Education Department Clarifies Its Intent on State Authorization Reciprocity

To paraphrase Mark Twain: “The report of SARA’s death was an exaggeration.”

Department of Education officials recently told me that they recognize the hard work over many years in creating interstate reciprocity agreements for state authorization. They also expressed surprise over the perceptions that their new state authorization regulations would harm reciprocity.

In a call initiated by the Department and a subsequent call to answer some follow-up questions, well-placed Department officials clarified widespread “misconceptions” advanced by me and many others. This blog post presents my interpretation of what was said in those calls. Due to these discussions, my view of the intent of the Department’s new reciprocity definition has changed.

The words This is welcome news. In Cheryl Dowd’s (the State Authorization Network director) and my initial take on the regulation and the subsequent reactions from several sources that we reported late last year, we all thought the regulation would end reciprocity. After all, if a state could do whatever it wants despite an agreement, what use is the agreement?

From what I heard in the calls, the Department intended the exact opposite. It continues its long-held support for reciprocity agreements as a way for institutions to demonstrate state authorization of distance education. Additionally, it recognizes the rights of states participating in the agreement to set the provisions for reciprocity and the decide what states may join.

A Brief History of the “Reciprocity” Definition

When the Department issued its proposed state authorization regulations earlier this year, they included a definition of a reciprocity agreement, saying that an agreement acceptable for demonstrating compliance with federal financial aid rules could not prohibit a state from enforcing its consumer protection laws. Several of those submitting official comments on the regulations (including us) requested this definition be clarified. After all, different people had different ideas as to what would count as a “consumer protection” law. The definition as proposed last summer:

“An agreement between two or more States that authorizes an institution located and legally authorized in a State covered by the agreement to provide postsecondary education through distance education or correspondence courses to students in other States covered by the agreement and does not prohibit a participating State from enforcing its own consumer protection laws.”A text box reading:

Note that the Department talks only about the “concept” of reciprocity agreements as it is possible that subsets of states may decide to create multiple agreements. In this regulation, the Department is not addressing a specific agreement, such as SARA – the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement. Even though SARA is the best-known reciprocity agreement for distance education. It counts 47 States (plus DC) as members and 1,300 participating institutions. In full disclosure, I was deeply involved in forming that agreement.

The final regulation (issued in December) included the following, expanded definition of an acceptable reciprocity agreement:

“An agreement between two or more States that authorizes an institution located and legally authorized in a State covered by the agreement to provide postsecondary education through distance education or correspondence courses to students residing in other States covered by the agreement and does not prohibit any State in the agreement from enforcing its own statutes and regulations, whether general or specifically directed at all or a subgroup of educational institutions.”

A text box reading: On page 16 of the final regulation, the Department made the following statement in responding to official requests gathered during the open comment period regarding the proposed definition of a reciprocity agreement:

“…we believe that if a State has laws that are specific to postsecondary institutions, the State’s laws should not be preempted by a reciprocity agreement that does not recognize those State laws. Thus, we believe that the definition of a State authorization reciprocity agreement should encompass a State’s statutes and the regulations interpreting those statutes, both general and specific, including those directed at all or a subset of educational institutions.”

Those of us outside the Department interpreted that language to mean that a state could enforce any of its regulations even if that enforcement conflicted with a reciprocity agreement it had joined. You can see how we came to that conclusion.

Based on my recent conversations with Department personnel, our interpretation was wrong.

Key Takeaways Regarding the Department’s Intent

What did they intend? The intent of the language in the final regulation was to assure that a reciprocity agreement could not supersede state laws not covered in the agreement. The language required some “threading the needle” between state and federal laws and some of the Department’s ultimate intent seemed to be lost in the final wording.

Let me interpret the Department’s intent in my own words based on our recent conversations. In brief, the Department considers a reciprocity agreement to be in compliance with their requirements as long as the state’s laws and regulations and the provisions of any reciprocity agreement the state joined are not in conflict.

These details were fleshed out a bit more in our conversations:

  1. The Department reaffirms its support for reciprocity agreements as a path for an institution to obtain authorization in another state.
  2. Reciprocity agreement member states jointly define the provisions of the agreement and decide upon membership in the agreement. If a state disagrees with those provisions, it does not have to join. State participation is voluntary.A text box reading:
  3. If a state decides to join a reciprocity agreement, how it regulates institutions covered by the agreement cannot conflict with the provisions of the agreement. As an example, suppose a reciprocity agreement treats all sectors of institutions the same and prohibits states from imposing state-specific tuition refund formulas on out-of-state institutions participating in that agreement. Member states must abide by those provisions or they are determined to be in conflict with the agreement. Reciprocity member states cannot unilaterally impose their own conditions on participating institutions, unless those conditions are outside the scope of the reciprocity agreement.
  4. Reciprocity agreements must have a process to resolve any conflicts between state regulations and actions and reciprocity agreement provisions. Department personnel further clarified that they would expect an agreement to:Text box reading: "If there is a conflict, it must be resolved or the state leave the agreement."
    • Have a process to reject applications from states that cannot or do not plan to abide by the agreement,
    • Have a mechanism to review and resolve conflicts between state regulations and reciprocity agreement provisions, and
    • Have the ability to dismiss member states that do not abide by reciprocity agreement provisions.
  5. The Department will investigate unresolved conflicts between a state and a reciprocity agreement. Among actions the Department could take:
    • Declare the conflicting state’s institutions ineligible to offer federal aid to distance education students in other states participating in the agreement until the conflict is resolved,
    • Declare the agreement is out-of-compliance with federal regulations if it does not have the have the proper mechanisms to resolve conflicts, or
    • Take any other action it deems appropriate.

The Bottom Line and Making this Official

Bottom line: This is great news for SARA and, more importantly, the countless students who are now protected by that agreement and had no protection just a few years ago.

Again, this blog post presents my interpretation of what Education Department leadership intended all along, but was hard to determine from the final regulation. A Department official suggested that we submit a request to the Department to officially clarify (perhaps through a “Dear Colleague” letter) the intent of the reciprocity agreement definition. WCET, the State Authorization Network, and SARA will, together, promptly draft an official request for clarification.

Meanwhile, this places me in an awkward position. The Department staff reached out to me to clarify their intent. They are completely aware that I will share my impressions publicly, but they asked that those participating in the calls not be named. You can draw your own conclusions, but I think it has much to do with the calendar.

Glad to See the Department Support Reciprocity

As a result of these conversations with Education Department leadership, my main objection to the recently released regulation has been mitigated. I still have some other, more minor, problems with the final regulation, but those details will be explored on another day.

The end of reciprocity was a deal breaker. But, that is not their intent.

As for “misconceptions,” Mark Twain quipped: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Happy new year!

RussPhoto of Russ Poulin

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

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Department of Education State Authorization Regs – Reactions and What’s Next?

It has been a busy few days since the U.S. Department of Education released the final version of its “State Authorization of Postsecondary Distance Education, Foreign Locations” regulations. You can see Cheryl Dowd’s and my initial take on the final rules, in which we were fine with many of the provisions, but alarmed at the changes regarding reciprocity.

In this post, we thought you would like to see some of the reactions issued thus far…

1) National Council of State Authorization Reciprocity AgreementsNational Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements log

In a statement released on Tuesday, the organization that manages the SARA agreement, finds the change to the reciprocity definition puzzling:

“A ‘reciprocity agreement’ that would satisfy ED’s definition strikes us as no reciprocity agreement at all.” 

We agree. NC-SARA concludes with:

“We will continue to review the implications of these rules and communicate with our partners in the SARA initiative and with others.”

2) Cooley, LLP 

Cooley has followed every aspect of state authorization rules for decades. On Tuesday, they joined us in the head-scratching about the Department’s flawed logic in changing the reciprocity definition:

“This approach flies in the face of the very purpose of SARA, (and any reciprocity agreement) which is to provide a common set of authorization laws and institutional standards to which all participating states would agree. This unexpected change could therefore undo years of work to create a streamlined system for state licensure of distance programs, replacing a patchwork of laws, rules, and requirements that were extraordinarily burdensome on institutions and provided many students with substantially less protection than they have now under SARA. And of course ED’s position disregards the intent of the many state legislatures that have passed laws authorizing their state to participate in SARA over the last several years.” 

3) Massachusetts Executive Office of Education

So how did all of this happen? Massachusetts officials took credit in a press release on Monday:

“On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education announced the final state authorization regulations for postsecondary distance education, incorporating recommendations from the Massachusetts Board and Department of Higher Education, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Executive Office of Education to ensure that the final regulations do not curtail a State’s full authority to enforce its consumer protection laws. In the final rule, interstate reciprocity agreements cannot prohibit a state from enforcing its statutes and regulations, including those specific to all or a subset of educational institutions.”

Governor Charlie Baker applauds the Department’s actions:

“Massachusetts has the strongest consumer protection laws in the country, and we are thankful for the partnership with the Attorney General’s office on these efforts.”

What Massachusetts officials fail to mention in the state with the “strongest consumer protection” is that the state has never regulated purely online distance education, whereas SARA requires member states to do so. Where has the concern been for those students all these years?

Map of states that have joined SARA.

With recently added members New York, New Jersey, and (reportedly) Connecticut as SARA states, only three states (CA, FL, and MA) have not joined.

4) Inside Higher Ed

The history, the conflict, and the potential for the ultimate demise of the Distance Ed Rule were illustrated in a December 21, 2016 article in Inside Higher Ed:

“The rule-making process has been one of fits and starts, complete with court cases, delays and failed negotiations — and then a surprise last-ditch effort this summer. After collecting input on a draft this fall, the Education Department published the final rule in the Federal Register on Monday.

Yet the rule may never go into effect.”

The new regulations’ impact on SARA and the Department’s undermining of the work by state governors and legislatures to collaborate is described as follows:

“While department higher-ups have throughout the rule-making process reassured SARA that the rule would not undermine its work, the final rule includes a change that SARA’s national council on Tuesday described as “puzzling.”

The final rule states that reciprocity agreements can’t ban a state from enforcing its own laws, which SARA said suggests the Education Department will recognize reciprocity agreements that allow states to continue to enforce their own laws — even though they have entered an agreement to share a common legal framework.”

That statement ignores the fact that the governors, legislators, and/or other officials charged with overseeing higher education voluntarily joined the reciprocity agreement. Additionally, The Century Foundation is cited as one of the organizations pushing for the SARA limitations arguing that SARA “opens the door for ‘predatory online education companies’ to take advantage of students’.  Yet, The Century Foundation among a few other critics do not acknowledge that without SARA there are more than 25 states that do not provide any oversight of institutions providing online education. Under SARA those students are now protected.

5) This Regulation Will Probably Be Terminated 

We had a conversation with a knowledgeable person who assured us that there will be a bill to end this regulation. Using the Congressional Review Act makes the process of undoing this regulation fairly easy when one party controls both houses of Congress and the Presidency. The jubilation in Massachusetts and the Century Foundation is likely short-lived.

Meanwhile, state regulations are still in place and institutions should continue to follow those rules. If you or your institution has opinions on this regulation, you should share them with your Congressional Representative and Senators.

WCET State Authorization Network logo.

6) ‘Next Steps’ from the WCET State Authorization Network

The two of us had a long discussion about this on Monday. SAN members can expect to participate in more discussions regarding further recommendations on what next steps institutions should be taking. Look for more recommendations in the new year.

In the meantime, there are five important things for all institutions to remember:

  • Follow State Laws. All institutions must continue to follow the state’s laws in the states where the institution conducts activities, such as marketing, enrolling distance students, conducting face-to-face workshops, practica, or internships in another state.
  • Follow Federal Notification Rules. Federal regulations continue to be in place that require an institution to provide institutional information per 34 CFR 668.43, which includes providing a complaint policy in the states for which the institution participates in activities outside of the home state of the institution.
  • Be Sure Not to Misrepresent Your Offerings. Federal regulations continue to be in place to prohibit an institution that participates in Title IV programs from engaging in “substantial misrepresentation” about the academic programs, financial charges and the employability of its graduates.  34 CFR 668.71 * “intent” is not a necessary factor to determine whether a school has engaged in misrepresentation.
  • SARA Institutions Follow SARA Policies. An institution participating in SARA that has students in another SARA state must follow the unified policies and standards as agreed to by the states approved by SARA. These policies and standards include additional notifications and disclosures concerning students participating in programs leading to professional licensure.
  • Be Student-Centric with Information. Regardless of the requirements previously stated, to best serve students, institutions must provide students with the information necessary for them to succeed with their academic programs and for the credentials earned to then be useful in the location of the student.

We hope that you have happy holidays and a wonderful new year.Cheryl Dowd

Cheryl Dowd
State Authorization Network


Russ Poulin
Director, Policy and AnalysisPhoto of Russ Poulin with a bat.
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

If you are not a WCET member, come join us!

A Lump of Coal for SARA and Other Goodies in the State Authorization Regulations

The U.S. Department of Education released its final version of the its long-awaited regulations on “State Authorization of Postsecondary Distance Education, Foreign Locations” earlier today.  They will be published next week with an effective date of July 1, 2018.

What is proposed may be bad for the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, but the regulations may be all for naught. It is highly likely that these regulations will be killed in the next few months.

This post will provide some initial highlights and reactions. Additional analyses will be forthcoming.

The Concept of Using Authorization for Federal Financial Aid Purposes

Although our opinion had not been popular in some higher education circles, we have been consistent (see our joint comments with eight other organizations to the Department from August 2016) in supporting the concept that being approved in each state should be a condition to obtaining federal financial aid funds. It is logical that institutions should follow state laws governing institutions serving students in a state. Since authorization laws focus on geography and not modality, focusing on distance education was a mistake. But, that’s a discussion for another time.

The Reciprocity Definition Curtails Reciprocity

A container with several (maybe 47) lumps of coal in it.

47 lumps of coal for the SARA states. Merry Christmas, Your friends at the Department of Education

One of our big worries was that the definition of reciprocity would be changed to meet the needs of a small number of attorneys general who wanted to enforce their own state laws despite being part of a reciprocity agreement. From p. 17 of today’s announcement:

“We have revised the definition of State authorization reciprocity agreement by deleting the words “consumer protection laws” and adding in their place “statutes and regulations, whether general or specifically directed at all or a subgroup of educational institutions.” In addition, we have replaced the word “participating” with reference to a participating State with the word “any” so that a State authorization reciprocity agreement does not prohibit any State from enforcing its own statutes and regulations, whether general or specifically directed at all or a subgroup of educational institutions.”

So, each state agrees to reciprocity as long as it can still do whatever it wants. Imagine a similar reciprocity for driver’s licenses. If you have out-of-state plates you could be stopped at the border and required to take a driver’s test. Not good. This is BAD policy.

Marshall Hill and the NC-SARA staff are examining this language and preparing a statement. Meanwhile, I’m very disturbed that the Department decided to override the judgement of the governors and legislatures of 47 SARA states. Whether through legislation or regulatory rule, states have already made this determination. The attorneys general of a few states loss the battle at home and went to the Department.

This change makes no sense to us. SARA has done more to protect students than anything in recent memory. Harming SARA will merely roll back these gains. Students will be harmed.

The Idea of Forcing States to Conduct an “Active Review” is Dead

The main sticking point of the 2014 Negotiated Rulemaking Committee was that the Department was trying to dictate regulations to the states. Because they would not remove that provision, what was proposed died. In response to a commenter suggesting that the regulations include this requirement, the Department replied:

“We decline to revise the regulations. It is a State’s discretion as to how it may choose to regulate by establishing requirements that exceed the minimum requirements for title IV program eligibility. An institution is responsible for meeting any State requirements and should maintain the applicable documentation.”

Arrrrgh. If they would have agreed 2.5 years ago, they could have had this published then and made it far tougher for the new administration to remove the regulation. Oh well.

The Focus on “Residence” is Not Helpful

The Department’s staff forgot all our discussions from the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee about focusing on “location” and not “residence.” On p. 27 of this regulation, they say:

“For purposes of this rulemaking, a student is considered to reside in a State if the student meets the requirements for residency under that State’s law.”

In defining military residence, they wrote this headscratcher:

“…when determining the State in which the military student resides, the institution may rely on the student’s self-determination unless the institution has information that conflicts with that determination. “

Using the term “residence” will cloud the picture. Their new definition will be confused with the legal residence of the student. Most state laws focus on “location” and those who are inside the state whether they are legal residents or not. As Cheryl asks: “can’t they ask someone who does this work when they write the regulations?”

A New Disclosure on the Consequences of Students Moving

A new disclosure requirement is added on p. 178:

“An explanation of the consequences, including ineligibility for title IV, HEA funds, for a student who changes his or her State of residence to a State where the institution does not meet State requirements or, in the case of a GE program, as defined under 34 CFR 668.402, where the program does not meet licensure or certification requirements in the State.”

More clarification is needed on this one. We can imagine a rather general statement with specific examples that would inform the student that significant harm (loss of aid, inability to qualify for a licensure program exam) if the student moves to another state. We hope that this requirement does not imply the need to explain EVERY possible permutation for EVERY program in EVERY state. We’re not sure the Internet is large enough for this statement.

Complaint Process: Think Twice about Enrolling Students in California

In our comments to the proposed regulations, we worried about states (like California) without complaint processes for students enrolling in out-of-state distance education providers. We worried that those students would be ineligible for Title IV financial aid. They confirmed that worry on p. 38:

“…if a State does not provide a complaint process as described in a State where an institution’s enrolled students reside, the institution would not be able to disburse Federal student aid to students in that State.”

We opined that out-of-state institutions lobbying to implement such a complaint process in California would be fruitless given the state’s penchant to ignore higher education consumer protection demands from its own residents.

All for Naught?

Our guess is that this regulation will be killed very soon. The Congressional Review Act provides a very convenient method for doing so. You can read more about it in a recent post of ours. Rep. Foxx mentioned state authorization as one of many rules the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will seek to overturn.

Again, it’s too bad that we’re caught between those who wish to deregulate everything and those who have never seen a regulation that did not like. The consumer protection folks are losing their regulatory friends. Perhaps they would like to come play with us???

What Should I Do as a Distance Education Professional?

State laws exist either way. You should follow those laws. If you are a member of SARA, keep following the SARA rules.

If future posts, we will give you additional advice on how to proceed (or not).

Most importantly….have a great holiday season and a joyous new year!! You’ve had your lump of coal already.Cheryl Dowd

Cheryl Dowd
State Authorization Network



Russ Poulin
Director, Policy and AnalysisPhoto of Russ Poulin with a bat.
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

If you are not a WCET member, come join us!

Do Closed Captions Help Students Learn?

This week we are happy to welcome Dr. Katie Linder, Oregon State University Ecampus, as our guest blog post author. Dr. Linder is here to discuss a national research project on student use of closed captions and transcriptions. The important results show that while these resources are not yet widely available, many students, even those who may not need these resources as an accommodation, are able to use transcriptions and captions to increase their success. Thank you Dr. Linder for bringing these important results to our attention!

Enjoy the read,
-Lindsey Downs

Recently, the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit completed a national research project in which we surveyed students on their use of closed captions and transcripts to support learning. This study was conducted in collaboration with the closedImage of cover of report. Words read "student uses and perceptions of closed captions and transcripts. Results from a national study. Katie Linder, PHD. Under the words is a graphic of a computer with "CC" on the screen.captioning company 3Play Media. We focused on a broad population of students from 15 colleges and universities who both need these resources for academic accommodation for disability, as well as students who choose to use these resources for access and learning purposes. About 50% of those who responded take most of their courses online.

What We Learned on Student Use of Closed Captions

This data set is one of the first we have that tells us more about how students use closed captions and transcripts in academic environments. Here are some of the things we learned:

  •  Closed captions are still not being made widely available. When asked in the survey how many videos in their courses had closed captioning or transcripts as an option, only 30% of respondents reported that closed captions were available for “all,” “most,” or “many” videos. Almost an equal number (a combined 26.7%) said that closed captions were available for “just a few” or for “none” of the videos in their courses. Over one quarter of respondents were unsure about the availability of closed captions (27%).
  • Transcripts are even less available to students than closed captions. Only 12.2% of students surveyed reported that transcripts were available for “all,” “most,” or “many” videos and 61% said that transcripts were available for “just a few” or for “none” of the videos in their courses. One in five survey respondents were not sure about the availability of transcripts (18.4%).
  • When they are made available as resources, students are using closed captions and transcripts to help them learn. When we asked about how students use these tools, their qualitative responses showed that they are using both tools as learning aids. In the case of closed captions, qualitative comments mentioned using them as a learning aid 75% of the time. In the case of transcripts, qualitative comments mentioned using them as a learning aid 85% of the time. More specifically, students use these tools to help with accuracy, comprehension, retention, and engagement.
  • Students with and without disabilities are using closed captions and transcripts. When we looked just at the group of students who did not identify as having a hearing impairment or deafness, over 70% of that group were using closed captions at least some of the time. The study clearly shows that closed captions are not just being used by those who need them for disability accommodation purposes.

What Barriers are there for Closed Caption and Transcript Use?

The study also helped us to identify some “hindrances” that students associate with closed captions and transcripts. Here are some of the most common:

  •  Closed captions are distracting or required too much cognitive load. This was the top hindrance shared in 41% of the qualitative comments on hindrances and students mostly mentioned that their attention strayed to the text rather than the visuals in the video.
  • Closed captions include incorrect information. This was the second highest hindrance cited in about 35% of the comments. In particular, survey respondents mentioned things like typos or captions being incorrectly synced with the audio.
  • Closed captions block important information. Mentioned in about 32% of the qualitative comments, this hindrance was tied to the design of captions and their placement within the videos.

In the case of transcripts, there was some overlap in the hindrance cited by survey respondents:

  • Transcripts are distracting from the video or visual cues or required too much attention or cognitive load. Almost half of survey respondents who offered qualitative comments noted this hindrance.
  • Transcripts include incorrect information such as typos, are not well-written, or are not formatted well. About one in five respondents who provided qualitative comments found the lack of accuracy or poor formatting to be a hindrance.
  • Transcripts are too long, are too much to read, or require too much time. About 12% of the qualitative comments focused on this hindrance.
  • Transcripts are costly and/or inconvenient to print out and carry around. Approximately one in ten students noted this hindrance.

One of the most important things to note is that most of these hindrances are fixable with a strong quality assurance process for the creation of closed captions and transcripts.

 Get the Full Report

Interested in learning more about our findings? The full student study report is available for download at 3Play Media’s website. While you’re there, you might also want to check out a second study we completed with 3Play Media on closed captioning implementation at U.S. institutions of higher education.


Headshot of Dr. Katie Linder


Dr. Katie Linder
Research Director
Oregon State University E-campus


Virtually Inspired Website Showcases Practical Innovations

This week we welcome Dr. Susan Aldridge, President of Drexel University Online, and Marci Powell, Chair Emerita of the U.S. Distance Learning Association, to discuss Drexel’s success in teaching and learning in virtual environments. Their story is not only “virtually inspired” and, in my opinion, just plain old inspiring as well! Thank you both for a great post,

~Lindsey Downs

Having spent the past two decades working in the online higher education space, I am proud of the progress we’ve made since the early days when course modules were little more than a series of hand-outs published and delivered online.  Back then, virtual study was, for the most part, a lonely (and shall we say, somewhat boring) experience, due, in part, to the read-only, chat or talking head video formats.  Still, for many, it was an acceptable tradeoff for the privilege of learning from anywhere, at any time.

Now fast forward 20 years and we find ourselves with an amazing array of interactive technologies at our disposal.  Technologies that can further empower us to provide our students with what research over the years has proven to be an ideal learning experience – one that is engaging and customized, authentic and measurable.  And when we succeed, our students win, because they leave us having cultivated the expert knowledge and complex skills requisite for their success.

Of course, we really need to share those success stories more often.  Because as empowering as these technologies may be, they are constantly evolving; and unfortunately, we have yet to produce much in the way of a “how-to” guide for effectively implementing, much less optimizing, them.  So in the spirit of collaborative investigation, Drexel University Online (DUO) – with my (Marci) help as an outside consultant – launched a rigorous research project, to uncover “pockets of innovation” in the technology-enhanced education arena.

Pulling the research togetherScreenshot of virtually inspired page on the Drexel University website. Shows large banner at the top of the page with words "virtually inspired."

After conducting dozens of interviews with faculty, administrators, and training officers worldwide, DUO compiled more than 70 case studies that exemplify virtual success in using some of the latest and greatest technologies to support an ideal learning experience.  But we didn’t stop there.  We created a website we are calling Virtually Inspired.  Our goal is to showcase some of the brightest minds and best practices in connected learning, and also building and sharing an evolving repository of replicable ideas.

Virtually Inspired features a series of high-quality videos that highlight some of the many ways educators are inventing the future of connected learning.  Likewise, this website will incorporate interviews with online learning experts; a section for visitors to share their own leading-edge practices; and a space for reviewing published books and articles in the field – all of which is designed to encourage ongoing collaboration, as we explore the ever-expanding frontiers of our profession.

Here is a sneak preview of three especially promising technologies we identified in our research: virtual reality, holography, and robotic telepresence.

Creating virtual worlds for real learning    Graphic image of a young male in a hospital gown sitting in a doctor's office with one shoe on. There is an empty doctor stool and medial images on the wall.

For years, educators have touted the many educational benefits of authentic learning experiences like internships and apprenticeships, when it comes to mastering expert knowledge and complex skills.  But with increasingly sophisticated skills to learn, these in-personal experiences no longer suffice on their own.  That’s why instructional designers are embracing virtual reality (VR) to enhance and, in some cases, replace them altogether, with multi-level, sensory-rich simulations and videogames.

Put simply, these VR enhancements allow students to perfect mission-critical or even life-threatening skills, by immersing themselves in a safe, but challenging environment, where they apply relevant knowledge, while considering multiple perspectives and practicing different responses.  Likewise, these virtual worlds generate a tremendous amount of data to use in assessing performance and customizing instruction.  And because they usually incorporate some sort of immediate feedback or reward, they stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain, which, in turn promotes greater engagement and better knowledge recall, over time.  Take Tina Jones, for example, an avatar developed by Shadow Health, that we use at Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions to help online nursing students sharpen their clinical practice skills from a distance.  This 29-year-old virtual patient responds just like any real-life patient, offering a unique chance for students to perform high-stakes, full-system, patient assessments – over and over, if necessary.  Their instructors observe the interaction online, using videoconferencing applications to provide face-to-face feedback around targeted areas for improvement.

Adding new dimensions with holography

Holography offers yet another great opportunity to engage students in interactive learning experiences and environments that are authentic, measurable and customized.  A hologram is essentially a three-dimensional, free-standing image, created with photographic projection and viewed with the help of special headsets or other wearable Holographic image of a male body shown, from a skeleton form to representation of muscular system.devices.  And with a little imagination, this technology can be used to enhance all sorts of learning activities.

For instance, holography can take videoconferencing to a physical level, by facilitating remote collaboration among students, faculty, and experts worldwide, in what feels like face-to-face interaction.  Students can also use holograms to conduct science experiments that are too dangerous, expensive, or complicated to perform in real life; or to complete a design project in three dimensions that can be reproduced on a 3D printer. Educators are also employing holography for hosting virtual field trips, enabling students to “visit” a national park or a natural history museum far from where they live.

With the help of a Microsoft Hololens headset, professors at Case Western Reserve University are transforming how students learn about the human body, a hands-on academic exercise that has always required physical labs and human cadavers.  But using three-dimensional holograms, they can now cut into a virtual human body to explore, experience and understand the intricacies of and connections among all of its systems – organ and skeletal, vascular and nervous – something that is much harder to teach without this digital enhancement.

Connecting students through robotic telepresence

Although videoconferencing has long been the “go-to” for connected learning experiences among students, faculty, and outside experts, robotic telepresence offers an even more effective way to personalize the interaction – particularly from a social or collaborative learning perspective.

In fact, independently mobile telebots (as telepresence robots are often called) add that all-important in-person dimension to hands-on learning activities that would normally require a physical or onsite presence.  Just ask the Duke University’s School of Nursing, where these amazing digital devices are paving the way for students in the fully online MS in Nursing program to work remotely with students in the campus-based Accelerated BS in Nursing program, as they engage in high fidelity, life-like clinical simulations.

Image of two hospital beds and a tablet attached to wheels (robotics) moving through the room.Using their tablets, computers, or smartphones to remotely control the robot, online graduate student preceptors can maneuver it around the room, while panning or tilting the iPad screen in basically any direction, to provide clinical guidance – from a distance – to onsite undergraduate students.  Equally important, they are all mastering the art of telemedicine, as they practice furnishing remote healthcare without losing that essential face-to-face patient connection.

Looking Ahead

Given the lightning speed with which technologies such as these are moving into the mainstream of academia, there is no doubt that the future of connected learning is well within our collective power to invent.  And in joining forces to create that future, we hope you will help us make Virtually Inspired both an ongoing source of ideas and a nexus for collaboration.

You may reach us at

Photo os Susan Aldridge


Dr. Susan Aldridge,
President, Drexel University Online





Photo of Marci Powell


Marci M. Powell,
Chair Emerita and Past President, U.S. Distance Learning Association

The Impact of Adaptive Learning on CTU’s Culture

This week we welcome Niki Bray, WCET Adaptive Learning Fellow, to discuss the impact of adaptive learning at CTU. I loved reading this post from Niki, especially the focus on one of our 2016 WOW Award Winners! For more on CTU’s adaptive learning programs watch Niki’s interview with Connie Johnson and Judy Komar from Colorado Technical University, which we’ve included at the end of the blog. Thank you Niki for this great post highlighting the outstanding work happening at CTU.

~Lindsey Downs

Adaptive Learning with CTU

In May, I had the opportunity to travel to Schaumburg, Illinois to visit Colorado Technical University’s Chief Academic Officer and Provost, Dr. Connie Johnson, with the aim of learning what makes CTU’s adaptive learning program so successful.  To date, over 32,000 students have completed at least one of CTU’s 100+ adapted courses.  Connie says what motivates CTU’s administration and faculty are student outcomes. Seeing the impact adaptive learning is having on the student’s experience and their success has permeated the entire culture at CTU. During my visit, I spoke mainly with administrators and staff who’s behind-the-scenes role has been vital to the success of adaptive learning at CTU.  Every person I spoke with was excited about adaptive learning and its impact on the lives of CTU students.

Adaptive Learning and Culture

While we never discussed culture specifically, how adaptive learning has shaped CTU’s academic culture was vividly clear. Connie gave me a tour of CTU’s campus support centerRed and White logo of Colorado Technical University, and I had the privilege of meeting numerous individuals who work tirelessly to support CTU’s adaptive learning efforts. Everyone I spoke with was enthusiastic about adaptive learning and agreed it was a transformative force at CTU.

Adaptive learning really lets students be in control and is personalized to the student experience on how they’re going to best learn and achieve what they want to out of the course.”
–Dr. Doug Stein, Vice-Provost, CTU

Adaptive learning has provided our students with a really great venue to learn across the scope of several different courses in a way that not only challenges them but is also adaptive to where they are in their learning.
-Dr. Stacia Klasen, Director of Academic Operations, CTU

Adaptive learning has been a great engagement learning tool for students.  They are getting that immediate feedback so they are encouraged as they’re going through and learning the material.  It helps motivate them to keep continue within the adaptive learning system, which has been really great.  From a faculty perspective, watching my students want to keep striving to improve.”
– Director of Learning Solutions, CTU

Adaptive learning is a progressive, up-to-date fascinating tool that not only puts learning in greater perspective for our students.  We have a lot of students who are coming back and haven’t been in classes for a very, very long time.  It gives them the opportunity to get in touch with not only their learning style but to reorient themselves with learning.  Adaptive learning has helped a lot of our students to get back into the frame of learning.  Most of the classes I have taught have used adaptive learning and all of our students have found it really fascinating.  It has its slight drawbacks because students don’t expect as much intensity, in terms of the learning, and some of them coming back, it takes them a minute to get into that mindset.  Other than that, fantastic!
– Dr. Bright Justice, Lead Doctoral Faculty, CTU

From the student advising perspective, adaptive learning tends to pull students further along than they intend.  With adaptive, it kind-of pulls you through the process so that the more you figure out that you already know or the more that you learn the more that you want to do.  So, it kind-of keeps you connected to it and makes it more interesting than just going into a book and finding interesting facts and regurgitating it.  That’s what’s been really helpful, at least for our students especially as we try to get them to engage earlier.  If we get them started on a Monday, they tend to do so much more as opposed to waiting until the weekend.  A lot of our students are coming back to something like this and it’s online and it can be difficult for students to adapt to that.”
– Jack Lewandowski VP Student Affairs, CTU

“Adaptive learning enhances the student’s learning experience.  One advantage is that students get to see their progress immediately.  It helps students drive a lot of their education pursuits.  And it has proven to be an effective learning tool for students.”
– University Dean, College of Business and Management

CTU administrators and faculty have published numerous articles describing the impact of adaptive learning on their faculty and how faculty support for adaptive learning has driven student success (Educause Review).  Additionally, CTU has won numerous awards for their work around adaptive learning, including a WCET WOW award in 2014.  The reason CTU has had success with adaptive learning is due to support from administration and staff.  While innovation in teaching is often championed from the bottom up, top down support for innovation is essential to bringing it to scale. The value of adaptive learning brings to students is well-documented, but at CTU, adaptive learning is shaping their institutional culture as well.


photo of niki bray
Niki Bray
WCET Fellow, Adaptive Learning
Instructor|Instructional Designer
School of Health Studies
University of Memphis


Will Higher Ed Regulations Weather the Perfect Storm Prepared to Sink Them?

Even George Clooney could not save the day as three storm fronts converged on his doomed fishing boat in 2000’s The Perfect Storm. Similarly, a new Republican President, Republican Congress, and an obscure law will come together to sink eight years of Obama Administration regulatory work.

As Inside Higher Ed states this morning, some regulations are headed for the bottom of the ocean. Unlike George Clooney’s boat, some regulations may be a bit harder to sink.

These Guys Hate Regulations

You probably knew that, but the 2016 Republican Party Platform states:

“The President has been regulating to death a free market economy that he does not like and does not understand.”  

Despite the hyperbole of that sentence, the Republicans have shown every indication that they plan to drastically reduce regulations in higher education and throughout government. In a brief conversation with Tim Powers of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, he told me that some regulations with be dispatched quickly while others will be much more difficult to undo.

The Little-Known “Congressional Review Act”

Prior to predicting what the future might bring, I need to geek-out a bit on an obscure piece of law: The Congressional Review Act (CRA). Signed into law by President Clinton (a little irony here) in 1996, the CRA has been only once early in the George W. Bush presidency to remove the Clinton Administration’s ergonomic regulations.

The CRA is most useful during presidential transitions from one party to another. It allows Congress may overturn “midnight regulations” enacted in the waning day of a presidential administration in anticipation of the president of another party taking office.

The CRA was written for the “perfect storm” of conditions that now exist. The provisions include:

  • Congress can review any regulation in the last 60 days of an administration. Since “days” is defined by the days Congress is in session (and the current Congress did not meet very often), the review calendar extends back to May 2016. According to the New York Times, about 150 rules of all types are “potentially vulnerable to the ax” not counting any new ones that may be issued in the coming weeks.
  • Rules are expedited so that the legislation of “Congressional disapproval” to remove targeted rules are not subject to traditional methods of delaying or killing action:
    • The legislation cannot be assigned to committees, where action could be delayed by those in favor of keeping the regulations.
    • Most importantly, the Senate cannot filibuster the legislation. Overcoming a filibuster usually requires 60 Senate votes. Under the CRA, only a majority vote is required in the Senate. Since Republicans hold the majority, they can win this vote only with members of their own party, whereas overcoming a filibuster would require Democrats to jump ship and join them.
  • Another killer provision is summarized by the Center for Progressive Reform (underlining added): Under the CRA, when Congress adopts a joint resolution of disapproval for a regulation, this not only nullifies the regulation in question, it also prohibits a federal agency from reissuing the same regulation again or from promulgating a regulation that is substantially similar, unless the new or reissued regulation is supported by a new statute adopted after the joint resolution of disapproval. It is not clear how different a new regulation must be from a disapproved old regulation in order to satisfy this requirement.” This could have long term limitations on the regulations that are removed through use of this act.
  • The Center for Progressive Reform also stated: “The CRA provides that any ‘determination, finding, action, or omission’ made pursuant to the CRA cannot be challenged in court.” Given the rule had been used only once, this provision has not been tested and very well could be in 2017.

For a more complete history, see “Mysteries of the Congressional Review Act” published a few years ago by the Harvard Law Review.

US-Capital-by-Stephen-MelkisethianWhat Else Can Be Done to Kill Regulations?

  • If not subject to the Congressional Review Act, regulations could be killed by other means such as:
  • Legislative Repeal. However, this would require overcoming a Senate filibuster.
  • Reissuing the Regulation. This involves a complex set of steps.
  • Legislative Budget Prohibition. The budget of the department in question could include a clause forbidding spending of any funds to enforce a regulation.
  • Administrative Prohibition. The new department heads could prohibit enforcement of the regulation.

…But What Does That Mean For Me?

Let’s look at the impact on several regulations we have been following…

State Authorization

The final regulation has yet to be released. See our comments on the proposed regulation. Part of me thinks that they will release it to force the Trump administration to kill it. On the other hand, if it is killed by the Congressional Review Act, the Department of Education’s state authorization regulation could be dead for a very long time. Either way, it is impossible to envision a scenario in which this regulation will be enforced any time soon.

BUT WAIT! For those who want to read this as meaning that colleges don’t need to pay attention to state authorization any longer, they are wrong. The states have always expected you to follow their laws. Several states have toughened their laws. If you are a SARA institution, that organization also expects you to follow its expectations for participation.

Teacher Prep

On October 12 of this year, the Department of Education released the final, controversial Teacher Preparation regulations. The regulation required every state to conduct additional reviews of (nearly) every teacher preparation program placing new teachers in the state. The requirements for teacher education programs offered at a distance are bizarre. The comment periods for this regulation attracted overwhelming negative response. The regulation will be subject to the Congressional Review Act and is probably toast.

For Profit Regulations

The Republicans are upset over the Obama administration’s treatment of for-profit colleges. Last week’s Inside Higher Ed said: The department wrote its regulations on gainful employment and borrower defense in response to what high-ranking administration officials and consumer advocates saw as fraud and abuse within an industry that experienced a boom after the Great Recession.” While those regulations are primarily aimed at for-profit institutions, some of their provisions have implications for other higher education sectors.

Rep. Virginia Foxx is on Trump’s transition team and is the incoming chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. The article cites her as assuring that: “Republicans will do everything they can to roll back those rules.”

The Borrower Defense regulations included specific requirements for loan repayments for institutions that close. It also includes strict penalties for institutions of all types that misrepresent themselves or their programs to students. It was released only a few weeks ago and will probably be subject to CRA legislation. Again, this will be toast.

The Gainful Employment rules will not be subject to the CRA. It will take much more legislative effort to roll those back. This will be interesting to watch


I’ve heard that there will be less reliance on accrediting agencies to serve as the de facto compliance arm of the Department of Education…much to the delight of the accrediting agencies. On the other hand, the new administration’s focus on workforce skills may lead to the approval of new accrediting agencies. One outcome of such approval would be to open the door for alternative providers (boot camps, MOOC companies) to offer federal aid to their students…should they want to do so. Some of those providers are loath to have any third-party oversight.

In Conclusion…

We will watch the coming actions with great interest and will report on them to you. It will be interesting to see what the consumer protection groups do as they have worked hard for these regulations. They might turn their attention to helping students use litigation, state attorneys general, or the press to reign in abuses by institutions of all types.


Each of these regulations have sections that will definitely be missed.

Each of them went too far or were too complex.

Too bad we cannot come to reasonable compromise. We need the George Clooney with the guile of Three Kings, the cunning of Ocean’s Eleven, and the charm of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? to write a happy ending.

Want more information on how the 2016 election results will impact higher education? Join WCET for a moderated conversation about higher education in the 2017 political climate. The free webcast will take place at 1:00 PM CST, Wednesday, December 7. Bring your questions. Special thanks to Blackboard, Inc. for cosponsoring this webcast.

Register Today!  Follow the Twitter feed at #WCETwebcast.

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


Thank you to Ken Salomon (Thompson Coburn, LLP), Van Davis (Blackboard), and others  who have provided insights in the last few weeks. Some asked not to be named.

Education & Family Life: An Interview with a Portmont College Student

This summer before transitioning from WCET to APUS, I had the opportunity to interview Adina Martinez, who was a student at a progressive institutional upstart, Portmont College at Mount St. Mary’s.  Portmont was run in conjunction with My College Foundation and at the academic helm was Dr. Vernon Smith, now my APUS colleague. It is a small world.  Much has changed since Adina attended the program, it is no longer offered as Portmont College but the insights Adina shares are evergreen. We’ve also included several short videos Portmont made of Adina discussing her time as a student.

It’s stories like Adina’s that help us remember why we’re here, why we are a part of the WCET community so committed to finding new ways for students to succeed by using technology effectively.

Enjoy this interview!
-Cali Morrison

Interview with Adina Martinez

Adina:  I grew up here in Colorado.  All of my family is from here and I had a son when I was 18, so right at the end of my senior year of high school.  I went to work right away.  I started off as a file clerk at a credit union and within a couple of months I moved up to becoming a loan processor.  And I did that for about a year and a half, but just never really felt satisfied with that.  It wasn’t something that I enjoyed doing.

photo of a smiling Adina who is about 31 years old with shoulder-length hair

Adina Martinez

I had always disliked my hair growing up, because I have a lot of hair.  It’s very thick, it’s kind of in-between curly and straight, so it’s got a wave to it but I can’t do either – I can’t wear it straight without effort and I can’t wear it curly without effort so I just never liked it.  And I never liked the haircut that I got.  So I started cutting my own hair and doing things to it when I was about 14 and when I was 20 or so, after I had left the credit union, I decided that I wanted to go to cosmetology school. My personal experience is what led me to that.  For the last 12 or so years I’ve been in that profession.  So that’s how I met Vernon.  I’ve been focused on men’s grooming, men’s hair-cutting for the last six years and so he was a client of mine for a few years.

Cali:  That’s great! So, through that, as most stylists do, you get to know your client.  You got to know him while he was working at Portmont, which was based in Denver, CO?

Adina:  Correct. He had moved to Denver, I believe, to take on the challenge of starting that online program and that’s when I met him. We have a membership program which is a better value at our high-end barber shop.  Vernon took part in that right away which means I saw him every two weeks, allowing us to get to know each other pretty well.

Cali:  Through that relationship you learned of Portmont?

Adina:  Yes.

Cali:  What intrigued you first about the program or was there, aside from meeting Vernon, was there something else?  Had you been looking to go back to college?

Adina:  At that time I wasn’t actively looking into going back to school.  Throughout my adult life—I had always had an interest in nursing.  I basically fell in love with the idea of nursing with the experience of having my oldest son because I had never really been in a hospital or anything like that before.  I’d certainly never been a patient.  And I just felt the entire experience and watching how the nurses interacted with each and with me as a patient and my family, I just thought it was the coolest thing ever.  Especially labor and delivery—just being a part of a person’s life, one of the most significant times in a person’s life, it intrigued me. It’s something I’ve always thought of and always said that’s what I want to do.  But just being a young mom and things like that, it seemed like such a big commitment to make, you know, time-wise, money-wise, all of that.  That’s why I never really thought that I could do it before.

But it was something that from time to time throughout the years I would go and take some classes that would put me on the track towards some sort of degree in the medical field. At one time I thought maybe I’ll for medical assisting or go for a lower level like an LPN nurse or something like that.  But, again, I just felt I’ll always have my kids and my family and felt like I was taking away from that.  And that’s kind of why I always put it off and I was never successful.  I was also married to the father of my two boys and he wasn’t discouraging at all but he definitely wasn’t encouraging and he wasn’t as supportive as I needed somebody to be to be successful.  Because it is a challenge when you have a family to take care of.

When Vernon and I first started talking, he was really excited about Portmont and everything that it was about.  And I did everything that I could for him– leaving flyers at my station at work and talking to people about it.  But originally I believe they were targeting kids that were about to come out of high school and thought that maybe traditional college was not for them.  So this was supposed to be an alternate route.

Somewhere along the line they decided to kind of change it up and he said they were going to try to target more of the adult learners.  And that’s where the conversation started a bit more. One time we were talking about my son or just education and things like that in general.  And he threw out some statistic, and I don’t remember the exact numbers but it was basically a very high percentage of kids that go on to college straight out of high school and are successful is dependent on the fact of whether or not their mother has a college degree.  And that really just struck me, that’s what got me started.


Cali: So, Portmont allowed you to get started?  They didn’t have a nursing degree, did they?

Adina: No, they didn’t.  Their degrees were all associate degrees. I believe they had liberal arts, business, and then science or pre-health degree.  I went that route and it basically sets you up with all of the prerequisites that you need pretty much to enter any realm of health care, whether it’s veterinary school or nursing or even trying to get into med school.

Cali:  Awesome.  And then it sounds like you’ve gone on from there?

Adina:  Yeah, I’m about to enter my second quarter in nursing school.

Cali:  That’s great.  And now, are you doing that face-to-face, online?

Adina:  It’s in-class.  Every now and then—this quarter, coming up, I have a couple of classes that are online and three of them that are in class.  So, I’m pretty excited because I feel like I have somewhat of an advantage amongst my classmates because I did my entire associate degree online so I kind of know the format and the commitment that it takes.  Because I think it’s really hard to basically be a self-learner and I feel like that’s what a lot of online is.

Cali:  Yeah, you have to have that self-motivation and discipline.

Adina:  The way that I’ve experienced it and I’ve seen others—my dad’s taking classes, college courses, online now too.  In both of our schools you have assigned reading and assignments that are due and things like that, but it’s not like you have to log in at 10 p.m. on Mondays or there’s not a certain time, so it definitely takes a lot of self-discipline.

Cali: What has helped you be successful in your studies?

Adina:  One of the things that really helped and I think is helping me to be successful now on this journey in nursing school is the online format gave me what I felt like an option to try and be successful.  I have four kids.  They range in age from 15 to a year and a half.  So I actually found out that I was expecting my youngest, the baby, a few months after I had started at Portmont.  It came down to, I could use that, the fact that I was having another baby, as an excuse to say now’s not the right time, again.  Or I could continue with the mindset that I already had and just say we’ll work through it and we’ll get through it somehow.  So that’s what I decided to do.  Being able to learn online was huge for me because while it’s still a time sacrifice but if I needed to step away from the computer to make dinner or just to give some attention to my family, I was able to.  That was a big reason why I decided to pursue my education, because it felt like I could fit it into my family life.



Check out these other videos with Adina discussing her Portmont journey:

Thank you again, Adina for sharing your insights with us and we look forward to seeing you at a Metro-area hospital, taking great care of patients, in the near future.


Cali M.K. Morrison, M.Ed., Ed.D. candidate
Director, Alternative Learning
American Public University System

Meet Maura, A Virtual Intelligent Agent Answering Student Services Questions

In the spring Slight blurry photo of long lines of students sitting in desks studying or taking a test.semester of 2013, American Sentinel University was experiencing the welcomed issue of high student traffic. The university had back-to-back years of significant growth in enrollment, and new degree program requirements were being implemented in the spring, naturally creating curiosity among the student population. While we encourage and are happy to talk with our students and give them the answers they need, at the time the bandwidth of our student success advisors was beginning to be stretched thin.

Coincidentally, the success of Apple’s Siri had become mainstream. A team within our university, including then-Chief Academic Officer John Bourne and former advisor-turned instructional designer Trevor Rasmusson, were conceptualizing how similar technology could benefit our students’ experience.

The result, a virtual intelligent agent: Maura (My Anytime University Resource Aide)

Their idea:  A virtual intelligent agent, complete with a face and a voice, who lived inside university webpages and could answer the questions of American Sentinel University students. Day or night. Weekdays and weekends. 365 days a year

Young woman standing in front of a city landscape.Introduced to our students in September 2013, Maura’s avatar appeared on our registration site as well as the login page for our classroom. And while Maura received a rather warm welcome from our students (an objective analysis based on the higher than expected questions/inputs that Maura received in her first few days of going live), she did not go without some hiccups in this implementation stage.

The first, and arguably most disadvantageous, obstacle was the agent’s response accuracy.  Since most student questions previously came in the form of emails and phone calls, there was no conceivable way to catalog all questions our students could ask Maura. Therefore, Rasmusson and a team of student success advisors relied on their experience working with students to generate the content for Maura. Many of the agent’s responses were specific to frequently asked questions, such as how to register for a class to the steps necessary to complete a graduation audit. And while these questions were accounted for when Maura went live, it was impossible to anticipate all the questions (not to mention how they would be asked) our students would ask. Therefore, Maura began at a rather low response accuracy rate (around 40%).

We also had to work on acceptance from Maura’s human colleagues

This lead to a second problem: Lack of buy-in within the university. In seeing the low success rate Maura began at, there was understandable skepticism among staff and faculty as to whether this resource was advantageous to the student experience.

So, to enhance Maura’s response accuracy as well as her overall value to the university, we conducted an extensive audit process. We needed a log of as many possible questions Maura could be asked in order to create appropriate responses. We reached out to faculty and advisors, asking them to take student questions they have received and ask those to Maura. We asked for students to challenge Maura with university-related questions they could think of. These, along with other live questions our agent received, helped us to generate a much more extensive catalog of questions that Maura could accommodate for. With this, Maura was able to learn a lot in a short period, building her knowledge base to over 500 unique responses and raising her response accuracy rate to around the 80% mark.

Maura has grown and continues to learn

Since then, we review the log of questions Maura receives on a weekly basis to continue to help her learn. To make these necessary revisions, our team uses Artie™, a product of Healthcare Learning Innovations that allows users to create and revise virtual intelligent agents from scratch. While the 100% response accuracy rate may be an unachievable goal, we now proudly point to Maura’s two years of functioning at over 90% accuracy and happily call her a member of the American Sentinel family.


Gregory Dennis
Manager, Writing Center
American Sentinel University

Six Ideas to Innovate Higher Ed Conferences

Leading up to the 2016 Annual Meeting, the WCET team and Steering Committee discussed making future conferences more of an experience that includes facilitated discussions, loosely organized conversations around key edtech topics, and other session types to make the event more interactive and the content more timely. Carolyn’s recommendations support this thinking. We thank Carolyn for her thoughtful recommendations and also invite your ideas.

~Lindsey Downs

It’s Time to Innovate the Conference Experience

A recent Inside Higher Ed blog post by Joshua Kim argued that it might be time to kill the conference panel.  Having just come from WCET’s annual meeting, I agree  that it’s time to re-envision academic conferences.  Don’t misunderstand. The WCET conference was a very good experience. In fact, it was the best conference I’ve been to in about three years.  But the pace of change in higher education is too great for traditional conference models.  It’s time to innovate the conference experience.

“Innovation” is Happening Now

Consider an upcoming conference on “innovations in blended and online learning.” The call for proposals closes this week, a full five months before the April conference.  This is a standard time lapse and allows for the practical realities of putting together a conference, but it also argues against the very concept of “innovation.”  With the way things are changing in our industry, information that was ready for public viewing five months ago is likely to be outdated today.Four people sitting around a table with notebooks and one with a laptop

Even the best conferences suffer from one of two kinds of presentations: those that have stale information and those that promised more than they deliver.  No matter how we try to maneuver in the traditional conference model, we end up with many sessions that fall squarely into one of these two categories.  The more we try to address stale information, the more we risk hearing from people who thought several months ago that their project would be interesting to hear about today.  Some of these proposals pan out; others do not.

My Six Ideas

Unfortunately, seeing the problems is easier than figuring out the solutions, but here are six ideas to support innovative conference design:

  1. Allow presenters to propose flexible topic ideas. Trust your presenters to bring the best information to table once the time comes.
  2. Support more working and interest groups where attendees can work together toClose up of a dictionary entry for collaborate (to work jointly, especially in literary or scientific work), collaboration (united labour), and collaborator (one who assists another). solve current challenges in our industry.
  3. Encourage much more social media use of all kinds. We have only begun to explore the ways Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms can be used to support interaction among attendees. Use social media to highlight and validate disagreement and dissent instead of limiting conference re-Tweets to compliments.
  4. Support lasting connections among your attendees. “Networking” is not enough.  What can conferences do to help attendees take the next steps to really get to know each other professionally?
  5. Make it much easier to access and share conference presentations before, during, and after they are given. Too many conferences put that material behind a pay wall or bury it in an app. Push out all conference content as much as possible before all that content is too old to matter.
  6. Support a conference “pot luck” where attendees can each bring an idea/product/solution they want to share with others in the industry. Provide a free thumb drive or Dropbox folder to make sharing easy.

Small, lego figurines in a circle around a mini table.
As I see it, in order to innovate higher ed conferences, we need to take the focus off of information and put it on the people.  Experience supports this paradigm shift. Who among us hasn’t been in a presentation where the audience knew more than the presenter?  This isn’t a problem. It’s a solution.  The way forward is one where conferences serve to bring us together to innovate in real time.  Anything less is yesterday’s news.




What innovations would you suggest? What conference activities have you found to be fruitful?


Photo of Carolyn Speer



Carolyn I. Speer
Manager of Instructional Design and Technology
Wichita State University


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