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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Post Series

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

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

Improving Quality and Access Do Not Matter?

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

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

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

Departmental Guidance on “Regular and Substantive Interaction”

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

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

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

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

When is Interaction Not Interaction?

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

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

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

The OIG is looking for interaction that is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Might Happen?

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

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

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

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

Russ

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

4 Comments

  1. Posted October 2, 2017 at 8:42 am | Permalink | Reply

    I find this astonishing that I went through 4 years of undergraduate school (20+ years ago) with little or no regular or substantive communications/interactions with my professors. In fact, my professors did not want interactions with undergrads (they could barely tolerate grad students). Questioning a professor??? Rare, but done by brave students that unleashed the wrath of frustration of the instructor to have to stop to explain what was so very obvious. We didn’t have many TAs or SIs for undergraduate courses. Our interaction was to do the homework (if any), take the tests, pass, and move on. (or in some cases, flunk the course and never take that instructor again, ever, never!).

    Here today, we find that students need interactions in a distance course. The faculty has to engage the students in some way. Have you ever had a discussion board??? I have tried all of the tricks: have a controversial question, have a discussion that helps them with doing their lab reports/papers/test questions, watch videos on the bleaching of coral reefs in response to global warming (groups have different reef areas in the world), and then have a primary post with citations, and two responding posts with citations.

    Do you know what kinds of interactions I get? Crap! Crap, crap, and more crap. The students hate this, I hate this, and do they get any “regular and substantive” learning out of these regular and substantive interactions????? NO

    Let’s call it for what it is – it is a way to find that the student is not taking a correspondence course for the purposes of getting Title IV monies. It is not learning, and it is not teaching that matters. It is a metric for finding out which colleges are doing more than doing homework, students taking tests, passing and moving on. Why are we not worried about the quality of education, student learning, or quality teaching?

    Are discussion boards SO important that they add quality to the course??? NO I work at a community college where we have no student mentors, course mentors, evaluators or the like. I have me, myself and I to do all of the course mentoring, grading, interactions, feedback, office hours, and then I have committee meetings, and of course my family gets some of my time. It is difficult if you have two or more (sometimes up to 5 online courses (distance ed), with about 20 students/class to take care of.

    Sorry for my rant, but our college has gotten the report on WGU, and we will have even more taxes on my time to come up with “regular and substantive” interactions, but not “quality and useful learning” interactions.
    Cameron

  2. yourpaldave
    Posted September 27, 2017 at 6:08 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Russ,

    Thanks for the great summary of events. This has got me thinking about the “Regular and Substantive Interaction” topic again and I had a thought.

    Since the time that DOE coined the term, as you have captured there has been little to no guidance on what exactly it means in distance education. Rather than waiting for them to clarify and establish a standard, what’s keeping us as a profession from defining one of our own? It seems to me, that the WCET is uniquely poised to bring together a right group of agencies and people to define it ourselves and then get it blessed by DOE. What am I missing?

    Dave

  3. Posted September 22, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink | Reply

    Great post – looking forward to reading the entire series. While I agree with the general position, I was confused by the statement “We (OIG) did not assess whether the school’s model was improving educational quality or expanding access to higher education. We are not withdrawing our findings or the corresponding recommendations.” being followed by, “we felt that saying that it does not matter whether an institution actually serves students well is an astonishing.”

    Was the OIG quote taken out of context? I don’t read it as it appears above (factually) to state that it doesn’t MATTER whether an institution actually serves students; I read it to mean that the assessment wasn’t including/addressing this element.

    Would love to know more! Thanks again.

    • Posted September 24, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink | Reply

      Brianna –
      Great question. Here’s the broader context with the first paragraph coming from the end of the WGU response and then going into OIG’s reaction to that response from page 6 of the report:

      In summary, Western Governors University stated that it complied with all legal and
      accreditation standards, and its model fulfilled the overarching purpose of the HEA in improving
      quality and expanding access to higher education. Therefore, the school requested that the OIG
      withdraw its findings and close the audit.

      OIG Response
      Since 2007, when the Department recognized Western Governors University as a competencybased,
      credit-hour school, the school has been required to follow all Title IV requirements
      applicable to a credit-hour school. Therefore, we evaluated the school’s compliance with
      requirements governing competency-based, credit-hour programs; we did not assess whether the
      school’s model was improving educational quality or expanding access to higher education. We
      are not withdrawing our findings or the corresponding recommendations.

      So, yes, they did not assess whether the institution actually serves students well. That’s a very legalistic approach in my opinion. The proponents of ‘regular and substantive interaction’ rules say that it is a necessary protection against fraud against students and the misuse of Title IV funds. I think it becomes dangerous when a rule is applied, not because any fraud was involved, but because those in the OIGs office do not agree with how the instruction is offered. They have continued to change the rules over the years and have not been open in in informing institutions how to comply. This is not a good method for improving instruction of combating fraud.
      Russ

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] the OIG Report’s definition of “regular and substantive interaction”. Which interactions do they count as […]

  2. […] bound by the IGs recommendation. Several blog posts and articles by experts in online education (WGET, e-Literate,  Inside Higher-Ed) offer various views of the report. Most indicate WGU will prevail […]

  3. […] WCET Analysis (best summary of issues) […]

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *

*
*

%d bloggers like this: