary folks in higher education and have real conversations about the issues that face us. Thank you for a great family reunion.

Next year, see you in Portland, Oregon, where you can experience the original Voodoo Doughnut. Oh yes, and have another family reunion with your edtech cousins.

Enjoy the day,


Photo of Lindsey Downs
Lindsey Downs
Manager, Communications, WCET


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What is Distance Education? – Definitions and Delineations

Close your eyes (not for too long) and answer the question: “What is distance education?” image reading "what is distance education?"Did you envision the same concept and experiences as I did?

Even though more than one-quarter of all higher education students in the United States and a roughly equivalent number in Canada now take at least one distance education course, it is amazing that we still have differences in how we define it.

Does it matter? 

a green check mark in a circle


There could be big differences in counts for funding purposes, counts for research purposes, or in student eligibility for benefits depending on who is setting the definition.

And No. an X in a circle

Quite often definitions are close enough to not be materially different. Do we need to spend time splitting hairs?

Definitions may differ by accrediting agency, state, province, federal agency, or survey. My guess is that institutional personnel are not following all these differences to the last detail.

As you will see below…it’s a mess.

This year, the U.S. Department of Education has been turned to its Technical Review Panel to consider how to improve the collection of distance education data in its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) surveys. WCET responded with input from our members. Below is an excerpt from WCET’s response in which we highlight the differences:


Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Technical Reviews work regarding distance education data collections in IPEDS. WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies) sought input from its member institutions throughout the United States. Below are our comments on the Discussion Items from the “IPEDS Technical Review Panel #53 Evaluating Distance Education Elements in the IPEDS Data Collection” document.

Discussion Item #1: Defining Distance Education

There are differences of opinion on how to proceed with definitions, but there is general agreement that this issue needs to be addressed in more detail. A sample of opinions include:

  • Ken Sauer, Indiana Commission on Higher Education, Senior Associate Commissioner and Chief Academic Officer for the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, has performed the most complete work on this topic…He commented separately and suggests a two-tiered definition for both courses and programs of:
    • 100% distance education, and
    • 80-99% distance education.
  • Leah Matthews, Executive Director of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission says: “I lean toward leaving the IPEDS definition where it is at 100% because it sustains the ability to continue to track this data in a consistent manner year to year. I have found it helpful to examine data gathered for 100% distance education.”
  • Peter Smith, former college president and currently consulting with the University of Maryland University College, says: “First, the definitions of course and program requirements to determine whether a program is online, place-based, or hybrid are far too restricting. As such, they are a threat to institutions’ financial well-being as they try to enter this rapidly changing educational marketplace.”
  • The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) collects data about the enrollment patterns of its member institutions. Marshall Hill, Executive Director, told WCET staff of the many calls his staff received over confusion regarding IPEDS definitions. In an NC-SARA report…the following “reporting challenges” are cited…:

“In an attempt to standardize reporting requirement for institutions, NC-SARA relies on IPEDS definitions, schedules, etc. Unfortunately, it is clear from the comments submitted in 2017 that many institutions struggle to understand how they should report to IPEDS. And, since SARA’s basic instructions are to ‘report as you do for IPEDS, but disaggregate by state, territory, or district in which the students reside,’ those misunderstandings affect NC-SARA reporting. Over half (51.7%) of comments provided in the Comment field of 2017 survey specifically mentioned variations from IPEDS data, definitions, and concerns with how to report military students and those in the five U.S. territories.”

Definitions Used by Accrediting Agencies

The definitions distance education courses and programs used by the accrediting agencies were discussed by the Technical Review Panel. The following table is a shorthand review of their definitions. Some of the agencies do not define what comprises a distance education course or program. For those that do, there is not agreement in their definitions. All of them cite the federal definition of “distance education” as a concept.

IPEDS & Accreditors
Organization Course Definition Program Definition
IPEDS 100% at a distance (except for tests, orientation, and student services) 100% distance courses
Higher Learning Commission 75% at a distance 50% or more at a distance
Middle States Commission on Higher Education (pp. 57-60) Uses federal distance education definition, but does not define for courses. Uses federal distance education definition, but does not define for programs.
New England Association of Schools and Colleges Not defined Programs “(1) …for which students may earn 50% or more of the credits through technologically mediated instruction and/or (2) degree completion programs offered on-line”
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities A “majority” – Includes correspondence study, which is specifically excluded in federal definitions A “majority”
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools A “majority” – Separately defines correspondence education A “majority”
WASC – Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges Uses federal distance education definition, but does not define for courses. Uses federal distance education definition, but does not define for programs.
WASC – Senior College and University Commission[1] Uses federal distance education definition, but does not define for courses. Uses federal distance education definition, but does not define for programs.
Distance Education Accrediting Commission (pp. 5-6) Acknowledges federal definition. For DEAC purposes includes “correspondence, online, or direct assessment.” No course definition. Acknowledges federal definition. For DEAC purposes includes “correspondence, online, or direct assessment.” No program definition.

The Impact of Multiple Definitions on One University

In 2012-13, Indiana University created a report[2] that documented the different distance education definitions to which it was subject. The following table summarizes the many differences among the agencies with oversight on the University’s activities:

IPEDS & Accreditors
Organization Course Definition Program Definition
IPEDS 100% at a distance (except for tests, orientation, and student services) 100% distance courses
Higher Learning Commission 75% at a distance 50% or more at a distance
Indiana Commission on Higher Education “80% or more of the content” at a distance “80% of requirements to meet the degree/credential” at a distance
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs If less than “two regularly schedule standard class sessions per term”[3] No definition provided.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security No definition provided. Less than “9 credits per semester for an undergraduate” are onsite



 We made several technical suggestions that I will set aside for now, but here are our primary recommendations:

  •  Let’s partner to create definitions: IPEDS should partner with accrediting agencies, state-focused agencies (e.g., NC-SARA, SHEEO), and distance education organizations to develop definitions that are more universally recognized. Peter Smith (quoted above and is also a member of the NC-SARA Board) agrees: “How can SARA and IPEDS work together to complement each other, saving time, money and confusion?” Bringing clarity to these definitions would be a great advance to higher education.
  • Collect “completions” data for distance education students: Agree with the Panel’s interest in collecting Completions data for distance education at the CIP code and award level. The sub-CIP code level is probably not necessary. However, considerable research and definition would be required. Students may have a mix of modes of instruction each term and may change that mix dramatically form term to term. The question of “what counts as a distance education completion” would need to be answered…Overall, adding distance education data to the Completions survey would assist with distance education efficacy and trend studies.
  • Collect data on hybrid/blended learning: Agree that there are multiple definitions of hybrid/blended courses, but recommend that this be added to a multi-agency discussion between IPEDS, accrediting agencies, state-focused agencies, and distance education organizations recommended…above. Creating definitions of distance education and hybrid/blended courses that are compatible and reasonable would be of great service to the higher education community.

It’s a collective mess…not just for IPEDS, but for all of us. Glad that they are at least asking the question.

Can we make it better? Should we?

What do you think about this issue?

Russ Poulin


Russ Poulin
Director of Policy & Analysis, WCET



[1] WASC – Senior College and University Commission (page 45 of Glossary does not define. Searches of the Handbook and other web resources did not uncover specific definitions)

[2] Indiana University Office of Online Education and University Student Services and Systems: “Definitions of Distance Education [Courses, Programs and Students] for SIS Coding and Compliance Review and Reporting Credit Hour Allocations”

[3] If a Veteran takes all their courses at a distance, their Basic Allowance for Housing is cut in half.

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Research Preparation and Engagement of Instructional Designers

WCET was thrilled to help recruit participants for the Spring 2017 Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit national study on the research engagement and training of instructional designers in institutions of higher education. Today we welcome the authors of the study, Katie Linder and Mary Ellen Dello Stritto, join WCET Frontiers to discuss the results and release the report. The study offers an understanding of instructional designer engagement in research on teaching and learning.

Thank you Katie and Mary Ellen!

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

About a year ago, staff members from the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit began to facilitate conference sessions on methods for conducting research on teaching and learning.

We were both surprised and pleased to have many instructional designers attend these sessions. They asked insightful questions and were clearly engaged in partnerships with faculty members and subject matter experts to conduct research on teaching and learning.

It was the instructional designers in the audiences of these presentations that first planted the seed for our national study on the research preparation and engagement of instructional designers.

A total of 311 instructional designers nationwide completed a 60-item survey to help us better understand both their experience levels with teaching and learning research and their current involvement in academic research projects. The following is a summary of the five key findings from this study. The full report can be downloaded from the Ecampus Research Unit website.

Many instructional designers want to collaborate on teaching and learning research

Instructional designers were asked about the level of interest they had in engaging in a range of research tasks. More than three-quarters (75.9%) indicated “moderate” or “high” interest in collaborating on research, while large percentages indicated “moderate” or “high” interest in disseminating results (69.8%), reading/summarizing literature (69.1%), writing up results (65.9%), and analyzing data (64.7%).

Respondents expressed their interest in collaboration with comments such as:

“Any opportunity to collaborate during a research project or experience mentoring with research experts is valuable to IDs (instructional designers).”

Faculty don’t often think of me as someone to collaborate with on research projects, although I am very interested and open to the possibilities.”

Many instructional designers feel under-prepared to engage in research

The survey asked questions about the instructional designers’ formal education in research design and methodology. More than half of the respondents (52.1%) did not take any research design or methodology courses as undergraduates.

Respondents were asked to describe the research methods and designs that were emphasized in their instructional design training. While 29% reported not having any training, about 24% described training in broad methods (i.e. quantitative, qualitative methods) with only 17% reporting training in specific methods (i.e. surveys, focus groups).

Between 36% and 64% of respondents indicated they had “low confidence” in their ability to complete six specific research tasks. These six tasks included choosing an appropriate statistical test to analyze data (64.3%); cleaning data (60.5%); validating a survey instrument (58.2%); using data for archival research purposes (52.1%); coding qualitative data (44.1%); and completing IRB paperwork (36.7%).

Respondents expressed their lack of preparation with comments similar to the following:

I don’t feel prepared, entirely, to conduct research. I wish I had more training.”

“I have ideas for research projects that will contribute to the body of knowledge in my field, but I don’t know how to get started.”

A large number of instructional designers are engaging in research collaborations

The majority of respondents (56.6%) had collaborated to conduct research on teaching and learning in the past year. However, slightly less than one-quarter of instructional designers have research on teaching and learning in their job descriptions. Slightly more than one-fifth of survey respondents are evaluated on their engagement in research on teaching and learning (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Inclusion of Research on Teaching and Learning in Instructional Designers’ Job Descriptions and Performance Evaluations

Figure 1: Inclusion of Research on Teaching and Learning in Instructional Designers’ Job Descriptions and Performance Evaluations

Respondents’ comments included ones like the following:

“I would be doing way more of this because I think it is interesting and fun but it isn’t an explicit part of my role and therefore is difficult to prioritize.”

Instructional designers face obstacles when attempting to engage in research

Respondents were asked about the barriers they encounter when conducting research on teaching and learning in their work as instructional designers. Figure 2 shows the top seven categories of barriers.

The most frequently mentioned barrier was time: finding or having enough time to do research. The second most frequent was collaboration barriers such as finding faculty to collaborate with or having their abilities underestimated.

Other respondents described not having research as part of their job description; not having enough training; logistical barriers such as having difficulty accessing data; lack of institutional commitment, including not being seen as researchers by their supervisors or other institutional leaders; and a lack of support and mentoring.

Figure 2: Instructional Designers’ Perceived Barriers to Research on Teaching and Learning Note. N=185.

Figure 2: Instructional Designers’ Perceived Barriers to Research on Teaching and Learning Note. N=185.

The majority of instructional designers think research would enhance their credibility

The majority of respondents (68.8%) indicated that knowledge in research design and methods enhances their work “quite a bit” or “a great deal” with an additional 25.1% of respondents indicating that it “somewhat” enhances their work.

About 80% indicated that the broader academic community and faculty/subject matter experts perceived instructional designers as more credible when they conduct research on teaching and learning (see Table 1). Between 62% and 80% of the respondents indicated that almost all categories of stakeholders perceive them as more credible when conducting research.


N %
Institutional leadership 193 62.1%
Direct supervisor 197 63.3%
Faculty / SME 247 79.4%
Peers within institution 213 68.5%
Peers outside of institution 229 73.6%
Broader academic community 249 80.1%
Corporate partners / vendors 133 42.8%

Table 1: Instructional Designers’ Perceptions of Whether Stakeholders Assign Credibility Based on Engagement in Research

The following quotes illustrate some of the key findings of this study:

“I have a high personal interest in participating in research but my current role is that of service and support only. As such, I am not seen as a viable candidate to assist in any research project. I am hoping to pursue a terminal degree in the near future and that, hopefully, will open more doors for research, publication, and presentation.”

“I strongly believe that research should be included as an expectation in the ID job description and role, even at a Master’s degree level. This would encourage IDs to collaborate with each other and with faculty and get published, which will help with the legitimization and increased status of the role.”

 The study informed changes at Oregon State University

The results of our study have led to changes at Oregon State Ecampus for our own instructional designers. We now offer additional training for our instructional designers, when desired, in research-related skills, and we have incorporated our instructional designers into a research fellows program housed in the Ecampus Research Unit. We look forward to seeing how these changes help our instructional designers engage in teaching and learning research at Oregon State University.

For more information, see the full report.

About the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit: The OSU Ecampus Research Unit makes research actionable through the creation of evidence-based resources related to effective online teaching, learning and program administration. The OSU Ecampus Research Unit is part of OSU’s Division of Extended Campus, which houses Oregon State Ecampus, the university’s top-ranked online education provider. ecampus.oregonstate.edu/research.

Mary Ellen Dello Stritto


Mary Ellen Dello Stritto
Assistant Director of Research
Oregon State University Extended Campus




Linder headshot


Kathryn Linder
Research Director
Ecampus, Oregon State University






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Fight the FoMO: Catch up on OER

Greetings from beautiful Denver, CO, where WCET Frontiers is joined by our Director of Open Policy, Tanya Spilovoy. Read on to catch up with Tanya on OER events, the Z Initiative, and how you can connect with her (either here at WCET 2017 or after).

Thanks Tanya!

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

Two exciting events are taking place this week, and if you’re following me on Twitter, you might be experiencing some FoMO because I’ve been tweeting up a virtual storm:

  1. The WCET Annual Meeting is in Denver, Co., and it’s the headquarters of higher education innovation, technology, and policy (Everyone here is doing interesting work).
  2. It is also International Open Access Week (So many retweetable events around the world.)

Because we at WCET want you in the loop, I wrote a blog post to help you fight the FoMO.  Here’s a blog post filled with all the newest, coolest, Open Access, Open Policy, and  WCET Z Initiative information so you don’t feel left out.

What is the WCET Z Initiative?

z-initiative-banner-2017The WCET Z Initiative connects institution-level OER champions, legislators, state systems of higher education, educational technologists, and national OER leaders. The Z Initiative is focused on research, practices and policies promoting the adoption, implementation, scalability, and sustainability of open educational resources, Z Courses, and Z Degrees. Essentially it is a practical approach to making OER work for your state or institution.

  • Open Educational Resources (OER) – OER are defined as “teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and repurposing by others.” Unlike traditionally copyrighted materials, these resources are available for “open” use, which means users can edit, modify, customize, and share them. This means that all students in a class have access to no-or low-cost learning materials on the first day of class.
  • Open Textbooks – Open textbooks are textbooks that are freely available with non-restrictive licenses. Covering a wide range of disciplines, open textbooks are available to download and print in various file formats from several websites and OER repositories. This means that all students in a class have access to no- or low-cost textbooks on the first day of class.

Activity around OER and Open

There is a lot of state/federal/international activity around Open Educational Resources and Open Textbooks.

  • Affordable Textbook Act-Introduced in the 114th Congress, seeks to reduce the cost of textbooks at U.S. colleges and universities by expanding the use of open textbooks (and other Open Educational Resources) that everyone can use, adapt and share freely.
  • The Department of Education invited me to participate in the Sept. 19 Open Textbook Symposium at the DOE in DC. I worked with about 30 people to brainstorm practical approaches to federal open textbook policy and implementation. The product of our work will be available soon.
  • More than half of states have adopted some sort of Open Education policy or initiative.oer word

Colorado: Open Educational Resources Council and Report

  • Colorado has laid the groundwork for a state-wide Open Educational Resources Initiative. For the past two months, I’ve been working closely with the Colorado Department of Higher Education staff and Open Educational Resources [OER] Council. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
  • Rhode Island announced it had saved students $870,000 on textbooks in just one year.
  • Santa Fe College announced $1 million in student savings from almost 300 course sections using OER.
  • University of North Dakota announced $3.7 million in savings over the last two years of their OER program.

Here are some ways you can get involved:

  1. Check out the WCET Z Initiative web page.
  2. I’m hosting an introduction dinner Thursday night, Oct 26, at the WCET Annual meeting for attendees who are interested in the Z Squad. Sign up at the registration table before 3 PM.
  3. Attend the OER sessions at the WCET Annual meeting (search “OER” on the WCET Annual Meeting App for session titles and times.) The
  4. Follow me on Twitter.

~Tanya Spilovoy

Photo from WCET17

Tanya Spilovoy, Francesca Carpenter, Tina Parscal at a WCET17 OER Session


Tanya Spilovoy

Tanya Spilovoy
Director, Open Policy
WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET)

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From a Vision to Reality: The Story of Sentinel City®

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. The 2017 award winners will be honored this week at the 29th WCET Annual Meeting.

Welcome to Megan Sellers, from Healthcare Innovations, a division of American Sentinel University, to discuss the 2017 WOW Award winning program Sentinel City. Thank you for your work to increase student success!

Enjoy the read and enjoy the day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

Motivated by Our Mission

The passion and creativity that runs deep within the Healthcare Learning Innovations team existed long before the organization was born. A subset of our current team started out as members of American Sentinel University (our parent organization) which is an online nursing school focused solely on healthcare education.

Dr. Richard Oliver, American Sentinel’s CEO, encourages adoption of new technologies. These technologies help to create 21st century digital educational tools and solutions that enable a superior experience, convenience, and engagement for nursing students and educators.

a screenshot from inside the sentinel city platform, showing a virtual healthcare building

Inspired by this, Trevor Rasmusson, the Learning Innovation Manager at Healthcare Learning Innovations, worked with Dr. John Bourne, the University’s Chief Innovation Officer, to create a digital simulation for nursing students that would solve common issues surrounding the basic windshield survey assignment.

As a result, the idea of Sentinel City® was born, and development was soon underway.

What is a Windshield Survey and What are the Problems Facing Students?

What is a windshield survey, you ask? It’s an assignment within a community health or public health nursing course where a student explores the community to determine how social, environmental, and cultural aspects correlate with available data on the population’s health. For nursing students, it is a challenge to find time to complete the survey between work hours and the demands of life outside of work.

Another concern is safety, as students move about the community actively making observations and taking notes. We found that a simulated windshield survey provided convenience and a safer experience for students, while creating a consistent base evaluation for faculty. This saved time for both students and faculty – a win for everyone!

Screenshot of the faculty dashboard, which tracks time and activity for students.

It’s Showtime

Full of excitement, American Sentinel faculty presented our findings and an early version of Sentinel City® at nurse educator conference. The response was remarkable! We received multiple requests for trials and implementation from educators, administrators, and institutions over the following year. However, Sentinel City® wasn’t fully built or ready to share with other schools.

At this point, we formed Healthcare Learning Innovations to further develop and distribute Sentinel City® and other novel immersive learning solutions that enhance the nursing education experience. This allowed American Sentinel University to maintain its focus on degrees and certificate programs, instead of dividing their resources to support, develop, and sell new simulations and other digital tools.

Ask and you Shall Receive

We’re an inquisitive bunch, to say the least. We followed a pattern that generated an increasingly well-received product:

  1. Ask educators, administrators and students questions.
  2. Listen carefully to their answers.
  3. Incorporate the feedback into product development.
  4. Rinse. Repeat.

The Result

We upgraded Sentinel City® four times in 15 months! Significant upgrades included:

  • Building immersive assessments and activities,

    Screen shot of a virtual living room in a home, with a ouch, lights, pohtos, rug, etc.

    Sentinel City® Home Assessment, Hazard Identification

  • Increasing interactivity with chatbot community members, interactive citizens, and locations,
  • Creating a catalogue of assignments with grading rubrics, mapped to AACN BSN Essentials,
  • Adding emergency preparedness scenarios,
  • Building digital user guides and faculty support materials.

Jeffrey Caplan, President of Healthcare Learning Innovations, describes our methodology:
“We listen. A lot. We engage the healthcare education community often for feedback; from administrators and educators to nursing students. Of course, we want to know what works well and how we can improve Sentinel City® population/community health simulation. But we also ask plenty of questions about additional challenges and education needs so we can create new digital solutions that address pressing education problems.”

A screen shot of Sentinel Town, showing a wooden sign reading

Inside Sentinel City

The Road Ahead

We recently developed and launched Sentinel Town™, a rural community simulation inspired by Sentinel City®, which meets the expressed needs of the nursing education community.

We continue to advance our products, most recently with ADA accessible versions, additional functionality, and live 24/7/365 support for our client schools and students. We are also actively expanding our product offerings, currently developing new digital assignments and simulations that easily integrate into existing courses (e.g. leadership, management and communication), a virtual hospital, and increasing virtual intelligent agent (chatbot) functionality for school-wide student support.

Nursing education is evolving as digital media advances and new technologies emerge. We are on the front lines, learning and adapting, incorporating new techniques and products that continue serving the needs of the nursing community.

Scree shot of a virtual digital assesment, showing a virtual avatar (virtual patient), with questions

The future is bright, the community is talking, and we are listening.

Interesting stuff, right? Watch the Sentinel City® video and visit our website to learn more about our products and what we do.

A Word of Appreciation

We are filled with gratitude to WCET for presenting us with this WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Award. We are thrilled to receive such a unique award and are honored to contribute to the advancement of technology-based learning solutions. We will continue developing new innovative products for our industry and community.


author headshot of Megan Sellers
Megan Sellers

Digital Marketing Manager
Healthcare Learning Innovations – A division of American Sentinel University




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New Survey Tracks Online and Distance Education in Canada

Congratulations to our Canadian friends on releasing the results of their first survey of online learning activities throughout their country. Oct 2017 Canada survey logo, icon with a laptop and a maple leaf, words next to the laptop read Released on Tuesday of this week at the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning, the report (“Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges”) is a great advance in understanding the enrollments, modes of instruction,technologies, and trends across and within the provinces.

The Canadian Context

A translation of a few terms for our non-Canadian friends:

  • Universities are baccalaureate and graduate level degree-granting institutions.
  • Colleges resemble community colleges in the United States. They typically grant diplomas, not degrees. A few are enabled to grant degrees.
  • CEGEPs, found only in Québec, are postsecondary, pre-university colleges, aimed at providing accessible academic preparation for universities.

Pictore of Toronto There are also institutions that are francophone (primarily serve French speakers), anglophone (primarily serve English speakers), and a few that serve both.

The survey asked for counts of online education course enrollments. Therefore, one student could account for several enrollments in a term. Only enrollments for the Fall term (not year-round) were collected. While I recommended this census date, some institutions reported that this undercounted their overall online enrollment efforts.

The Findings

  • Nearly all Canadian institutions offer online education. Almost all colleges and universities offer online education courses, while about half of the CEGEPs do so. However, there is a centralized service (Cégep à distance) that offers courses on behalf of those institutions.
  • Double-digit growth in enrollments. Average online education enrollment growth for universities has been about 10% per year and about 15% per year for colleges. CEGEPs saw a minor decline in enrollments.
  • Online courses found in almost every academic subject. More than 50% of the universities reported having courses in Arts and Social Sciences, Business, Education, Science, and Nursing.
  • Online learning is a strategic asset. More than two-thirds rated online learning as important for the institution, long-term. Less than half (14%) have implemented or are implementing (26%) a strategic plan for online learning, while about a third (32%) are developing a plan.
  • Blended learning is common. Nearly three-fourths (72%) of reporting institutions offer blended/hybrid courses. About 12% of institutions report that more than 30% of their courses are offered in this mode of instruction.
  • Less use of MOOCs and OER than expected. While we are well-past the “year of the MOOC,” less than 20% of responding institutions offered MOOCs in the past year. British Columbia and Ontario have been world-wide leaders in promoting open content. Its use is still emerging as 5% of responding institutions use OER extensively and 35% report moderate OER use.

Comparisons to the United States

I was honored to write the section on comparisons of the Canadian results with surveys of institutions in the United States:

  • The U.S. is plagued with different definitions of distance education for federal, state, and accrediting agencies. Similarly, Canadian postsecondary education is under the mandate of the provinces and definitions differ.
  • Canada collected data on course enrollments, while the U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS survey measures student headcounts.
  • Nearly all Canadian colleges and universities offer online courses, while about three-quarters (71%) of U.S. institutions do so.
  • In both countries, almost all larger institutions offer distance education courses while a lesser percentage of smaller colleges offer distance education.
  • Canada’s enrollment growth has been in the double-digits for the last several years. For headcounts in the U.S., public institutions averaged 3.0 – 5.4% growth, private non-profits averaged about 11% growth, and for-profits experienced a decrease in distance education students.
  • About two-thirds of respondents in both countries agree that distance education is an important strategic asset for the future of the institution.


Image of Dr. Tony Bates

Dr. Tony Bates

I am very proud for my role in getting the key players together, including Jeff Seaman (Babson Survey Research Group) and Tricia Donovan (formerly of eCampus Alberta).

The driving force behind the survey is Tony Bates (currently with both Ryerson University and Contact North) who combined the energy, drive, and vision to see this effort to completion.

A key asset was his assembling of a great support team including Brian Desbiens (Sir Sandford Fleming College), Ross Paul (University of Windsor and Laurentian University), Denis Mayer (Laurentian University), and Eric Martel (Université Laval).

We also need to acknowledge the fabulous sponsorship of the provincial online learning support organizations: eCampus Ontario, Contact North/Nord, Campus Manitoba, BCcampus, eCampus Alberta.

From the corporate sector, Pearson Canada and D2L also are to be thanked for providing significant funding.

Oct 2017 Canada survey team

The Survey Team from left to right: Ross Paul, Tricia Donovan, Brian Desbiens, Tony Bates, Russ Poulin, Eric Martel, and Denis Mayer. Missing: Jeff Seamans.

And thank you to Tim Hortons (the iconic Canadian coffee and donut shop) as I munch on some Timbits while writing this post.


Russ Poulin


Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies



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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

image of a dictionary page

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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