In Defense of the LMS

Many of us have worked with Learning Management System (LMS)s in one way or another, as administrators, instructors, support, assistants, or students. And, through working with these platforms, many of us end up strongly disliking them.

This week we welcome Sasha Thackaberry from Southern New Hampshire University to discuss this love/hate relationship between higher education and LMSs and provide new insights on using the tools in more practical and successful ways.

Enjoy the read!


Ah, the much-maligned Learning Management System (LMS), the technology we collectively love to hate. It’s often bulky, either feature-bloated or feature-wanting, and has been created seemingly without hiring any user experience designers. For years we’ve been wanting to get rid of it. No one actually likes it. We put up with it. We collectively sigh and move along with our day.

Instead, we propose innovative solutions beyond the LMS—a future learner-centered technology ecosystem that lies just beyond reach wherein we extend a non-LMS platform through rich interoperability. We dream of deploying best-in-class integrated solutions for all of our learning and teaching needs—from basic assignment and assessment management to social interactions, internet world connectedcontent curation environments, adaptive learning, Competency-Based Education (CBE) systems and Learning Object Repositories (LOR.) This idealized future has not been largely adopted in higher education, and for good reasons, which we’ll explore later.

Maybe, instead of hating on this category of technology of admittedly legacy origin, we might try to evolve our ecosystems more practically, both within and beyond the LMS. This defense of the LMS is a proposal for a pragmatic path forward.

Realizing the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE)

The Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) vision proposed by Malcolm Brown, Joanne Dehoney, and Nancy Millichap has been the point of reference for most conversations surrounding this improved, learner-centered technology-enabled future. Other versions of this concept have also been proposed. This concept is based on five domains: interoperability and integration, personalization, analytics, advising and learning assessment, collaboration, and accessibility and universal design. These are really good domains. The NGDLE is a solid and innovative framework from which to view a future, more dynamic learning ecosystem.

Many groups have worked to bring this future closer to reality, like EDUCAUSE through thought leadership, IMS Global through the creation of open interoperability standards, WCET by facilitating the conversation, among others. There have been innovative projects like TEx from the University of Texas System, focusing on a user-centered mobile-based experience, the app store at the University of North Carolina campuses, and systems designed exclusively for CBE like Brainstorm by Ellucian (now closed), Sagence Learning and Fidelis’s LRM solution.

There have even arguably been some success stories regarding a post-LMS world. Western Governors University, for example, has eschewed the LMS in favor of an extended Salesforce platform and usage of curated courseware. However, these examples have still been largely isolated in the marketplace, and have not gained significant traction. It remains that most colleges and universities prefer, at least for the moment, to stick with a traditional LMS. It may be cost, it may be the challenge of overcoming inertia and a graphic reads "The Practical Facts: 1. Most colleges use LMSs. 2. But not enthusiastically"feeling of LMS-related powerlessness, it may be lack of internal development capacity.

It may be a lot of things, but the practical fact remains—

  • most colleges and universities utilize LMSs and
  • most folks who work with them are not particularly enthusiastic about them.

And Another Thing We Learned from MOOCs

One of the things we learned from MOOCs has been that consumer-grade technology can be utilized for learning at scale, for relatively low cost. Even more importantly it can make the learner-as-user experience significantly less painful. The technology should fade into the background. It should support a seamless learning experience wherein the learner takes center stage. Despite the trough of disillusionment that MOOCs are currently experiencing, the fact remains that they are here, they are massive, and learners are voluntarily engaging with them, despite having little skin in the game. The large MOOC engines did hire user experience designers (they arguably should have also hired more instructional designers; a MOOC I am currently taking has immeasurable objectives like “understand”).

Why was this possible? They were freed from the assumptions of legacy systems, and, apart from the cMOOCs (“the originals”) they were largely developed by non-learning specialists who were able to look at the learning environment differently. This is one of the many disruptions of MOOCs, the fallout of which has not yet been fully realized.

Practically Speaking: The Reality on the Ground

Why is there this dissonance between what we in edtech largely agreed was needed decades ago and what has been realized in colleges and universities? Part of this dissonance is a cultural conversation. Engaging in large-scale system changes that involve students and faculty is difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Many institutions do not have adequate funding to cover the cost of simultaneously running two systems while weaning themselves off of the previous one. Most LMS moves in the past five years have been precipitated by the deprecation of other LMSs like Angel and eCollege. At least a few of these changes have been affected by statewide discounts on specific LMSs or other variables like membership in Unizin.

In many cases, the discussions surrounding the NGDLE underestimate the power of status quo in LMS usage patterns. In institutions where the LMS is an add-on to supplement on-ground courses, or wherein online programs have cropped up on an ad hoc basis, it is hard to make the cultural argument for the rest of the institution that the disruption is worth it. Most online courses and programs are still instructor designed and developed; a one-to-many model is not the norm. And in cases where there is a strong online division within a larger institution, there is still the powerful fear of “first, do no harm,” with the perception of opportunity cost for student success being larger than reality.

So what are we to do?

Pragmatically Speaking: Proposing a Middle Ground for Realizing the NGDLE

I propose that institutions should evolve the LMS from within. As we undergo such an endeavor, it will be paramount to acknowledge that we are not the users. Learners are the primary users. Faculty are secondary users. And the rest of us should support. Often we have no idea what the user experience really is because we don’t test it, or we don’t ask good enough survey questions to get any actionable data that goes beyond surface inquiries. If we do get actionable data, it is rare that action is actually taken. This proposed pragmatic approach relies upon a consistent focus on the learner-as-user.

There are various functional groupings that are present in the learner-experience first. I will not address here the invisible systems that support the student experience.. Within the learning experience itself there are categories like gradebook management, assignment submission, testing and quizzing, Content Management Systems (CMS,) or preferably Learning Object Repositories (LORs), and content authoring tools. Social engagement tools are needed, as are content curation and collaboration spaces. Outside of the immediate learning environment there are needs such as advising support systems and apps, enrollment activities and bookstore purchasing and provisioning.

All of these functional groupings can be plotted in reference to whether the LMS has those native features or whether the system would need to be extended to support them, and whether the LMS supports that functional grouping in a shallow or deep way. Institutional needs will vary on both spectrums, and conceptualizing of building the NGDLE on an LMS in this way is practical; it has the added benefit of being able to get a better learning environment to learners sooner.

Institutions would then be able to both evaluate LMSs, or other systems, with their needs in mind. If there are functional groupings that a given institution knows they want to use in a deep capacity, that institution may want to look for an LMS that has more of that functionality native to the system in a deeper manner. Likewise if there is lightweight usage, having that feature as a native functionality is a bonus because it is then not necessary to extend it. For needs that may be deeper, and which the LMS does not support natively well, that is where the system would intentionally be extended, preferably through standards-based, plug-and-play integrations, but also through more custom APIs if necessary (quantity and quality of data being both necessary.)  Institutions should then avoid like the plague extending their LMS to get shallow functionality, particularly that which is rarely used.

A square, broken into four sections. At the top, "Native Functionality," the left "shallow capability," the right "Deep Capability," and the bottom "extended functionality." There is a smiley face icon in the upper, right. A circle with a slash through it on the lower, left.

Some institutions still largely utilize their LMS as a document repository and for grades; for online courses this usage expands to the deathly hallows of the discussion boards, for assignment submission and for formative and in some cases summative objective assessments. This relatively shallow usage does not dictate a robust ecosystem, rather it requires a more user-friendly experience. This is a more culturally and fiscally pragmatic approach with which to analyze appropriate systems.

The Future: LMS as a Platform

But we still want to get to our ultimate goal—a highly interoperable ecosystem with a best-in-class, learner-as-user experience. Given our current, collective limitations, what are we to do? Instead of searching out alternative platforms, we might partner with LMSs to reconceptualize the LMS as a platform. In many ways, the LMS is already beginning to evolve in this direction. Canvas has their App Store, which is a more individual faculty-driven model. John Baker of D2L recently utilized the oft-referenced Lego analogy. LMSs in general are moving away from individual building blocks or custom integrations towards open standards like LTI, but the robustness of that interoperability is still inconsistent across what version of LTI their product meets. LMSs are integrating more seamless synchronous video functionality – both Canvas and Brightspace have synchronous tools built on Big Blue Button.

An LMS will never out-Twitter Twitter, or out-Facebook Facebook, or indeed even come close to a functional version of those types of social platforms. And they shouldn’t try to. Rather we should work towards interoperability—even of these consumer tools—and do our level best (and more) to respect student data privacy. Putting the selection of input streams and publishing streams into the hands of learners will facilitate the robust nature of the learner-as-user experience. connected computers and mapIt will also embed within the educational experience the expectation of a partnership between learning institution and learner, enabling a relationship that will persist beyond graduation and alumni activities as we move to a world where continual education is necessary.

This is just the beginning of that evolution. No one likes the walled garden, but there’s not a plausible open playground yet. For many, if not most learners, we need to Chipotle the LMS. We need a core product with flavor options selected by the institution, the faculty or the learner, dependent on institutional model, in an easy-to-use format. (This analogy ignores the recent food contamination issues, though in some cases that might actually be an appropriate analogy in and of itself.)

What Can You Do to Help

Standards, standards, standards. Though Caliper, an open standard for measuring learning activity through IMS Global, was released a year and a half ago, there has been limited adoption, most of which can be attributed to the chicken or egg scenario. Those of us who work at higher education institutions need to be the incubators. We need to stand collectively together and, with loud and insistent voices, demand that learning resource vendors and tool providers adhere to more complex standards. We need to ask the same thing of our LMSs. We need to collectively spend our money to make that happen. RFPs need to require adherence to open standards, and the most recent versions of those standards. With purchasing power we can accelerate the development of interoperability.

This interoperability is the critical piece of the NGDLE puzzle.  But each institution, depending upon their models for online education, need to evaluate both LMSs and extensible products based on their particular needs and culture. Adoption depends upon culture.

Our options are to either evolve what we have or continue to wait on a future that has not materialized in the years since it was conceptualized. And we can evolve, intentionally, now. An evolution, without the blood of a revolution, can have revolutionary effects for learners.  Let’s put our money on that.


Author headshot


Sasha Thackaberry, Ph.D.
Assistant VP, Academic Technology and New Course Models
College of Online and Continuing Education
Southern New Hampshire University




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Ask Congress to Address the Housing Allowance for Online Veterans in New GI Bill

Veterans taking all their college courses online are getting short-changed. As Congress moves to rework the GI Bill, let’s get them to fix this problem.

We need your help. Read the background and see how to respond at the end.

The GI Bill Reduces the Housing Allowance for Fully Online Students

Veterans of the U.S. armed services are eligible for funding to pay for tuition, fees, books and supplies, and a Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) while pursuing postsecondary education. However, if the veteran takes of his or her courses at a distance, the BAH is greatly reduced:

“The GI Bill is available for independent, distance, or Internet training. This type of training is usually offered by institutions of higher learning and similar rules and rates apply. (Note: If you are utilizing your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits while taking ONLY distance-learning courses you will be paid a housing allowance based on 50 percent of the national average payable in the United States.)” 

Yes, they receive HALF the amount they would if they attended on-campus courses.

Photo of Danny Stuckey

Veteran Danny Stuckey received half of his housing allowance because he took all of his courses online

Examining the GI Bill payment rate for the academic year beginning August 1, 2017, that is a reduction of $804.50 per month. That’s a significant amount of money.

I’ve heard stories of veterans taking one class face-to-face (perhaps even a one-hour physical education course) to remain eligible for the full amount. As Pat James of California Community Colleges’ Online Education Initiative commented to me about this practice, “they burn their benefits on useless courses.”

So Why Care Now? Congress is Updating the GI Bill’s Educational Benefits

In a headline story from last Friday, Politico reported:

“Congressional Republicans and Democrats are moving ahead on a plan to expand educational benefits for veterans under the Post 9/11 GI Bill. The bipartisan legislation unveiled on Thursday is expected to move quickly, at least through the House, over the next several weeks.”

While we appreciate the several advances being proposed (Military Times calls them “beefed up” benefits), the current version of HR 3218 does not fix this problem with the BAH reduction. In fact, it doubles down on it by including a similar provision (on page 31) in a section defining a new “Department of Veterans Affairs High Technology Pilot Program.” A similar reduction of 50% of the “Housing Stipend” is proposed for distance learning programs participating in that pilot program.

Let’s Hear from a Veteran Who Experienced the Problem

We put out a call for veterans to share their experiences with this rule. We are seeking more stories and will continue to share them. Let’s start with just one veteran, Danny Stuckey, who served seven years in the Marine Reserves, four years of active duty in the Army, and three years in the California National Guard. After a break from service, he has served in the Army Reserves since 2013.

What impact has the BAH rule had on you?

“When I first tried to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill I had to stop pursuing my degree at Liberty University with the GI Bill and tried for an education degree through Grossmont College. I was later able to switch to Point Loma Nazarene University where I changed my major but used other funds to complete my BS in religion at Liberty University.”

“With a busy work schedule I was looking to finish my BS degree online using the Post-9/11 GI bill. I live in San Diego, California yet I was taking classes online at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. I had to pay for my education in other ways. I felt this was an unnecessary burden put on veterans to qualify for the full amount of benefits.”

Have you made changes in your plans, such as enrolling in extra courses, because of this rule?

“Yes, I wanted to take all online classes so that I could do my school work early in the morning when I had the time and was mentally alert to work on it (I am a morning person). I then had to take night classes to fit with my full time work schedule which made it difficult to focus on school work.”

“Before I completed my degree I switch to a school in San Diego so that I could qualify for the full amount of the GI Bill. I was attending Grossmont College and had to take a night class that meet twice a week in order to qualify for the full amount. This was a difficult balance as I was working full time, had a full time load of classes, was married with four children, I ran an addiction recovery group one night a week, and I was a home fellowship Pastor another night a week.”

What’s your recommendation for ensuring this rule works for our Veterans?

“I would suggest having the same rule for resident courses as online courses as long as the online courses are accredited the same as resident courses.”

What else would you like to say about how this rule has impacted you and your family?

“Looking back I would have waited to use the GI Bill at a more opportune time as going to night school and fulfilling all of my other life obligation19944622_10155543940588566_6946547364830189001_os put a lot of strain on my marriage, my family, and my children. It was not worth the BAH.”

If you have additional stories, send them to Lindsey Downs of WCET and she can send you a list of questions that we are asking. We plan to use them to demonstrate the problems encountered by student/veterans. If you would like to share your story, but keep your anonymity, we will honor your request.

How Can You Help? Contact Your Representative and Senator

If you would like to see this rule changed, contact your local member of the House of Representative and U.S. Senators. Although if you are going to do only one, start with your House member, especially if he or she is a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee They are probably tired of hearing about health care anyway.

It would be helpful if you could get leadership from your institution to issue an official letter. Please do not respond on behalf of your institution or organization unless you have the proper local approval. Alternatively, you can respond as a private citizen. You can mention your job title, that you are a student, or that you were a student. Just be clear that you are providing your own opinion and not that of an institution or organization.

In addressing your letter, you might find this guide to address and salutations very handy. Here is a sample letter, but be sure to tell your own story or the stories of your student/veterans:

= = = = = = = = = =

The Honorable (Name)
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.  20515

Dear Representative (Name):

Veterans play a tremendous role in making the country what it is today. I am pleased to see that, beginning with HR 3218, both the House and the Senate are implementing needed improvements and expansions to the educational benefits that veterans enjoy through the Post-911 GI Bill.

More can be done to improve benefits for veterans who chose to pursue their degrees or certificates through distance education. According to the Digital Learning Compass ( analysis of U.S. Department of Education data, about one-in-seven students now pursues their degrees fully online and that number has grown for several years in a row.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ rules have not kept pace. According to their website ( describing housing Basic Allowance for Housing benefits for “Independent and Distance Learning Training”:

“Note: If you are utilizing your Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits while taking ONLY distance-learning courses you will be paid a housing allowance based on 50 percent of the national average payable in the United States.”

I strongly object to this reduction in benefits for no apparent reason. A veteran may attend classes on-campus one semester and receive full benefits. If she takes all her classes from her house from the same institution the next semester, her benefits are halved. Some veterans have circumvented this rule by taking one one-credit course on campus so that they can qualify for the benefit.  <<>>

As long as the institution meets all other eligibility criteria, how the student studies should not have an impact on veterans’ housing allowance benefits. With the possible exception of a small bit of commuting, all of their other costs remain the same. As you are reconsidering the GI Bill;s educational benefits for veteran’s, let’s bring them into the 21st century.

Thank you,


= = = = = = = = =

House of Representative members by state:


Thank you,

Russ & LindseyRuss Poulin

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

Photo of Lindsey DownsLindsey Downs
Manager, Communications
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies



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We Need YOU! …to comment on Federal State Authorization Regulations

The Department of Education seeks comments about higher education regulations that may be “appropriate for repeal, replacement, or modification.” WCET and the WCET State Authorization Network (SAN) will comment about the federal state authorization regulations that are scheduled to be effective on July 1, 2018.

In recent months, we have seen several federal higher education regulations become sidelined through delays and reviews by the Department of Education as described in Russ’s blog post from last week,  “Federal Regulations: Delays, Reviews, and a Call for Comments.

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It is time to make your voice heard.

You may wish to review our comment themes, concern about misstatements, and the process for you to submit comments below. We hope you will submit comments by the August 21, 2017 deadline. Volume matters!

Two Themes for Our Comments to The Department

Removing the Federal Regulation Has No Impact on State Regulations

First, we will advise that elimination of federal state authorization regulations WILL NOT ELIMINATE state regulations for institutions to complete any state-mandated compliance requirements in states where students are enrolled or receive services from the institution. We support the intent of the federal regulation to provide additional consumer protection for students by requiring that the institutions follow state laws where they serve students if they wish to participate in Title IV funding. We maintain that proof of state authorization provides transparency. Additionally, we maintain that providing notifications and disclosures eliminates ambiguity. We will raise the point that not only do these regulations protect the student as a consumer, but also compliance with these regulations protects the institution from possible violations of federal regulations such as Misrepresentation per 34 CFR 668.81-668-75 or a similar state-based rule. Simplification of the regulation is possible, but elimination leaves students less protected.

If the Department Retains the Regulation, Clarifications are Needed

Second, if the Department chooses to move forward with the regulations with no changes, we ask questions and seek clarification on several items that are unclear in the regulation’s wording or have become unclear due to subsequent actions. Question mark drawn on a chalkboardWe don’t want to see a repeat of the 11th hour enforcement delays witnessed over the last few weeks and we want to make sure that institutions are following the most current expectations.

The clarifications include the following:

  • Will the Department enforce all or part of the regulation on July 1, 2018?
  • Clarification on state of compliance location? Use of the word “reside” is inconsistent with state laws.
  • Definition clarification of state authorization reciprocity agreement.
  • Complaint Process/Authorization in California where there is no complaint process for out of state public or non-profit institutions.
  • Definition of Solely Distance Education – what about hybrid programs?
  • Disclosures and written acknowledgments.
    • Public Disclosures – regarding Adverse Actions.
    • Individualized Disclosures – regarding the definition of “prospective” student and desired form of acknowledgements.

Watch for Myths about the Federal Regulation Elimination

Myth 1—Eliminating the Federal Regulation Makes State Authorization Go Away:

A classic example of a misunderstanding of the states’ role was reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, in their breaking news articles under the headline The Ticker. Per the recent request by the Department for comments, an anonymous commenter from Maryland indicated supporting the rescission of “State authorization rules” because the state authorization rules require a significant amount of time and money signing agreements, and coordinating with each state, and monitoring the location of the students. The commenter also referenced offering a teacher preparation program.

Reality 1:

The Department released the Final Rule on State Authorization of Postsecondary Distance Education, Foreign Locations in December 2016. The essence of the regulation is that to participate in Title IV financial aid funding, the institution must be compliant in the states that the institution enrolls or provides services as REQUIRED BY THE STATE. States have had these regulations on their books long before the Department of Education decided to add it in 2010 and they will remain regardless of what actions the Department takes.

Dear commenter from Maryland,

NONE of those tasks will go away with the elimination of the state authorization federal regulation. Has your institution considered applying to become a SARA institution to minimize the application workload and possibly the financial requirements for authorization by the state higher education agencies? Tracking your students is important to your institution for marketing and financial planning of the institution, accreditation review, and financial aid compliance as well as state authorization compliance management. Finally, you mention that you are offering a teacher preparation program. Are you aware of the prerequisites for licensure and certification in the states where your institution wishes to offer the teacher preparation program and do you have approval by those states’ licensure boards? Please consider joining the State Authorization Network (SAN) for further resources, training, networking, and support. Or just read our many pieces of advice for free.

 Best of Luck!

Cheryl, Russ, and your State Authorization Network friends

Myth 2 – States are Using State Authorization as a Revenue Generating Tool:

The Senate-sponsored 2015 report Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities: Report of the Task force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education indicated that state authorization requirements are a revenue generator in many states.

Reality 2:

Our work with state agencies has shown differently. In most states, we have noted modest fees for the agency providing oversight of the institution offering activity in the state. Fewer states have unreasonable requirements for travel to or from the state for reviews. Regardless, elimination of the state authorization federal regulation will not change the state compliance required costs for the institution. The institution will still be legally mandated to provide all compliance costs either directly to the individual states for compliance or through their fees to the SARA state portal agency and NC-SARA, if the institution is operating under SARA for compliance.

Institutions may minimize compliance costs due to fees and staff time by applying to become a SARA institution. The institution should do a cost benefit analysis to compare the costs of state and national SARA fees with the fees associated with the individual state’s authorization fees and staff time costs to manage individual state’s authorization requirements in the states the institution wishes to offer activities.

Process for Commenting

The Request for Comments was published in the Federal Register on June 22, 2017. The deadline to submit comments is August 21, 2017. confused looking man hodling a long list that reads Please be sure if you are providing the official comment for your institution that you receive proper approval at your institution. Your other option is to comment as an individual. If you choose to include your current position, please make it clear that you are commenting on your own.

The request requires that comments are to be submitted through the Federal eRulemaking Portal ( or via postal mail, commercial delivery, or hand delivery. The Department WILL NOT accept comments by fax or email. You must also include the DOCKET ID (ED-2017-OS-0074) at the top of your comments.

The Department indicates that they strongly encourage that comments be sent electronically, but the appropriate address for mail or delivery is as follows:

Hilary Malawer
400 Maryland Avenue SW., Room 6E231
Washington, DC  20202.

We strongly encourage your participation! This request for comments indicated no restrictions and simply asked for input on regulations that may be appropriate for repeal, replacement, or modification. WCET will probably be commenting on other issues. Watch for those updates in the future.

This is your time to be heard! Let’s do this together!

Cheryl Dowd


Cheryl Dowd
Director, State Authorization Network



Russ Poulin


Russ Poulin
Director, Policy and Analysis



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Federal Regulations: Delays, Reviews, and a Call for Comments

Federal higher education regulations are under fire and the Department of Education wants your input. Let’s give it to them.

Only the Teacher Prep regulations suffered the quick death of the Congressional Review Act. Several other postsecondary consumer protection regulations now face delayed enforcement and/or possible death by committee.

Street sign reading "Wrong Way Go Back".

Higher education regulations are being delayed and reviewed…and, perhaps, replaced.

Recent Department Actions on Delays and Reviews

After glancing at the calendar and noticing that July 1 was approaching, the U.S. Department of Education seemed to realize suddenly that several regulations that they did not like were about to reach their effective date. The actions they took to avoid the July 1 deadlines:

  • Gainful Employment (in short, institutions had to report on employment outcomes for graduates) – On June 14, the implementation of the regulation was delayed and it was announced that the rule would be subject to a new negotiated rulemaking committee later this year. On June 30, the Department delayed disclosure requirements by a year to July 1, 2018. Yesterday, the Department opened a shorter-than-usual 30-day comment period on this regulation.
  • Borrower Defense to Repayment (in short, rules regarding defrauding students taking out federal loans) – In the same announcement with Gainful Employment on June 14, this regulation was delayed and will be subject to a second negotiated rulemaking committee later this year.
  • Cash Management (in short, institutional disclosure to student about options in finance tools used to use and receive financial aid funds) – On July 3, the regulation’s disclosure requirements were delayed until January 1, 2018 pending the release of a new “final suggested disclosure format for student financial accounts.”

In the press release announcing the change of status for the first two regulations mentioned above, Secretary Betsy DeVos said:  “It’s time for a regulatory reset. It is the Department’s aim, and this Administration’s commitment, to protect students from predatory practices while also providing clear, fair and balanced rules for colleges and universities to follow.” Yes, you read that correctly, she said “fair and balanced.” At least she did not say “repeal and replace,” as that has not been going so well.

Picture of a hand with a watch and a pen. The words "The Time to Comment is Now" appears on a letter presumably being written by the person in the photo.A Call for Comments on Regulations

In a separate action, the Department announced a commenting process “seeking input on regulations that may be appropriate for repeal, replacement, or modification.” Submit comments by August 21, 2017.

In addition to those comments, the Department presumably will rely on the 2015 analysis produced by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee: Recalibrating Regulation of Colleges and Universities: Report of the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education. The Report made several recommendations on improving regulatory processes and cited several regulations that needed they thought should be repealed or replaced, such as:  Verification of student eligibility for financial aid, return of Title IV funds, financial responsibility standards, institution accreditation, and state authorization for distance education programs.

What’s Should You Be Doing?

You should comment.

Pick Department of Education regulations that you like or don’t like and comment. Don’t not feel limited to those issues mentioned in the Senate’s Report. This may be a time to comment on some of the issues that we’ve mentioned in the past in which distance education or educational technlogies are treated differently. I have in mind regular and substantive interaction, reporting last day of attendance, and some student identity regulations.

If you comment officially for your institution or organization, be sure that you have all the necessary approvals so that you do not get into trouble. Alternatively, you can comment as an individual. If you do so, you may mention your current position, but need to be clear that you are commenting on your own.

Cheryl Dowd, WCET State Authorization Network Director, and I are working on the first letter that WCET plans to submit as part of this process. We will focus on state authorization for that letter. Watch the WCET Frontiers blog for highlights of some of the issues that we plan to raise in that letter. Spoiler alert: We disagree with the Senate report. Since states regulate institutions regardless of whether or not there is a federal regulation, we think it is appropriate for the Department to check whether an institution is authorized in a state in which it disburses federal financial aid.

Babies, Bathwater, and Brains

Finally, a comment on “babies and bathwater” is in order. Almost all these rules are about consumer (meaning student) protection. In the zeal to clean house, the Department may become overzealous in discarding needed protections along with regulations that it finds abhorrent.

Let’s hope that we will collectively use our brains about what will and will not work…and what is best for students.

We need to avoid political knee-jerk reactions that, for one side, are limited to only 140 characters , for the other side, can be expressed only in 140 pounds of regulations.Photo of Russ Poulin


Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
303 – 541 – 0305    @russpoulin


Photo credit: Wrong Way

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Digital Inclusion – Moving Towards Opportunity for All

Hello WCET,

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the GlobalMindED conference in Denver, CO to help with the presentation of the first ever Digital Inclusion award. We co-sponsored this award with GlobalMindED. Digital-inclusion-award-logoAll of the nominees are working toward increasing student success by promoting digital inclusion. The winner of this year’s award has had a career focused on helping first generation and under-represented students, and the projects he is currently working on are seeing significant results.

This week on WCET Frontiers, we are excited to welcome Andriel Dees, Director, Diversity and Inclusion from Capella University, and one of our Digital Inclusion award judges, to review the award and tell you more about our winner. Thank you Andriel!

Enjoy the read,

~Lindsey Downs

Last week, WCET partnered with the organization GlobalMindED to present the inaugural Digital Inclusion Award. This award was created through a strong interest in recognizing organizations or individuals that exemplify the meaning of the following principles of digital inclusion:

  1. Digital Inclusion is about leveraging mindware, not hardware/software;
  2. Digital Inclusion is one component of a larger communications ecosystem, not a standalone concept;
  3. Digital Inclusion should be the overall goal of technology evolution.

While all three of these principles were personified with this year’s inaugural winner, the first principle of leveraging mindware and encouraging collaborative use of digital resources will be highlighted here.

Dr. Vadiee holding Digital Inclusion Award

First Ever Digital Inclusion Award Winner

This year’s Digital Inclusion winner was Nader Vadiee, PhD., professor at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Vadiee ’s work promotes digital inclusion by advancing the interests of Native American and Hispanic students in Information Technology and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields.

Dr. Vadiee and his associates developed an immersive robotics program to provide an enriching learning experience to interest students in STEM Fields.

As a result, the program received a significant increase in enrollment and completion in STEM or IT courses. The Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute also experienced a significant increase in graduation rates in their Pre-Engineering Associate degrees, followed by continuation at the university level.

Native Americans are Unrepresented in STEM Fields

What is so exciting about this work is the fact that Dr. Vadiee and his team have purposely brought innovation to a community that continuously gets overlooked for possible economic prosperity.

Photo of Dr. Nader Vadiee

The Native American population is not underrepresented, but unrepresented in the STEM fields. Although they make up 1.2 % of the total population, Native American/Alaska Natives represented only 0.4% of all engineering bachelor degree recipients, 0.3% of the engineering workforce, and 0.1% of all engineering faculty (NACME 2015 report).

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) has been featured throughout the state of New Mexico for its Intelligent Cooperative Multi-Agent Robotic System (I-C-MARS) project.

SIPI, home to one of the largest tribal college engineering programs in the United States, received funding from the NASA Tribal College and University Experiential Learning Opportunity (TCU-ELO) grant to allow students to work with rovers in a simulated Martian environment called a Mars yard and to expose Native American students to more science and math courses.

Click below to view a PBS Segment on the I-C-MARS Project:


As a result of Dr. Vadiee and his team’s efforts, this past spring, 12 of his students won 1st place and the Grand Prize at the NASA Swarmathon Challenge. These students competed against 20 other colleges with far more resources and came away with a prize.

Bringing technology opportunities to communities that otherwise would have limited access is the focal point of the concept of digital inclusion. Again, congratulations to Dr. Vadiee and the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute for all of the wonderful work you do to increase the number of Native Americans in STEM!

Award judges and winner

Digital Inclusion Award winner, family, and several judges (from the right, Mike Abbiatti, Dr. Vadiee’s son, Dr. Vadiee, Dottie Gottshall, Andriel Dees)

Stay tuned for the next blog which will focus on the second principle of connections to a larger communications ecosystem. I’ll be chatting with two pioneers within the area of cybersecurity and technology access to underserved communities.

Author photo Andriel Dees
Andriel Dees
Director, Diversity and Inclusion
Capella University




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Focus on Student Success – WCET Summit ’17 Recap

WCET’s 6th Leadership Summit engaged institutional leaders in strategic discussions regarding alignment and support of their institution’s human capital and technology investments, Picture1and how to develop a content strategy to sustain innovation in teaching and learning. In my opinion, boy was it successful!

This was my very first WCET Leadership Summit, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. From the invigorating sessions and outstanding conversations, fun outings complete with concerts or yummy dining options, to the thrillingly active social media backchannel. Today, I’d like to recap the event and bring up some of the topics that I hope will continue to inspire future conversations, project ideas, and events.

Hearing from Leaders Who Think about Innovation

The Summit started with Nick White, Director, Competency Based Learning Solutions for Capella University and chair of the WCET Steering Committee, facilitating a panel with Jeff Borden (Chief Innovation Officer, Saint Leo University) and Michelle Weise (Executive Director, Sandbox Collaborative, Southern New Hampshire University) on driving institutional innovation. We learned about what Nick hates when it comes to innovation and the Twitter backchannel fired up rather quickly (and remained very active, check out the Storify). Michelle and Jeff discussed innovations on their campuses: Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox Collaborative and Saint Leo University’s Lions SHARE. Both noted that innovation is hard! To encourage innovation, they recommended bringing people on board slowly, raising awareness of innovators in action, and making sure to reward and celebrate failure (meaning, take advantage of failure as a learning opportunity).

Want to experience the magic of that session? Watch the recording of this session.

The breakout sessions this year included presentations and interactive discussions about hiring and cultivating talented employees, designing teaching and learning centers, aligning investments to support student success, educational content strategies, and data analytics. For more information on the presentations and the presenters, please check out the summit agenda.

Identify the Talent You Have, What You Need, and Where to Discover Candidates

Lauren Mason Carris -Western Governors University, Pat James -California Communication Colleges Online Education Initiative, Laura Pedrick -UWM Online

The focus on student success was clear during this session, and is accomplished by ensuring we have the right talent on the team and we take the time and the resources to develop that talent.

The presenters opened the session by telling stories about their experiences with talent management and mentoring. They emphasized the creation of a talent focused organization. We must look for opportunities to re-skill or re-motivate (vs. disciplining), model good leadership or work habits, and provide space to our team members to grow. Student success should be the guiding mission for your team. Pat commented that she always makes sure to ask one question when considering new projects, programs or initiatives. Does it support student success? If it doesn’t support student success, why are you doing it?

 Today’s Learning Design Infrastructure

MJ Bishop -University System of Maryland, Christina Anderson -Wiley Education Services, Jay Hollowell – MaxKnowledge, Inc.

Centers for teaching and learning not only provide development opportunities for faculty, but can enable innovation. The role of these centers is not to fix broken faculty, but to share what’s working to improve student learning.

The learning environment of today is changing from sitting in a seat, listening to select information, to an environment of experiences and unlimited access to information. Today’s learners have more life experience, are more diverse, and are “on” 24/7. How can we prepare to meet the needs of these students?

There are new and emerging faculty roles today as well. They are now planners, preparers, facilitators, coaches, and evaluators. Institutions are reorganizing to better support faculty and students in technology enabled learning initiatives.

Aligning Investments to Support Core Functions

Rhonda Blackburn –LoudCloud Systems, Stefanie Crouse -Montgomery County Community College, Paul Thayer -Colorado State University

How do you align your resource investments to ensure you make a difference to student retention and completion?

During the general session, Paul talked about how advising at Colorado State was broken, so they created a new model. CSU created a unified vision connected to student success and made sure they had top level support (five vice presidents) and institution-wide involvement.

Rhonda asked, how do we ensure student success for online students? What services are different for online students and what services the same? Most important, what needs to be improved? Rhonda also provided a wonderful resource with a checklist of student support services, including “ethical services,” which includes academic integrity.

Lastly, we discussed redesigning advising at Montgomery County Community College. Advising had been like urgent care: quick visits with different advisors each time. After the redesign, students were assigned advisors based on their major/program of study. Montgomery adopted a wholistic approach including educational and career planning. They based their model on the SSIPP model for serving students: Sustained, Strategic, Integrated, Proactive, and Personalized – from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University.

I enjoyed their closing activity to determine who would be “at your table” when starting something new on campus. We decided that we need to bring in IT, institutional research, marketing, advising, students, etc. into the room to talk about the problem and brainstorm solutions.

Data Security and Privacy and Systems Thinking in Higher Education.

Just before and after lunch we attended general sessions, the first of which focused on tackling the higher education data security and privacy challenge. We were introduced to the topic by John Lopez, WICHE. Sadly, the tales of hacking and data loss are not just scary bedtime stories. bedtime story.PNGWe heard about Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity Advisory Program from Harley D. Rinerson, which can help assess essential cybersecurity performance or check out your cyber hygiene (scan to assess vulnerabilities). We remembered a time when all this tech stuff only kept one person up at night: our institution’s Chief Information Officer. Today, we all must take responsibility for data security. WCET’s Mike Abbiatti reminded us that protecting data is a strategic issue. We can’t talk about innovation in higher education without first talking about cybersecurity.

We must inform and education our campus communities about data and privacy protection. The new culture of innovation should also be a culture of protection and preparedness. Learn more by watching the recording.

The second general session turned toward fostering innovation through design thinking. Kathleen deLaski, Education Design Lab, introduced us to journey mapping new ideas. They use the map to visualize patterns and understand how ideas blossom or get sidetracked. The Ed Design Lab’s model of design thinking for higher ed innovation includes: understand, ideate, prototype, launch.

Sean Hobson, EdPlus, ASU, believes that successful innovation at ASU has been possible due to a strong vision by a strong and inspiring leader. Their success stems from moving from an institutional focus to a student focused model. This model forced them to develop new partnerships and new values to create and foster those ideas.

Manoj Kulkarni, RealizeIt, commented on the language problem with the verbiage used when discussion innovation. Most people understand the structure or concept of innovation but not the entire process of what it means to innovate. We need to develop a shared meaning of the process of innovation. Miss this session? You’re in luck, because we recorded it!

Summarizing Day One

At the end of the day, Jeff Borden provided an entertaining and thought-provoking recap of day one. I thought his comments about considering innovation without technology were so important. Innovation doesn’t always have to be centered around technology. Miss it? Check out the recording!

Group dinners followed for many of us, and, and some of us also attended the outdoor concert at Salt Lake’s Gallivan Center (or listened from our rooms, as the concert was right outside the hotel).

Day two, Thursday June 15

We were welcomed to day two by Kelvin Bentley, the Vice Chair of the WCET Steering Committee and vice president of academic affairs, TCC Connect Campus, Tarrant County Community College District.

Our opening session included lessons on supporting innovation, from a panel that included Stacey VanderHeiden Guney -Aims Community College, Kara Monroe -Ivy Tech Community College, Vernon Smith -American Public University System, Paul Thayer -Colorado State, and facilitated by Luke Dowden -University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Their theme: do you fail at scale or do you pilot to tell? Luke referenced his recent blog on the same title, which inspired the presentation for WCET. file-3The panelists discussed their successes and failures in innovation. First, Kara’s discussed their recent, faculty led, LMS RFP process and rollout (communication was key). Vernon talked about the iron triangle within higher education (quality, cost, access) and how these cultural constraints can keep us from innovating. American Public University System is a Z degree, zero cost for textbooks, institution. This increases affordability and access for students. Next, we learned about the ACCelerator from Stacey VanderHeiden Guney. Her suggestion was to look “at old things in new ways.” Such as looking at an old shopping mall and turning it into a campus. Paul Thayer described a long-term project (student success initiatives) aimed at increasing graduation rates, especially for low income students. Transformation of advising to academic guidance was a huge part of this project.

Hearing about these exceptional programs from these very cool experts (as Luke Dowden named them) was a terrific opportunity. The recording is available for binge watching this weekend!

After a lovely beverage break, we were released for more breakout sessions.

Education Content Strategy

Jason Hales -VitalSource, Shannon Meadows -EdMap, Meredith Schreiber -Chemeketa Community College, Kim Thanos -Lumen Learning

An educational content strategy is an institutional plan for the procurement and delivery of course materials to achieve affordability, access, and retention goals. When developing your content strategy, as advised by Shannon Meadows from EdMap, keep in mind that it should be “flexible to accommodate emerging pedagogical and institution changes, such as personalization, adaptive, interactive content, and/or analytics.”

We discussed using Open Educational Resources as a content strategy. There are some challenges to address when it comes to OER (quality, maintenance, technology, etc.). Kim brought up the example of Cerritos College, where access to personalized learning and OER has helped with their retention (rates increased from 67% to 89%)) and student performance (.75 grade pints better in personalized courses).

Meredith advised that many question her work on OER (because of the potential impact to her job at the bookstore), she says we should think of ourselves as Blockbuster. That’s a distinct perspective! She worked to streamline low cost textbook adoption process and provide direct digital access to content. While this impacted her bookstore revenue, students had access to educational content day one at a reduced price. Remember: Blockbuster. We can work toward this change, keeping student success as our goal, or we can help ourselves become obsolete.

Jason had a similar story. Their model ensures day one access to learning materials at a lower cost. They are facing some issues with content as well such as too rapid of growth, differential pricing, offline access, and data analytics.

Making Your Data Analytics Actionable

Jeff Aird -Salt Lake Community College, Mike Sharkey -Blackboard, Inc

How well does higher ed do at making sure that the data we have is actionable? I’ve always felt that if you don’t have an actionable reason to pull data, then why are you pulling it?

This session focused on how to use our data to identify innovative solutions to higher ed’s biggest issues. We need to progress from descriptive data (simple reports and dashboards), to insights (storytelling and analysis), to action. Data provides opportunities for engagement. We can use the data to redesign courses (and hopefully decrease the need for interventions for at risk students). Data should be used to provide purpose and information to your faculty and staff.

Leadership, Vision, and Sustainability

Connie Johnson -Colorado Technical University, Patrick Rossol-Allison -Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bryan Setser -rpkGroup

Innovation involves change, and much of that involves a change in culture. Higher education may need to consider taking a mindset similar to innovators in other industries (like an “intrapreneur” vs and entrepreneur).

Communication during a change process is important. When leading change, we should develop a sense of urgency, provide evidence for why we need to change (especially important when working with faculty), and celebrate success (even the small ones!). You should obtain and analyze data and adapt your plan as you move through the change process. Do quarterly assessments to check the health of your change process…don’t wait to do an autopsy once your initiative failed.

Summarizing Day Two

Peter Smith led us through a recap of day two, thank you Peter! He had a few aha! moments during the meeting, and my favorite was his comment about calling students learners instead of students. To me, it is much more empowering to be a learner. Listen to his other aha moments in the recording.

We asked at the end of each day for ideas on how we can help you innovate on your campus. I know the team is looking forward to developing additional resources, initiatives, media, etc. We may reach out to partner with you on some of your ideas!

What did you think about #WCETSummit17? If you loved this event (or were jealous because you couldn’t attend) then you should join us in Denver for the WCET Annual Meeting. Registration just opened!banner-meeting-registration


Enjoy the day,


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Lindsey Downs
Manager, Communications, WCET



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Introducing WCET’s ‘Z Initiative’ on Open Textbooks and OER

Drum roll please! Welcome to WCET’s new Director of Open Policy, Tanya Spilovoy! Tanya is here on WCET Frontiers today to introduce the new WCET Z Initiative and her work with OER and Open Policy.

We’re quite excited to have Tanya on the team and see where this work takes us and our WCET members. Take it away Tanya!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,


Hi. I’m Tanya Spilovoy. You might remember me from such WCET hit roles as “State Authorization Network state regulator,” “SARA Portal Agent,” ‘WCET Steering Committee,” numerous webcasts, and annual conference presentations.

You may also remember me from WCET Frontiers Blog blog posts (What are Institutions Doing (or Not Doing) About State Authorization: 2014 Survey, OER Supported by North Dakota Legislators, North Dakota Open Educational Resources Initiative: A System-wide Success Story) related to my Open Educational Resources(OER) project in North Dakota. With a small investment from the state legislature, my leadership at the system office, and support from faculty, postsecondary students saved $2 million in textbook costs during the 2016-17 school year. Implemented effectively, OER can lower cost and increase access for students.

Announcing My New Role at WCET

Now I’m excited to announce a new role leading the WCET Z Initiative as Director, Open Policy.

photo of several hardcover books“What’s a ‘Z Initiative’?” you wonder? I’m glad you asked. “Z” stands for “Zero”-as in “Zero Textbook Cost courses and degrees.” A successful Z Initiative means that proprietary textbooks are replaced with openly licensed learning resources (OER) in courses and postsecondary degree programs. Eliminating textbook costs, which can average $1,200 per year per student, reduces the overall cost of attendance. Students in Z courses have access to learning materials the first day of class, regardless of their financial situation.

After years teaching on campus and online courses, I’ve seen how students struggle when they don’t have the textbook.  Eliminating textbook costs eliminates a barrier to completion.

Z Degrees are already being successfully implemented in many states and institutions. Tidewater Community College was the first to launch an OER degree and also coined the term “Z Degree.” University of Maryland University College won the 2015 WCET WOW Award for eliminating publisher textbooks in all undergraduate courses. Achieving the Dream and partners (Lumen Learning, the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER), and SRI International), helped 38 community colleges in 13 states remove the financial burden of textbook costs. This action increased the likelihood of degree completion for thousands of students.

Since 2002, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has been encouraging the increased use of open educational resources to reduce the cost of education and increase access to information for millions of people world-wide. With the work of WCET’s founding director, Sally Johnstone, WCET was one of the original organizations to champion OER. Just last year, the WCET Steering Committee identified OER as one of its priorities and there were many sessions on OER at the Word jumble including these words "resources, students, zero, cost OER, access, textbook, education, text, initiative, policy, open"WCET Annual Meeting.

My position at WCET is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and although there isn’t funding available to WCET member OER projects, we will offer an array of services and opportunities for engagement.

What will I be doing as WCET’s Director, Open Policy?

I’ll be working with policy-makers and change agents at the state, system, and institution level to increase the use of OER and decrease the price of higher education for post-secondary students. In my first few months, I’ll be doing research, strategizing, networking, and creating materials that focus on best practice in policy and implementation. I’m also meeting and working with other OER pioneers and Hewlett grantees so that WCET compliments their awesome work. A wonderful trait of the Open Community is that we share and help each other.

I know many of you are excited to get involved, and I can’t wait to meet with you, listen to your ideas and brainstorm ways to work together. WCET is committed to serving the needs of its members. I’m proud to work in a nationally-respected organization with a long history of collaboration and innovation in educational technology.

I’ll need a little time as Russ Poulin (WCET’s Director, Policy & Analysis) and I work out the many details, so please be patient. The grant does not provide for subgrants for individual implementations. As we fully develop our menu of services, I’ll keep you updated on our progress.

Feel free to send me an email. Stay tuned for more as Russ and I roll out the WCET Z Initiative.

Tanya Spilovoy

Tanya Spilovoy
Director, Open Policy, WCET




Glossary of Terms

Open Educational Resources (OER)

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation defines OER as the following: “Open Educational Resources are 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 re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.”

Open Textbooks

According to the Open Textbook Library, “open textbooks are textbooks that have been funded, published, and licensed to be freely used, adapted, and distributed.”

Z Degrees

Z Degrees replace traditional textbooks with a variety of Open Educational Resources, thereby eliminating textbook costs for students.

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Financial Aid: Tips and Tricks for Working with Non-Traditional Students

In the second of our series on financial aid issues, Brittany Hackett of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Officers (NASFAA), gives us a look at aid for non-traditional students. She also highlights some of NASFAA’s tip sheets for different types of students, such as adults or military/veterans. Join us our webcast on June 22 covering financial aid fraud in distance education.
– Russ Poulin, WCET 

When you think of college students, who are you picturing? Probably someone who just graduated from high school and is headed off to an ivy-covered campus, living away from home for the first time. While that’s still the reality for some, financial aid administrators know that today’s average college student is anything but traditional.

Non-traditional students are “students who, by choice or by life circumstances, haven’t lived life in a straight line from high school to undergrad to graduate or professional school,” Mendy Schmerer, assistant director of the Office of Student Financial Aid at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center explains.

And the non-traditional student population is quickly becoming the largest cohort of college students in America. In fact, 2015 data from the National Center on Education Statistics showed that 74 percent of all 2011-12 undergraduates had at least one characteristic that labeled them as a non-traditional student.

But non-traditional students face barriers and obstacles that other students may not.  The way many financial aid programs are designed typically addresses the need and characteristics of traditional college students, and do not often take into consideration the needs of the non-traditional student population.

As the population of non-traditional students grows on campuses around the country, here are some important things you should keep in mind to make their educational path a little easier, particularly when it comes to financial aid.

Be Aware of What Their Lives May Look Like Outside of School and Be Flexible.

shutterstock_262131680For many non-traditional students, school is not their only, or even their biggest, priority. Bearing this in mind can help you tailor your communications and messaging to better assist this group.

Non-traditional students most often are older and have families, work experience, and are independent financially. It is more accurate to consider that non-traditional students are any students who have unique circumstances or who did not matriculate directly to postsecondary education after completing high school or its equivalent. So, while this group often includes older, working adults, it also can include veterans, homeless and foster youth, and undocumented students, among other groups.

“Their characteristics vary just as widely as their circumstances do,” Schmerer said. “Some have a sharp sense of focus because they’ve spent several years figuring out what they don’t want to do, but others are still wandering, which may be the very reason they have started, stopped, and restarted their educational pursuits.”

Explore New Ways and Tools to Serve Students

Between work, families, and other obligations, it can even be difficult for them to find a way to attend classes or complete assignments, let alone interact with campus offices like the financial aid office or academic advisors. By devoting some time and resources to thinking of new ways to reach students who are often not on campus during the day can make it a bit easier for these students and help set them up for success

For example, consider changing your office hours to accommodate those who work during business hours, or extending your hours into the evening or weekend. Or you could leveraging technology to make your office and services more accessible, such as video conferencing or live chatting with students who are unable to be on campus when they need assistance.

The internet also makes it easier than ever to host forms, documents, and other information in a way that is more accessible than having to visit an on-campus office, either on a website or in a portal students can access. Some schools are even beginning to experiment with using online payment systems to collect tuition and fees electronically. This is an excellent way to reduce yet another burden on already busy students.

And while email continues to rule when it comes to campus communications, leveraging other mediums to get your messages where students are most likely to see them can go a long way.illustration of an email “We recognize that email is not where everybody is,” Angela Johnson, vice president of enrollment management at Cuyahoga Community College, said. “We use an integrated perspective so that same content and branding is provided in multiple mediums,” including email, robocalls, social media, and text messaging, she said.

Consider Their Need to Quickly Complete Their Degree and Re-enter the Workforce

It is not unusual for college students to want to complete their degrees quickly, not only so they can enter the workforce, but so they can leave school with as little student debt as possible. This is particularly true for non-traditional students who may, in Mendy Schmerer’s words, “have household expenses that made perfect sense before returning to school, but now are awfully difficult to deal with when trying to also budget for tuition and books.” They may turn to you for guidance on what can help them to graduate quickly with the least amount of debt or what course load makes the most sense for them, both based on their personal time constraints and financially.

When it comes to financial aid, the entire process – from filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to entering student loan repayment – can be a challenge for non-traditional students. Because many non-traditional students are considered “independents,” many assume they are not eligible for federal financial aid programs such as the Pell Grant or student loans. Avoiding jargon when discussing their financing options is key, Schmerer recommends, adding that any digital communication efforts should be clear, concise, and proactive, especially for programs that enroll high populations of adult learners.

It’s also important to consider how non-education expenses can affect non-traditional students. As mentioned before, these are students who often have families, household expenses, and other financial obligations that can be challenging to meet when they are working and attending school. One way to help students, especially low-income students, is to connect them with community resources and public benefits that may alleviate the financial strain of attending college.

Seek Advice When Faced with Special Circumstances

While it is easy to offer general advice and tipNASFAA logos, anyone working in higher education knows that students have specific questions about their individual circumstances.Over the years, NASFAA has developed and maintained several tip sheets that are designed to help unique student populations overcome challenges to successfully navigate the financial aid process and access higher education. Tip sheets are available for military/veterans, undocumented students, adult learners, and homeless and foster youth, highlighting specific questions they will have to answer on the FAFSA.

Some tips that are useful to administrators who may get questions from these students include:

  • Knowing the definition of what a “ward” of the court is, and how it impacts a student’s financial aid applications;
  • Under which circumstances an undocumented student may be eligible for non-federal student aid or in-state tuition;
  • How bankruptcy or student loan default may impact an adult learner’s financial aid prospects; and
  • What financial information an active-duty servicemember must include on his or her FAFSA.

Check out NASFAA’s tip sheet for unique student populations and other financial aid information and resources for students and families by visiting our Students, Parents, and Counselor’s resource pages.


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Brittany Hackett
NASFAA Reporter & Multimedia Coordinator





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Finding Your Way Through Financial Aid

This month WCET is focusing on a complex component of student participation in higher education: financial aid. We are very appreciative of our friends at the National Association for Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) for providing two blog posts giving us a great background on the topic. Later this month we turn our attention to financial aid fraud in distance education. Join us for our webcast on June 22. Thank you to Joan Berkes, Allie Bidwell (for today’s post), and our NASFAA friends for their support. WCET staff think it is a good idea to get to know your financial aid officer, before any problems arise…or, better yet, to alleviate problems before they occur. Thank you,

— Russ Poulin, WCET

Each year, billions of dollars in financial aid are distributed to millions of college students. Financial aid administrators at colleges and universities across the country play a critical role in ensuring those funds make it into the hands of studentpink piggie bank with coinss who need the money to pay for a postsecondary education.

But administering financial aid is much more than simply checking names off a list and sending emails to students. The typical financial aid administrator wears many hats, and provides resources not just to students and families, but also to the larger community, the institution as a whole, other campus administrators, and even to lawmakers and their staff.

Here are some important things you should keep in mind when it comes to understanding financial aid, and what aid administrators do each day.

Financial Aid Comes in Many Shapes and Forms

Paying for college can be confusing, but it’s important to understand where the money comes from, and that financial aid awards aren’t just a lump sum. Both the sources and types of aid can vary for each student.

Each year, for example, the federal government doles out about $150 billion in student financial aid, which can come in the form of a grant, a loan, or a work-study allocation. Grants are essentially “free money” that does not need to be repaid, unlike a loan, which will be repaid with interest over time. A work-study award is just like what it sounds: students work, often on campus, to help offset their costs.

Financial aid administrators know what aid is available, who is eligible, how the aid is distributed, and if there are any requirements for students to keep that aid in the future. In addition to the federal government, states, institutions, and other organizations can also be sources of student financial aid.

Communication Is Key

Making sure students understand the details of their aid is critical to their success.

student aid info graphic (click for larger version)

Keeping in constant contact with students – even before they start classes – can help them make responsible decisions.

“We try to use as many communication channels as possible,” says Tim Layman, vice president of student financial services for the College of Online and Continuing Education at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Whether it’s through a phone call, email, a text, a live chat, or even social media, the financial aid office tries to determine which point of contact is best to reach each student, particularly for those who attend part-time or online.

The aid office often also plays a role in teaching students about financial literacy – making sure they understand their award letters, that they make responsible financial choices, and that they make informed decisions when it comes to borrowing.

It’s Personal

Each student is unique and has a different experience when it comes to attending college. Because it’s their own individual journey, bringing money into the equation makes it even more important that financial aid administrators keep in mind the particular needs of different types of students.

“There’s always going to be the human interaction because it’s personal to them,” says Bob Collins, vice president of financial aid at Western Governors University (WGU). “It’s about their money. It’s very personal. You have to provide that personal touch.”

At any given institution, the students come from all walks of life. While some students have never attempted attending college before, others might have already begun their academic journey and taken a break somewhere along the way.

“When we serve those students, there are sometimes preconceived notions or experiences,” says Will Pena, associate vice president for student financial services, finance and administration at SNHU. “There is a certain measure of communications overhead that has to take place. There’s almost a reorienting period when that student comes to us for the first time.”

Technology Counts

Regardless of whether a student is attending college on campus or online, there’s a benefit to automating as many transactions as possible, according to WGU’s Collins, and providing a self-service functionality wherever possible.

“Students should be able to find whatever it is they need to know and what actions they need to take,” Collins says. “You have to provide the live support.”

It also helps to deliver a clear and personalized message to students. One of the most common questions financial aid administrators receive is about a student’s award status – “really low-hanging fruit,” according to Collins. Having a personalized landing page for each students, and a self-serving functionality can help get those questions answered in a more timely manner, and in some cases the students can find the answers themselves.

We Work Outside the Numbers, Too

Many people don’t realize the financial aid office is also responsible for keeping the institution in check with many federal regulations, including issues that WCET has followed, such as: last day of attendance reporting, student notifications, regular and substantive interaction, and state authorization. The aid office monitors all the different checkpoints to ensure financial aid programs are being administered in a compliant manner. When other departments streamline their processes and make them as efficient as possible, it can help reduce call volume all around. Working cooperatively can help ensure resources are used wisely, and that students remain the focus.

And don’t forget – if you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask! Financial aid administrators are here to help.

author headshot allie


Allie Bidwell
NASFAA Reporter




Registration is open now for WCET’s June webcast “Combating Financial Aid Fraud.” Join us June 22!

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Relaunching the EdSurge Product Index

Hello! This week we welcome Sunny Lee, the Senior Product Manager with Higher Ed at EdSurge. The EdSurge HigherEd team just completed a total relaunch of their courseware product index, which is a system to help higher education administrators search and find courseware. It’s been great to learn more about this relaunch, as well as the process the team took to complete the refresh of the system.

Thank you Sunny for sharing this blog post with us!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your Monday!


The EdSurge HigherEd team recently relaunched our courseware product index to help college leaders search for courseware to meet their teaching and learning needs. Through the index you can filter your search for courseware products, compare product features, and review case studies.

Our Research in Relaunching the Index

The index relaunch was a result of consulting with college leaders for more than a year, to deeply understand their current processes as they search for courseware solutions and the problems they encounter. The interactive filters are inspired by the Courseware in Context (CWiC) Framework, which was created by Tyton Partners and a collaboratory of higher-ed institutional partners. The goal is to help decision-makers more effectively navigate the market of courseware products.

In the first wave of our user research, which began in early January 2016, we started with a relatively blank slate. We embarked on a series of in-depth user interviews to define key higher ed-leader personas and the journey they take during their edtech search, discovery, evaluation and selection process.

We interviewed 49 institutional leaders and established four key representative personas:

  • Paul Braverman, R1 Digital Learning Senior Administrator
  • Clyde Alonzo, Instructional Research administrator with faculty duties at a community college
  • Cosima Sanders, Faculty for undergraduate entry level courses at a 4 year state university
  • Kimiko Murasaki, Instructional Designer at a 4 year public institution

Through those interviews, we learned about the needs and drivers of higher education (HE) leaders and were able to start articulating them.
HE leaders want:

  • clarity around what tools do and what they look like in action.
  • want to cut through the marketing jargon provided by the companies.
  • want to make defensible decisions around edtech products and solutions.

We also were able to pull out emergent themes from our conversations:

  • Navigating the growing landscape of products is often overwhelming.
  • Peer networks are critical for product discovery.
  • Flood of inbound outreach by vendors is often unwelcome and difficult to navigate.
  • Getting institutional buy-in is onerous and takes a significant amount of time.

From Personas to User Testing

As we learned more about our key personas, the jobs they needed to get done, their motivations and drivers—as well as pain points—we started user testing mockups to gauge features of the index with HE leaders.

You can see an overview of our process along the timeline below:

Process flow leading up to launch of product index

These were the initial set of work-in-progress mockups we started out with for user testing purposes:


The questions we focused on during our user-testing sessions, in addition to the user experience of the mockups, included:

  • What are the filters that are most important to you?
    • This was trying to get at basic requirements that HE leaders would need to consider a product such as system level integrations including LMS compatibility, accessibility, important product features, etc.
  • What are key considerations for you when evaluating a courseware product?
    • This was trying to understand data points critical to the HE leader in the evaluation of a product such as how many peer institutions use it, peer reviews, price, customer service, ability to demo etc.

Our Initial Launch

After thorough synthesis of all the user interviews and user testing sessions, we launched our initial courseware product index in July of 2016 which you can see below:


Additional Lessons Learned from the CWiC Framework Development Process

Following this launch, we continued to be a part of the effort to simplify and improve the CWiC framework, shepherded by Tyton and collaborating institutions. As the framework matured and relaunched in October 2016, it became obvious that our index was not taking full advantage of the lessons learned by being a part of this endeavor.

For example, the three filters we launched with were courseware features, LMS integrations and discipline. From our earlier interviews, many HE leaders expressed these as important baseline considerations during their initial search and discovery process. However, it was clear these filters didn’t take advantage of critical teaching-and-learning considerations that are important to the successful rollout and implementation of courseware that are outlined by the framework.

Through another round of user interviews, we found that institutional leaders often overly rely on operational requirements like LMS integration, discipline, and content sources to select courseware products without considering what important features are necessary to meet their teaching and learning goals. The CWiC Framework was precisely the protocol developed to encourage college leaders to think about their pedagogical goals as they evaluate courseware products. By not interweaving elements of the CWiC framework into the index, we were leaving out an important untapped user experience need.

Our challenge then was to figure out how to simplify a framework that had nine different functional capabilities (with each having an average of five sub-capabilities for a total of 45 different filtering possibilities). This wasn’t even counting the table stakes capabilities, aka operational requirements critical for systems integrations, like LMS, accessibility standards, browser support as well as other important factors in the search process including discipline, content source, modality and institutional use cases etc. There was a clear tradeoff we needed to reckon with – Do we aim for thoroughness by surfacing all the possible filtering capabilities represented by the CWiC framework at the expense of usability or vice versa? Or was there a middleground we could strive for?

We began to take a look at the CWiC framework data submitted to us by approximately 30 companies in the courseware product index and measured variance in responses. Then we ranked the capabilities based on level of variance. For instance, there was a high level of variability in the responses to the adaptivity capability by the 30 companies, meaning if a user selected any of the subfilters under adaptivity, products would be noticeably pared down narrowing the selection possibilities.

Meanwhile, there was rather low variability in the responses to the usability capability. Most companies self reported on the CWiC framework survey that their product had a high level of usability. While usability might be an important consideration in the courseware selection process, if by selecting that filter, products are not further eliminated from the long list, we determined that’s not a very effective filter for the user and thereby not a great user experience.

With such variance in the data at hand, we pared down the functional capabilities from nine to six. We determined a good combination of the CWiC-framework-derived functional capabilities filters, as well as operational requirements filters, would guide HE leaders to effectively shortlist courseware products that both met their technical needs as well as their pedagogical goals.

Applying What We Learned to the Penultimate Product Index

With that in mind, our next step was to design a user experience around these new filters that would be engaging and intuitive to use. We came up with two design directions; a guided diagnostic and enhanced filters which we tested with various HE leaders at this year’s SxSW Edu in Austin:


Interactive Filters:

Interactive-Filters-1.jpgThe goal of the diagnostic was to guide the user through important considerations in the courseware selection process that encourages the HE leader to think beyond operational requirements and more about teaching and learning needs. Many users told us that they appreciated the guided aspect of the diagnostic as well as the educational moment to learn about key features of a courseware that affect teaching and learning in the classroom that ought to be given more weight in the selection process.

Those same users also conceded that the diagnostic felt like a wonderful first-time user experience that would start feeling redundant as the user grew more familiar with the capabilities. Some also expressed concern about the “blackbox” nature of the diagnostic. One does not know which products they are leaving behind by selecting a certain sub-filter of adaptivity for instance. Meanwhile, the enhanced filters encouraged active exploration and immediate feedback through dynamic filtering based on the selections made by the user.

From the user-testing session, we concluded that the diagnostic, while effective as a first-time user experience, would become tired once the user started getting familiar with the filters. It became clear from the feedback that being able to dive in and explore the filters immediately was a better long-term experience. So we decided to build out the enhanced filter version and table the diagnostic.

The Final Product Index is Now Available

The relaunch of our courseware product index in April 2017 was a result of user research and testing that is very much built into our product development process. Immediately after the relaunch, we lined up additional conversations with members in our community to get feedback in order to prioritize ways in which we would further improve the experience.

All of this work is driven by our goal at EdSurge to understand, empathize with, and help higher education leaders get the information they need to make defensible edtech decisions. Through the courseware index we hope to accomplish the following:

  • Inform HE leaders with the evolving landscape of courseware products.
  • Enable HE leaders to cut through the marketing jargon and get to the key features important for their consideration.
  • Provide HE leaders with product information that is helpful in evaluating whether it will fit their teaching and learning needs as well as their operational requirements.

Through the dozens and dozens of user research conversations we’ve had with HE leaders, we have come to more deeply understand the jobs they need to get done, the pain points they experience, and the desire they have to help students accomplish their educational goals and succeed in their higher ed careers. We have a strong level of appreciation and admiration for these HE leaders and hope the courseware product index, in its latest iteration, provides value for them and is a tool that can better inform their courseware searches.

If you would like to share any feedback, please reach out to!

Sunny's headshot


Sunny Lee
Sr. Product Manager, Higher Ed at EdSurge





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