Rigor, Meet Reality

How do you define academic rigor? I know when I was completing my undergraduate and graduate coursework, I could tell the difference between a rigorous course and one that would be a little less time consuming. I also understood, especially in graduate school, that the more rigorous a course was, the more I “got out of it.” Is there a way to capture the difference so instructors can ensure the best educational experiences for their students?

To help us do just that, today we’re excited to welcome Andria Schwegler from Texas A&M University. Andria is here to discuss her search for the definition of academic rigor, gathered through discussions with her colleagues and presentations at Quality Matters conferences.

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

Rigor is touted by many educators as a desirable quality in learning experiences, and many institutional mission statements promise rigorous academic experiences for students. Unfortunately, a definition of rigor has been elusive. How do institutions leverage evidence to support their claim of rigorous experiences?

The Task to Operationally Define Academic Rigor

In search of a definition of academic rigor, I sought out the types of evidence that faculty members at my institution use to document rigor in their academic programs and courses. The search was prompted by an invitation to serve as a panel discussant representing a faculty member’s perspective in one of two special sessions “Quality Online Education: What’s Rigor Got to Do with It?” at the Quality Matters Connect Conference in 2017. The purpose of the sessions was to open dialogue across stakeholders in higher education regarding the role of rigor in traditional and alternative learning experiences. As a faculty member, I could articulate rigor in my own courses and program, but because defining rigor had not been a topic of discussion across departments, I sought to learn what my colleagues considered evidence of academic rigor.

Group of instructors

Photo from #WOCinTech Chat

Operational Definitions of Rigor Offered by Faculty

Several of my colleagues accepted my invitation to discuss the issue, and they provided a variety of measurable examples to demonstrate rigor in their courses and programs. Rigorous learning experiences they described included:

  • audio and video recorded counseling sessions with clients that were subsequently critiqued in class,
  • problems identified by students in current or former employment contexts that were brought to class and addressed by applying course content to the cases, and
  • quantitative research projects requiring application of completed coursework to collecting and interpreting original datasets.

Distilling a broader summary from course-specific assignments and program-specific assessments revealed that the most frequently cited evidence to support claims of rigor were student-created artifacts. These artifacts resulted from articulated program- and course-learning outcomes that specified higher-level cognitive processing. Learning outcomes as static statements were not considered evidence of rigor in themselves; they were prerequisites for learning experiences that could be considered rigorous (or not) depending on how they were implemented.

Implementing these activities included a high degree of faculty support and interaction as students created artifacts that integrated program- or course-specific content across time to demonstrate learning. The activities in which students engaged were leveled to align with the program or course and were consistent with those they would perform in their future careers (i.e., authentic assessment; see Mueller, 2016). Existing definitions of rigor include students’ perceptions of challenge (“Rigor,” 2014), and the evidence of rigor faculty members provided highlighted the intersection of students’ active engagement with curriculum relevant to their goals and interaction with the instructor. These conditions are consistent with flow, which is characterized by concentration, interest, and enjoyment that facilitate peak performance when engaged in challenging activities (Shernoff, Csikszentmihalyi, Schneider, & Shernoff, 2003).

Translating Rigor into Student Assessments

Creating meaningful assessments of learning outcomes that integrate academic content across time highlights the importance of planning learning experiences, not only in a course but also in a program. Faculty colleagues explicitly warned against considering evidence of rigor in a course outside of the context of the program the course supports. Single courses do not prepare students for professional careers; programs do. It was argued that faculty members must plan collaboratively beyond the courses they teach to design program-level strategies to demonstrate rigor.

text box which reads: …Faculty members must plan collaboratively beyond the courses they teach to design program-level strategies to demonstrate rigor.

Planning at the program level allows faculty members to make decisions regarding articulating curriculum in courses, sequencing coursework, transferring coursework, creating program goals, and assessing and implementing program revisions. Given these responsibilities, instead of being viewed as an infringement on their academic freedom (see Cain, 2014), faculty members indicated that collaborative planning and curriculum design were essential in setting the conditions for creating assessments demonstrating rigor.

Though specific operational definitions of rigor provided by colleagues were as diverse as the content they taught, the underlying elements of their examples were similar and evoked notions of active student engagement in meaningful tasks consistent with a “vigorous educative curriculum” (Wraga, 2010, p. 6).

Student Activities During Lecture

Stepping back from the examples of student work that faculty members offered as evidence of rigor, I reflected on student activities that were missing from our conversations. None of my colleagues indicated that attending class, listening to lecture, and taking notes were evidence of rigor. Though lecture is “the method most widely used in universities throughout the world” (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2011, p. 55), student activities associated with it never entered our conversations.

In fact, one colleague’s example of rigorous classroom discussion directly contradicted the approach. She explained that during discussions, she tells her students not to believe a word she says, though she was quick to add that she does not mislead students. Her approach puts the burden to obtain support for discussions on students, who cannot passively rely on the teacher as an authority. Instead, students are held accountable for substantiating claims provided. This technique offers more evidence of rigor than simply receiving the content via lecture.

text box reads: None of my colleagues suggested that students’ grades were evidence of rigor.

Student Grades

None of my colleagues suggested that students’ grades were evidence of rigor.

One noted that some students may not meet high standards, leading them to fail a course or program. But, these failures in demonstrating performance were viewed as unfortunate consequences of rigor, not evidence to document its existence. This sentiment was complimented by another colleague’s comment that providing support (e.g., remedial instruction, additional resources) to students was not a threat to the rigor of a course or program. Helping students meet high standards and improve performance was evidence of rigor, whereas failing grades because students found the content difficult were not.

Teaching Evaluations and Mode of Delivery

None of my colleagues suggested that students’ evaluations of a course or an assignment were evidence of rigor. When documenting rigor, faculty members offered students’ performance on critical, discipline-specific tasks, not their opinions of the activities. Supporting this observation, Duncan, Range, and Hvidston (2013) found no correlation between students’ perceptions of rigor and self-rated learning in online courses. Further, definitions of rigor provided by graduate students in their study were strikingly similar to the definitions provided by my colleagues (e.g., “challenge and build upon existing knowledge…practical application and the interaction of theory, concept, and practice…must be ‘value-added’” p. 22). Finally, none of my colleagues indicated that mode of delivery (e.g., face-to-face, blended, online) was related to rigor, an observation also supported by Duncan et al. (2013).

Defining Academic Rigor: A Research-Based Perspective

textbox which reads: None of my colleagues indicated that mode of delivery (e.g., face-to-face, blended, online) was related to rigor.

Thanks to my colleagues, I arrived at the Quality Matters Connect conference with 17 single-spaced pages of notes documenting an understanding of rigor. Though the presentation barely scratched the surface of the content, I was optimistic that we were assembling information to facilitate multiple operational definitions of rigor that could be used flexibly to meet assessment needs. This optimism contributed to my surprise when, during small group discussion among session attendees, the claim was made that academic rigor has too many interpretations and cannot be defined.

I cannot support this claim because most variables addressing human behavior have multiple ways they can be operationally defined, and converging evidence across diverse assessments increases our understanding of a given variable. From this perspective, a single, narrow definition of rigor is neither required nor desirable. A research-based perspective allows for multiple operational definitions and makes salient the value of assessment data that may be underutilized when it informs only a single program’s continuous improvement plans. As Hutchings, Huber, and Ciccone (2011) argue, faculty members engage in valuable work when they apply research methods to examine student learning and share results with others. When assessment and improvement plans are elevated to the level of research, the information can be shared to inform others’ plans and peer reviewed to further improve and expand the process.

Articulating and sharing ways to observe and measure rigor can provide educators and administrators a selection of techniques that can be shaped to meet their needs. Engaging in an explicit examination of this issue across institutions, colleges, programs, and courses facilitates the identification of effective techniques to provide evidence of rigor to support the promises made to our stakeholders.

author headshot Andria Schwegler


Andria Schwegler
Associate Professor, Counseling and Psychology
Texas A&M University – Central Texas





Cain, T. R. (2014, November). Assessment and academic freedom: In concert, not conflict. (Occasional Paper No. 22). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Retrieved from http://www.learningoutcomesassessment.org/documents/OP2211-17-14.pdf

Duncan, H. E., Range, B., Hvidston, D. (2013). Exploring student perceptions of rigor online: Toward a definition of rigorous learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 24(4), 5-28.

Hutchings, P., Huber, M. T., & Ciccone, A. (2011). The scholarship of teaching and learning reconsidered: Institutional integration and impact. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mueller, J. (2016). Authentic assessment toolbox. Retrieved from http://jfmueller.faculty.noctrl.edu/toolbox/whatisit.htm

Rigor. (2014, December 29). In The Glossary of Education Reform. Retrieved from https://www.edglossary.org/rigor/

Shernoff, D. J., Csikszentmihalyi, M., Schneider, B., & Shernoff, E. S. (2003). Student engagement in high school classrooms from the perspective of flow theory. School Psychology Quarterly, 18(2), 158-176.

Svinicki, M., & McKeachie, W. J. (2011). How to make lectures more effective. McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed., pp. 55-71). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Wraga, W. G. (2010, May). What’s the problem with a “rigorous academic curriculum”? Paper presented at the meeting of the Society of Professors of Education/American Educational Research Association, Denver, Colorado. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED509394


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Teaching with Wikipedia: A High Impact Open Educational Practice

This week’s Frontiers Blog is written by one of my OER heroes, Dr. TJ Bliss. Like so many others working to reduce costs and increase open access to education, I was inspired, mentored, and empowered by TJ. In his previous position as the OER Program Officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, TJ granted $45 million to over 30 organizations around the world actively working to advance the field of open education. Now, as the Director of Development and Strategy at Wiki Education, TJ invites higher education to contribute to and access open knowledge in the world’s largest encyclopedia. Read more about TJ Bliss and his inspiring work. Thank you to TJ for writing for WCET Frontiers.

We hope you enjoy today’s post!

– Tanya Spilovoy, Director, Open Policy, WCET

Wikipedia is arguably one of the most successfully crowd-sourced digital projects to date. By nature of its open-source and collaborative design, the knowledge represented on the site is consistently improved, built upon, and updated. While Wikipedia still suffers from systemic biases and content gaps, it’s designed to include the most voices possible in the articulation of its information. It is also designed to be accessible to as many people as possible, and there’s no doubt that it has tremendous reach: Almost 500 million unique users traffic the site every month.

Few readers of Wikipedia fully understand its mechanisms. Where does that information come from? Is it trustworthy? One might be aware that content on Wikipedia is written entirely by volunteers around the world. This fact inspires uncertainty or skepticism in many. If just anyone can change Wikipedia, won’t there be inaccuracies? Won’t people potentially abuse that power?

In the age of fake news, providing opportunities for people to learn how to identify misinformation online is increasingly important. And students are particularly vulnerable. Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education published a report in 2016 that found that students have difficulty identifying credible sources online, distinguishing advertisements from news articles, and understanding where information they encounter comes from.

So how do we equip students with the skills they need to understand their ever-changing digital landscapes? We can use open educational practice to teach them how to evaluate and improve the informational resources that hundreds of millions of people rely on every day. In particular, we can teach them to edit Wikipedia articles as part of their regular coursework.

A student using the Wiki Education Dashboard.

A student using the Wiki Education Dashboard.

Successfully Using Wikipedia in the Classroom

Supporting higher education instructors who teach with Wikipedia is Wiki Education‘s specialty. We offer free resources for instructors to do this, which take the form of instructional design consultation, assignment management software, tutorials about how to contribute to Wikipedia, and print resources about editing in particular disciplines. These tools all come together in our Dashboard, a free and open-source web application that we consistently improve. In fact, we’ve built a volunteer development community around that continual improvement, and we engage a number of newcomers in this tech development.

The Dashboard is where instructors create and manage their Wikipedia assignment using our templates. They’re able to refine the assignment to meet their needs and can closely track student progress as they contribute course content to Wikipedia articles. The Dashboard is also where students take tutorials about how to edit and track their work and that of their classmates. Since 2010, Wiki Education has supported more than 43,000 students at over 400 universities and colleges throughout North America. These students have improved or created 60,000 Wikipedia articles so far and have added 40.3 million words to the site.

Increases in Learning

The open educational practice of assigning students to edit Wikipedia teaches information literacy and engages students in new ways. They walk away with the ability to apply a critical lens to information they encounter outside of the classroom. Eighty-seven percent of instructors who taught with Wikipedia in the Fall 2017 term agree that a Wikipedia assignment is more effective in teaching information literacy than a traditional assignment.

When students edit Wikipedia, they engage in the technological mechanisms of an online resource they rely on (i.e. they learn how to edit and respond to Wikipedia’s community of fellow editors); they learn to distinguish primary and secondary sources in accordance with Wikipedia’s encyclopedic standards; they recognize the difference between encyclopedic and argumentative writing styles; and they understand how to identify where information comes from and whether or not it’s accurate.

One student who completed a Wikipedia assignment in Fall 2017 explained what they learned from the process:

“What I realize now is that Wikipedia is in a constant state of research and conversations are happening so things get updated to reflect that knowledge. That is not to say that things do not need to be checked, but it is always good when research is progressive. I really learned the ins and outs of editing and all the things that come with it. Another valuable thing I learned that I will use forever is how to assess an article. I had never done anything like this in a previous class, and I can say that I learned things that I will hold with me forever. It is so important that instead of just disregarding [Wikipedia] as a whole, we should be working on strengthening it.”

Students Become Content Creators

When students engage with Wikipedia in the classroom, they come to understand what knowledge is not adequately represented on the site. And they take an active role in the solution, becoming creators of knowledge, rather than merely consumers.

The public facing nature of a Wikipedia classroom assignment also carries a lot of weight for students. Participating in scholarship for mass consumption not only keeps students accountable, but inspires a sense of confidence in them, as well. Editing Wikipedia uniquely positions students as knowledge producers, inspiring them to have a real command over course material and an active approach to expressing what they’ve learned. Held accountable by their instructor, other students, other Wikipedia editors, and Wikipedia’s global readership, students are more motivated to produce high quality work. Students are also motivated by the autonomy that the assignment can inspire, and feel a personal investment in better representing a topic of their choice on the world’s most popular online encyclopedia.

Students are Engaged and Giving Back

Again, with the rise of fake news, engaging students in questions about knowledge production and dissemination is critical. Teaching information literacy is not only a beneficial academic experience, but a critical life skill. We want students to emerge from higher education more confident and better informed to participate as citizens.

Katie Webber, a Rice University student in our program, proposed editing Wikipedia as a civic duty:

“I call my senators, I vote, I donate to the ACLU, and now, I edit Wikipedia,” she wrote in a reflective blog post.

Wiki Education student participants at UC Berkeley.

Wiki Education student participants at UC Berkeley.

When students understand themselves as knowledge producers, they feel a responsibility to a learning community larger than the classroom. Wikipedia’s self-described purpose is to provide free access to the sum of human knowledge to the most people possible. People in higher education are beginning to recognize the importance of digital writing and public scholarship. York University, for example, recently awarded a prestigious faculty award to a student for the Wikipedia article he wrote about the digital divide in Canada.

“I learned and gained more from working with Wikipedia than I have from almost any other assignment I have completed,” the student reflected. “[I learned] how to interact with Wikipedia’s collaborative social network, adapt to a work environment that isn’t a traditional word processor, and practice a style of writing which isn’t common among university assignments. These are all things that I would not have experienced if I had been working on something more traditional, yet I believe having less traditional experiences like these is also an important part of growing academically.”

Jon Sufrin, coordinator of the faculty-wide competition at York, also spoke to the value of academic engagement with a medium like Wikipedia.

“It’s pretty clear that digital writing is going to be in demand in the future, and this kind of writing takes a specific set of skills to do well,” he said. “You have to be able to sort through all the available sources, have skills at hyperlinking, and understand how to make use of the web as a dynamic medium. Digital writing isn’t just screen prose, it’s interactive prose. All of these skills are in addition to actually being able to write something.”

Improving Wikipedia as a course assignment situates student learning within broader conversations about access to information and mechanisms at work in the production of knowledge. And with access to institutional resources usually restricted behind paywalls, students are in a great position to contribute academic knowledge to public commons for the benefit of learners everywhere.

With further developed skills in digital literacy, information literacy, critical research, and collaboration, as well as an increased sense of motivation in their work, students emerge from the experience of editing Wikipedia better equipped for the digital and informational landscapes of the future.

To find out more about how you can incorporate an assignment like this in your own course, visit teach.wikiedu.org.


TJ Bliss Headshot


TJ Bliss
Director of Development and Strategy
Wiki Education




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OLC and WCET Need Feedback on Accessibility

Even a gazillion dollar industry like the National Football League can be blind to accessibility needs, at times. Perhaps, even, color blind. If you have not seen it, be sure to look at this video of the game in which they had the two teams wear special jerseys all of one color…


While we don’t have a gazillion dollar budget, WCET and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) are partnering to help our members on addressing accessibility issues…and we need your help on what activities will best help you.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

While we in the educational technology and distance education world can also fall short at times, it is not for a lack of trying. Our friends at the Instructional Technology Council (ITC) Network conduct an annual survey of their (mostly) community college membership. Below, I chart the results of one of their questions, which was featured in a recent article about the “confidence” in institutional accessibility compliance.

Chart showing degrees of confidence in accessibilty compliance.

The “Completely” or “Mostly” compliant options were chosen by 73% of respondents in 2008. That number fell to only 33% in the most recent survey.

I’ve used this graphic in discussions and presentations over the last year and asked “why?” Are we getting worse at this? The answer is almost uniformly that we did not know all we needed to know back in 2008. And, even today, there is more to learn.

OLC and WCET Partnering to Help Our Members

After a year of searching for an issue on which WCET and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) could partner to help both memberships, accessibility was chosen. As stated by Kathleen Ives, OLC’s Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director:Photo of Kathleen Ives speaking at a podium

“Advancements in technologies intending to make academic life easier present challenges for students who have disabilities. The need for more accessible services and devices proves to be an educational imperative so they can be used by all students of all abilities.”

Our partnership kicked-off this week with a joint webinar that explained some of the basic issues. You are encouraged to view the archive of it. Moving forward, watch for more webinars, papers, blogs, and conference sessions on these issues.

BUT, We Need Your Help!

One of our first efforts was to create a survey that seeks to gain data on the following issues:

  • What are attitudes of a variety of people on campuses surrounding accessibility?
  • Are there structures in place on campus to support accessibility?
  • How can we help?

We are hearing that there is still lots of confusion about what is required and what should be done regardless of requirements. Based on the survey responses, OLC and WCET will plan professional development offerings to help meet the needs that you identify.

The survey is focused on institutional based personnel. If you work at an institution, please take the survey:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WJFWVY5

Watch for more information in the future.

Thank you,


Photo of Russ Poulin


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




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Higher Education Act – Innovations, Definitions, and State Authorization

When passed in 1965, the Higher Education Act (HEA) was intended to “to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in postsecondary and higher education.” Updated or “reauthorized” several times since then, the Act has historically housed most of federal resources and regulations for higher education in the United States. Remember that the states have authority over higher education in their jurisdictions, but the lure of financial aid for students, research funds, and other federal levers gives the federal government considerable sway over institutional activity.

Reauthorization is overdue. The House of Representatives has weighed in with its PROSPER Act, which was a purely one-party production. The Senate has been holding hearings and may soon deliver its own, more bipartisan, version in the coming weeks.

What would we like to see in HEA?

Richard Nelson, President of Nicolet College, eloquently presented his ideas in last week’s post, in which he sought to encourage innovation and protect aid from fraudulent uses. He also issued a challenge to WCET and reminded us of our first responsibility:
“Once again, I suggest that WCET is well-positioned to do this work and hold firmly to the belief that students come first. Always.”crowd of college graduates moving tassles on caps from one side to the other

Meanwhile, the Policy unit of WICHE (our parent organization) invited WCET to contribute to a “Statement of Principles and Positions” regarding the HEA. In this post, I’ll share with you some thoughts in response to President Nelson and what was included in those “Principles and Positions” that were recently approved by the WICHE Commission. I’ll focus on two issues:

  • Innovation vs. Protecting Students: Stop trying to define the moving targets of each innovation. While it is a worthy and necessary goal in protecting students, we can do better.
  • State Authorization for Out-of-State Activities: Recognize state responsibilities and reciprocity agreements.

The Balance Between Encouraging Innovation and Protecting Students

There is a constant tension between: a) the introduction of new modes of instruction and b) the need to assure that students are not harmed and federal aid funds are used properly. These two desires should not be at odds. Innovators want to move forward unfettered by rules while consumer protection professionals seek tight controls based upon a history of malfeasance by a select few.

President Nelson states the challenge very well:
“If well-crafted regulation can reduce the risks associated with innovation and help overcome resistance to change…How do we find the balance between making room for new models without throwing the door open to the unscrupulous opportunists who will exploit every perceived regulatory loophole?”

row of old dictionary books

In the WICHE “Statement of Principles and Positions”, we suggest a long- and short-term strategy to find this balance.

But First…the Problem with Definitions

The one constant in life is change. Let’s accept that.

Congress, the Department of Education, and the rest of us are currently mired in efforts to try to define “distance education,” “correspondence education,” “regular and substantive interaction,” and “competency-based education.” One staffer from the House Education and Workforce Committee told a group of accreditation leaders that one reason they left the “distance education” definition out of the PROSPER Act is that they could not agree on one.

Let’s stop it.

The House and Senate could better spend its time by preparing for future (currently unimagined) innovations, rather than pursuing granular definitions that are instantly outdated. For example, the current federal definition allows your use of “video cassettes, DVDs, and CD-ROMs.” Ask your kids if they know what those are. Some of you reading this might not know what they are.

a black and white photo of a vhs tape and cds/dvdsThe principles document acknowledges three basic tenets in making our recommendations:

  • “Policy formation lags innovation, and it always will.
  • “Change is inevitable, and new innovations that are not new envisioned are on the horizon.
  • “Students must be protected, and federal financial aid should not be used for non-productive or fraudulent purposes.”

Long-term: Create a Flexible Measure for Innovations Not Based on Specific Definitions

Given the difficulty of a major policy change, we suggest a long-term strategy that will take time and discussion. But, we are certainly open to a quicker, innovative solution. Our recommendations:

  • “Create a commission to develop a new process and set of regulations to handle innovations. Rather than waiting for years after an innovation has already become main stream, adopt new processes that allow aid to be used for emerging innovations with clear safeguards.
  • “As a model for regulating innovative modes of instruction, consider a modified version of the medical model for approving drugs and treatments…”

Also, we want to shift the discussion from input-based measures (e.g., “regular and substantive interaction”) to outcome-based measures (e.g., “last day of attendance,” student progression).

Short-term: Maintain Definitions Until the Process Described Above is Ready

While waiting for the longer-term solution, we can live with definitions a little while longer. We recommended:

  • That the Department maintain the current “distance education” definition, but I would like to amend that. Since we wrote that recommendation, a recommendation from seven large, innovative colleges (all of them are WCET members) wrote a letter with their own suggestions for definitions. A copy of the letter appears at the end of those post. Their recommendations should be seriously considered.
  • Adding a definition of “competency-based education.” Unfortunately, the seven presidents were unsuccessful in creating a definition for that mode of instruction. A definition is needed to provide those students with aid and it would be wise to consult the Competency-Based Education Network for their input on a definition.
  • Finally, replacing the “regular and substantive interaction” definition. The Department of Education has been lax in providing actionable guidance in how to comply. See the analysis by Van Davis (now an independent consultant) and myself of the many documents that need to be consulted to determine how to comply. It is also a criterion based on inputs. The issue should be “DO students learn” not “HOW students learn.” Let’s focus on outcomes…even in the short-term. We can create outcomes-based safeguards that will protect both students and aid expenditures.

State Authorization for Out-of-State Activities

The Department of Education released a new federal regulation for state authorization of distance education that is set to go into effect on July 1, 2018. Watch for more from us on this issue in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the House’s PROSPER Act suggests completely doing away with this regulation. Of course, they think that this will relieve institutions of seeking authorization in each state, but state regulations remain in place regardless of federal rules.

Some basic tenets underlying our recommendation:

  • States are charged with overseeing higher education activities within their borders.
  • This oversight provides necessary student protections.
  • Oversight is for ANY activity in the state, not just distance education.
  • An interstate reciprocity agreement is one means for an institution to obtain approval in a state.

Our recommendations are simple:

  • “…to better protect students, WICHE supports a requirement that postsecondary institution comply with authorization regulations for each state in which it serves students for eligibility to disburse federal financial aid.”
  • “…the U.S. Department of Education should recognize interstate reciprocity agreements as an acceptable method for an institution to obtain that authorization.”

In Conclusion…

There are many more issues that we must watch and comment upon. I highly recommend that you let your Representative or Senator know what you think. As an individual you can express your opinion. Volume counts.

drawing of a man holding a megaphone with explanation points coming out of itAnd…you might have an extra loud voice if you are in one of the twenty-four states with a member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. They’re working now. Make your voice heard.

Many feel that reauthorization will not pass this year. That would break the record for longest time between such actions. We still need to pay attention and participate. Sometimes language introduced now survives until the final product. Let’s make sure it is good language.

Thank you,


Russ Poulin smiling while holding a small bat


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




February 20, 2018

The Honorable Lamar Alexander

United States Senate

Chair, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions

455 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Patty Murray

United States Senate

Ranking Member, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions

154 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Alexander and Senator Murray,

We, the undersigned presidents of private not-for-profit and public colleges and universities across the nation, write to you to respectfully offer guidance as you revisit the distance education requirements within the Higher Education Act.

Over the past decade, higher education institutions of all sizes and status have embraced distance education/online learning as an innovative long-term strategy to meet student needs, deliver a more flexible, cost-effective form of academic instruction, and advance the Completion Agenda. Today, distance education has become a ubiquitous component of contemporary higher education with more than six million students taking at least one course at a distance.

Unfortunately, with the Higher Education Act last updated in 2008, federal regulations have been slow to keep up with advancing technology and innovations within the online learning sector. As a result, distance education is staring down an uncertain future – its long-term viability threatened by obsolete standards regarding “regular and substantive interaction” within federal statute. To create an environment open to sensible experimentation and that fosters innovations in products, programs, and services, Congress must revise the Higher Education Act accordingly.

Therefore, we are heartened by your desire to work in a bipartisan manner to draft a Senate reauthorization bill and your expressed openness to guidance on these provisions.

Republicans and Democrats share a commitment to increasing access, equity, affordability, and accountability, if by different means. We are confident the following revisions, which resulted from a collaborative effort of the undersigned to balance the needs of public and private institutions with adequate student and taxpayer protections, meet these obligations.

We encourage replacing the current definition of Distance Education with the following:  


Distance Education: Except as otherwise provided, the term “distance education” means education that provides students who are not in a physical classroom with substantive interaction, including, but not limited to, instruction, assessment, mentoring/advising, and learning support, enabled by ready access to qualified faculty, monitoring of student progress, and active intervention.

We recommend the following revision to the definition of Correspondence Course:

Correspondence Course: (1) A course provided by an institution under which the institution provides instructional materials, by mail or electronic transmission, including examinations on the materials, to students who are separated from the instructor. Interaction between the instructor and student and academic support, including access to qualified faculty, is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are typically self-paced and self-taught.

(2) If a course is part correspondence and part residential training, the Secretary considers the course to be a correspondence course.

(3) A correspondence course is not distance education.

Additionally, to enhance the ability of students to make informed decisions when choosing an educational provider, we recommend standardizing outcomes data at the institutional level and for each program of study:

Transparency: Make transparent outcomes data available by program at the undergraduate and master’s level for the following; (1) 100% and 150% graduation rates. (2) One-year retention rate. (3) Average annual cost for full-time attendance, broken out by tuition, fees, and living costs. (4) Federal student debt from tuition and fees.

The Higher Education Act serves as the single most important federal means to increase the capacity of low- and middle-income individuals to finance a post-secondary education. The Senate stands on the cusp of a historic opportunity. As you begin drafting the reauthorization bill, we strongly encourage you to consider these new and revised definitions.

Please contact us with any questions.

Respectfully submitted,

Dr. James N. Baldwin, President, Excelsior College

Dr. Michael M. Crow, President, Arizona State University

Dr. Sue Ellspermann, President, Ivy Tech Community College

Ed Klonoski, President, Charter Oak State College

Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc, President, Southern New Hampshire University

Scott D. Pulsipher, President, Western Governors University

Dr. Becky Takeda-Tinker, President, Colorado State University – Global Campus


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What Should Reauthorization Be Like?

In February 2018, we had a question submitted through our WCETDiscuss email list about the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. This prompted a discussion of how the reauthorization would or should impact distance education. The original question asked about academic integrity, specifically student identity authentication. Russ Poulin, our Director of Policy and Analysis, answered this question (see his adapted answer below).

Good question. You are probably looking at the PROSPER Act, which was the product of the House of Representatives. That bill was completely the product of one party and, while parts of it may survive, the resulting Higher Education Act will probably look much different.

I received inquiries from others who may be unclear that there already is a federal regulation regarding distance education and academic integrity. It is Chapter 34, 602.17(g), which places on accrediting agencies the responsibility to monitor institutions…

… I think the Senate (which is currently working on its version of reauthorization) will include language regarding student identity for distance education.

So…we can recommend it not be included, but we better be ready with alternatives. Our mere suggestion that reauthorization not address student identity will just be further proof to the naysayers that more regulation is needed.

If a regulation were to exist, what can we live with? Personally, I’d like to see the responsibility stay with the accrediting agencies. If anything needs to be beefed up it would be the gathering of evidence that such methods work. Like  many of you who wrote previously, given the ubiquity of technology and cheating, I don’t see why it should be limited to distance education.

Richard Nelson, the President of Nicolet College, provided a wonderful response to Russ’ question about “What Reathorization Should Look Like.” Upon our request, he adapted his WCETDiscuss response for today’s post. Thank you President Nelson for your thoughtful response and your challenge to WCET!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

What Would Reauthorization Be Like?

What would we like to see in a reauthorized Higher Education Act (HEA)? At first, visions of unprecedented innovation powered by boundless creativity and liberated from burdensome regulation come to mind. Then reality sets in and I grudgingly recognize the inevitability of regulation. However, if we’re diligent and a little bit lucky, sound regulation of limited scope may actually help the cause by mitigating some of the widespread skepticism in DC and most state capitols of anything other than counting butt-in-seat hours.

That skepticism isn’t surprising if you suspect, as I do, that a huge majority of members and staffers in all branches of government went directly from good high schools to very traditional and very enjoyable four-year residential college experiences. It’s what they know. It’s what “college” means to them. That’s neither good nor bad, it just is. Recognizing the frame of reference different people bring to the table can be immensely helpful as we seek to influence their perspectives.

Things Have Changed

Fortunately, we have many influential innovators among us, and we have much more evidence that online learning (or technology-enabled learning in general) is at least as effective as face-to-face than we did the last time HEA reauthorization came around. Other things have changed too:

  • Affordability is much more important than it was prior to the great recession.
  • Students are more sophisticated and have more choices.
  • Although higher education is late to the party compared to other economic sectors, the transfer of power from provider to consumer has arrived.
  • Instead of high unemployment, potentially crippling labor shortages challenges entire industries.
  • Elected officials and employers are rapidly realizing that the projected demand for well-prepared workers simply cannot be met, unless up-skilling the existing workforce is a big part of the solution.
  • And the only way the vast majority of currently employed adults can re-engage in higher education, no matter how much they might want to, is to offer programs with enough flexibility to accommodate real life.

What Can Higher Education Do?

When we consider affordability and flexibility, it’s no wonder that short-term credentials and competency-based programs are quickly gaining favor with students and employers. Their full potential will only be realized when they’re embraced by our regulators and accreditors, but it’s not an easy ask. They aren’t known for risk-tolerance, nor should they be. Identifying the risks of innovation and taking effective steps to mitigate them is our job, not theirs, and I suggest that organizations like WCET have the right people with the right motivation to do this work exceptionally well.

The risks of innovation come in two flavors, the risk of failure faced by the innovators and the risk of market disruption feared by the traditionalists.

In reality, however, defenders of the status quo will typically resist change by amplifying the risks innovation, so it turns out that that the two flavors aren’t really so different. Either way, reducing the risk of failure to a level that our regulators and accreditors can tolerate is prerequisite to overcoming resistance to change.

This brings us back to the discussion at hand. Certainly, we all agree that students need to represent themselves truthfully, whether we’re talking about what they know or who they are. Accordingly, let’s focus first on finding ways to provide strong assurances of student identity and of academic honesty. In so doing, we will eliminate perceived weaknesses in these areas as a justification for opposing change.

A Challenge for WCET

If well-crafted regulation can reduce the risks associated with innovation and help overcome resistance to change, the less thoughtful sort can just as easily drown the emerging seedlings of progress. How do we find the balance between making room for new models without throwing the door open to the unscrupulous opportunists who will exploit every perceived regulatory loophole? How do we encourage the kind of community-based collaboration that can move us all forward without spawning yet another regulation-fueled cottage industry of companies and organizations eager to monetize their own purported compliance solutions? Once again, I suggest that WCET is well-positioned to do this work and hold firmly to the belief that students come first. Always.

For me, I’d be thrilled to see the reauthorized HEA treat distance education not as an afterthought, but as our best bet to bring the benefits of higher education – enhanced social well-being and economic vitality – to more people in more places than ever before. And if we can avoid another “regular and substantive” fiasco while we’re at it, I’d take that as a win too.

Richard Nelson Nicolet College


Richard Nelson
Nicolet College




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Distance Education Enrollment Growth—Major Differences Persist Among Sectors

The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) recently released its 2016 distance education data. This report shows course enrollment for distance education programs in the United States.

Today, we welcome Terri Taylor-Straut, Senior Research Analyst for WCET, to WCET Frontiers. Terri joins us to review some of the trends in the recently released information and to provide some intriguing conclusions that can be drawn based on several years of analysis on these data points. Thank you Terri for today’s post!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

WCET has been analyzing and reporting on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data that reports distance education course enrollment since the data became available for the Fall 2012 term. These data are reported to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) annually as part of the IPEDS Fall Enrollment reporting. Based on the Fall 2013 data, WCET was the first organization to report that there are significant differences in the distance education course enrollment trends based on higher education sectors.

With the 2016 IPEDS distance education data now available, we have four years of sector data and many of the trends we first identified in 2013 have continued. Looking more closely at the sector trends illuminates some changes that might be missed by looking solely at consolidated distance education data.

Total Higher Education Enrollment for Fall 2016

Public institutions of higher education continue to educate nearly three-fourths (73.0% in 2016) of all enrolled students, regardless of mode of delivery. Private non-profits reported 20.9% of 2016 enrollment; private for-profits reported just 6.1% of enrolled students. Any discussion of sectors should be grounded in an understanding of the relative size of the sectors. Publics remain by far the largest sector, so small changes in the public sector impact the whole data set.


Chart showing 2016 total sector enrollment. 1,218,646 Private, For profit; 4,199,850 Private, Non Profit; 14,664,481 Public.


Total Reported Higher Education Enrollment: 2016 Total Sector Enrollment
  2016 Enrollment % of Total Enrollment
Public 14,664,481 73.0%
Private, Non-Profit 4,199,850 20.9%
Private, For-Profit 1,218,646 6.1%
Total 20,082,977  

Significant Variation in Results Over Time by Sector

an arrow with 4% textOverall higher education enrollment has declined by 4.0%, or 845,466 students, over the four-year period.

Public institutions reported a 2% decline over the period. Private for-profit institutions have declining enrollment at a rate of -34.4%. Private non-profit institutions have bucked the overall trend and increased total enrollment by 2.3% over the four-year period. The significant decline in reported distance education enrollment by for-profit institutions may be partly attributable to the negative attention those institutions received from the Department of Education and the media during the time period.

Total Reported Higher Education Enrollment: Sector Data Trends 2012 to 2016
  2012 2016 % Change
Public 14,966,033 14,664,481 -2.0%
Private, Non-Profit 4,105,872 4,199,850 2.3%
Private, For-Profit 1,856,538 1,218,646 -34.4%
Total 20,928,443 20,082,977 -4.0%

Definitions of Distance Education Enrollment

IPEDS reporting requires institutions to report two categories of distance education enrollment, “exclusively enrolled in distance education courses” and “enrolled in some but not all distance education courses”. In addition, WCET and others have continued to combine these two categories to match the historic Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) category “enrolled in at least one online course”. Additional information about the methodology used is covered in the methodology section below. Sector enrollment in each of these three categories of distance education enrollment are reported for 2012 and 2016.

Students Enrolled Exclusively in Distance Education Courses: Sector Data Trends Private for profit 23%, public 52%, private, non profot 25%

Exclusively Distant Students are Growing for Public and Non-profit Sectors

Enrollment growth in “exclusively distance education” courses is significant at 13.2% in the four-year period, particularly considering that overall enrollment declined 4% in the same period. This is the category of distance education where we see the largest variation among the sectors over the four-year time frame.

The non-profit sector reported a whopping 54.7% growth in exclusively distance education enrollments in the period. Public institutions reported significant growth as well at 25.5%, while for-profit institutions reported a decline of 24.3%. Some non-profits experienced rapid growth during the period.


Students Enrolled Exclusively in Distance Education Courses: Sector Data Trends 2012 to 2016
  2012 2016 % Change
Public 1,231,816 1,545,708 25.5%
Private, Non-Profit 473,800 733,007 54.7%
Private, For-Profit 927,899 702,139 -24.3%
Total 2,633,515 2,980,854 13.2%

Students Taking Some Distance Courses at Publics Grows By Larger Headcount But Smaller Percentage

The four-year trend results for students enrolled in “some but not all” distance education courses are less dramatic than those reported for “exclusively in distance education courses” but they reveal similar trends. Non-profits again lead with 35.7% growth in these enrollments; public institutions reported nearly a 20% (19.7%) increase. The only sector to report declining enrollment over the period is for-profits with a 6.8% decline.

In analyzing these data, it is interesting to note the differences in the base enrollment numbers for each sector. The four-year growth in public students taking “some but not all” of their courses at a distance was 467,135. This comes close to equaling the total number of students enrolled in some distance courses (519,849) for the other two sectors. The percentage growth for non-profit institutions was much higher, but it started with a much lower enrollment base.

Students Enrolled in “Some But Not All” Distance Education Courses: Sector Data Trends 2012 to 2016
  2012 2016 % Change
Public 2,366,675 2,833,810 19.7%
Private, Non-Profit 290,897 394,668 35.7%
Private, For-Profit 134,319 125,181 -6.8%
Total 2,791,891 3,353,659 20.1%

For “At Least One” Distance Education Course, Non-Profits Overtake For-Profits as Second Biggest Sector

Since this category is simply the combination of the two categories of distance education enrollment that IPEDS requires, it is not surprising that the trends remain consistent, with non-profits reporting large gains at 47.5% in the four-year period; publics reporting healthy growth at 21.7%. The private for-profit sector is the only one to report enrollment decline at the rate of 22.1% between 2012 and 2016.

Distance education enrollment growth continues for the public sector. arrow2It is instructive to note that in 2012 for-profit institutions enrolled about 300,000 more distance students than the non-profits. In 2016, the non-profits are the second biggest sector and enroll about 300,000 students taking distance courses than does the for-profit sector.

Students Enrolled in “At Least One” Distance Education Courses: Sector Data Trends 2012 to 2016
  2012 2016 % Change
Public 3,598,491 4,379,518 21.7%
Private, Non-Profit 764,697 1,127,675 47.5%
Private, For-Profit 1,062,218 827,320 -22.1%
Total 5,425,406 6,334,513 16.8%


As we have previously noted, it is not our intention to place value judgments on the different sectors, but rather to continue to chip away at common myths that exist about distance education enrollments by sector. With four years of distance education now available, the trends are clearer. This information informs the marketplace as well as those responsible for regulatory oversight.

One trend that has never wavered is the fact that public institutions continue to educate the vast majority of students, both on campus and by distance education courses.


WCET has worked with other professional organizations with an interest in the IPEDS distance education data since the 2012 data became available. These organizations include e-Literate (particularly Phil Hill) and Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG). While these organizations have worked closely together, and at time shared IPEDS distance education data sets, slight differences in the data have been reported from year to year. The purpose of this blog is to illuminate trends in the distance education data across sectors and over the four-year period where IPEDS data is available. Comparisons to the historic data reported prior to 2012 by BSRG allows us to approximate the same measures used by the prior BSRG surveys. Phil Hill has done a fine job of illuminating the differences in the data and definitions used over time. We remain grateful for his continued work in this area.

A reader raised the question last year about the impact of the transition of for-profits to non-profit status. In response, Phil Hill analyzed the data to show the impact to be negligible. As those transitions happen in the future, those changes will need to be part of any sector-based analysis.

Readers may also be interested in the prior WCET blog posts and reports written focused on the IPEDS distance education data.

Headshot image of Terri


Terri Taylor-Straut
Senior Research Analyst
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies


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Supporting Faculty Through a Learning Community

How do faculty at your institution enhance their teaching skills or discuss best practices with their peers?

Today, we’re thrilled to learn about Louisiana State University’s Online Teaching Cohort program from Hala Esmail, the Manager of the Faculty Technology Center for LSU. This group meets several times a semester to hear presentations from experts, participate in demonstrations and hands-on activities, and discuss strategies with other cohort members. In her post, Hala also reviews the effectiveness of the cohorts and the lessons they’ve learned while offering the program. This is a great example of a professional development activity for your faculty and/or staff.

Thank you Hala for providing a wonderful overview of this highly successful program.

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

Since the 2011-2012 academic year, Louisiana State University (LSU) has experienced an approximate 500% increase in the number of blended and online courses offered. Many of the faculty offering these courses had no prior experience designing online courses. Through my work at the Faculty Technology Center (at the time I was an Educational Technology Consultant), faculty shared feelings of isolation and apprehension as they developed their blended and/or online courses. During this period of significant change, I began to think of ways to bring faculty together to share their expertise and experiences with the goal of supporting and enhancing online teaching at LSU.

During the 2015 Fall Semester, I collaborated with LSU Online and the LSU Learning and Teaching Collaborative to establish the LSU Online Teaching Cohort (OTC), a faculty learning community. According to Cox (2004), faculty learning communities can “include many bridges linking faculty to deep learning, early-career faculty to experienced faculty, isolated teachers to new colleagues, departments to departments, disciplinary curricula to general education, and faculty to students and staff” (p. 18).

The primary purpose of the OTC is to offer an opportunity for the LSU campus community and faculty and staff at peer institutions to engage in discussions and activities through which members can share and learn online teaching strategies and practices to enhance their courses. Participating in the OTC provides members with opportunities to:

  • Receive help from others to solve current online teaching challenges.
  • Discuss strategies to effectively manage blended and online courses.
  • Develop interdisciplinary collaborations/relationships with colleagues across campus and peer institutions.
  • Enhance teaching skills to increase student success and retention.
  • Be a part of a community of support amongst peers.

How it Works

The group meets three times a semester. Each meeting centers on a specific topic or focus previously determined by cohort members. Meetings can include presentations by guest speakers, demonstrations, or hands-on activities. Topics of past meetings include enhancing courses using video tools, engaging students in online discussions, facilitating group work online, enriching learning through feedback, and participating in dialogues with a faculty and student panels.

As interest grew on the LSU campus, it soon became clear that extending an invitation to others from surrounding campuses to join the cohort would not only provide a diverse perspective to the learning community, but would also assist those at other institutions with limited support resources. I sent invitations to faculty and staff at various institutions- focusing on those within the LSU system and/or within the Baton Rouge area. The cohort currently consists of over 170 members (primarily faculty and staff) across a variety of disciplines, including peers from Southern University, Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University, LSU Alexandria, LSU Eunice, LSU Shreveport, and Baton Rouge Community College. A Moodle course was created to assist in the communication, resource sharing, archival, and assessment efforts of the cohort.

Connecting and interacting with students: let your personality shine online

Additionally, a Policy Working Group was established as a result of several concerns and challenges discussed at the initial meeting. The purpose of the group is to participate in conversations about online teaching policies at LSU from the faculty perspective and to provide policy recommendations to Academic Affairs for topics discussed to offer consistency of practice across the university. The group was influential in affecting change (e.g., updating a university policy related to attendance for online courses) and in the 2017 Fall Semester it was integrated under a different umbrella within the LSU organization.

Is it Effective?

Attendance records have allowed me to reach out to those with minimal attendance to ensure their needs are being met. A survey was administered to members after each academic year, providing feedback used to better serve the needs of the group. Responses from surveys included the following comments:

  • “I really enjoy the sense of community I encounter at each meeting. It is a great atmosphere to learn and grow together.”
  • “As of yet, I do not teach an online course; however, I feel being part of this cohort is preparing me for online teaching.”
  • “I was impressed with the [student] panel discussion on April 18th… Looking forward to being more active this coming year and learning how to integrate this into my teaching.”
  • “I love the online session. I have participated in most of them. It is very beneficial and I am applying some concepts/methods that I have learned.”

The graph below illustrates responses to the survey item “Please respond to the statements below regarding your experiences as a member of the Online Teaching Cohort.”

Membership experiences: average ratings

(Graph 1) Likert scale: 5= Strongly agree, 4= Agree, 3=Neither agree nor disagree, 2= Disagree, 1= Strongly disagree.

 This student panel event was one of the most popular OTC meetings. Two students joined us remotely from different parts of the country. Attendees commented on how much they enjoyed hearing from students about their experiences and perspectives.

This student panel event was one of the most popular OTC meetings. Two students joined us remotely from different parts of the country. Attendees commented on how much they enjoyed hearing from students about their experiences and perspectives.

To mix things up a bit, I led an OTC book club in the summer of 2017 targeted at faculty and staff interested in learning more about online teaching and learning. Members of the LSU campus as well as surrounding campuses participated. What made things more exciting was Rolando Garza from Texas A&M University-Kingsville (TAMUK) reached out to me after seeing this tweet and expressed his interest in forming a similar book club at his campus.

Image 3 Group Work

Attendees participate in a group activity during one of the OTC meetings.

He asked if we would be interested in collaborating. The book clubs at LSU and TAMUK connected through synchronous online meetings three times during the summer.

Lessons Learned and Ideas for Moving Forward

Are you interested in organizing a faculty learning community? It can be done with a minimal budget. Funds were used primarily to purchase refreshments for meetings and for books for the book club.

Since this is a collaborative effort, it provided the opportunity for the three units to share resources. While it has not demanded an extensive budget, it can take significant time in the organization and planning of meetings/events. I recommend being cognizant of this when implementing a similar community and further recommend that staff involved share these responsibilities.

Based on feedback from participants, several ideas for the future include collaborating with colleagues from other institutions, inviting guest speakers to present (via web conferencing), and incorporating more hands-on experiences during meetings/events. If you have any ideas or would like to share your experiences with being a part of a faculty learning community, I would love to hear it!

Author headshot


Hala W. Esmail
Manager, Faculty Technology Center
Louisiana State University
hesmai1@lsu.edu @halawesmail




Cited works:
Cox, M. D. (2004). Introduction to faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, (97), 5–23.

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The Power of Digital Inclusion

In October we opened the call for nominations for this year’s Digital Inclusion Award. The Digital Inclusion Award, co-sponsored by WCET and GlobalMindED, was first awarded last year. Today, WCET Frontiers is happy to welcome Mike Abbiatti, Executive Director of WCET  and the WICHE Vice President for Educational Technologies, to discuss the inspiration for the Digital Inclusion Award and the submission process for the award.

Technology has the power to change lives. We’re here to honor those who help learners  harness that power. Nominations for this year’s award are open until April 17th, 2018. Please nominate an individual (or even yourself!) for this award today. Please contact me at ldowns@wiche.edu if you have any questions on this or any of our other WCET Awards.

Thank you Mike for today’s post!

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

One of most elusive of all higher education goals is true inclusion. If you look up definitions of inclusion, you will find many, many definitions and contextual frameworks for assuring that everyone is offered the opportunities afforded by the pursuit of educational experiences. My favorite definition is that inclusion means cognitive diversity.

The Need: Radical Inclusion

Creating a more diverse and inclusive community of learners is one of the benefits of technology. When considering this concept, I am reminded of the Radical Inclusion as practiced by my fellow Burners (individuals who attend the Burning Man Festival in Nevada each summer).

10 principles of burning man

10 Philosophical Principles of Burning Man – BurningMan.org

Radical Inclusion stipulates that anyone can attend and enjoy the unique event without regard to any of the commonly held biases designed to exclude people from events, activities, or opportunities. When I thought about funding a commonality that brings Burners together each year to endure a desert lifestyle, it was clear that the Burning Man Ten Philosophical Principles served to create the community (albeit a temporary one) that thrives on a common set of beliefs and tools. So, how could I relate this epiphany to our First Generation, undeserved, or otherwise disenfranchised learner populations? Well, we need to create a common set of beliefs and tools with which to build a society. These common beliefs can be structured around the development of a Digital society and technologies that empower and enable the learners to build and sustain the world they seek to enjoy. Thus, the term DIGITAL INCLUSION came to mind.

The Solution: Digital Inclusion

The natural next step was to develop a process through which we could identify, and reward individuals, programs, and organizations who have pioneered the positive uses of technology in such a way that Digital Inclusion was clearly demonstrated. Hence the WCET and GlobalMindED Digital Inclusion Award was born. GMlogoOur partners at GlobalMindED do a wonderful job of aligning worldwide support for students of all ages, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, and personal backgrounds as they seek access to educational opportunities and, therefore, economic opportunities.

Digital Inclusion has nothing to do with infrastructure or devices, but everything to do with what learners actually DO with the infrastructure or devices. The Digital Inclusion Award is unique in the emphasis on positive outcomes related to the use of technology and not simply attempting to provide funding for students to purchase technology or gain access to high speed Internet services. People of all ages are investing in personal technology at an ever-increasing rate. The time has come to recognize excellence in the use of the digital tools. The Digital Inclusion Award was created and was launched in 2017, and the application process is described below:

Digital Inclusion Principles:

Digital Inclusion is about leveraging “mindware,” not hardware/software;

Digital Inclusion is one component of a larger communications ecosystem, not a standalone concept; Digital Inclusion should be the overall goal of technological evolution.

Submission Process:

  • Candidates shall submit two (2) verifiable examples of Digital Inclusion.
  • Candidates shall submit a Statement of Digital Inclusion philosophy.
  • Self-nominations and nominations of others are both accepted.
  • All nomination materials should be submitted via our nomination form.

Digital Inclusion Selection Process:

A five (5) member selection committee will use the following requirements to select the winner of the Digital Inclusion award. Each candidate will be evaluated on a 10pt scale (with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest). Candidates should also keep the Digital Inclusion Principles listed above in mind when submitting their application.

Committee Selection Criteria:

The submission…

Encourages collaborative use of digital resources in specific activities.

  • Empowers participants to use digital resources as one component of a larger communications ecosystem, not a standalone concept.
  • Actively establishes and sustains an expectation of digital inclusion in the candidate’s operational environment.

Support for the Digital Inclusion Award has been verbalized by many leaders in the academic community.

“It’s critical that we close higher education equity gaps to ensure our future workforce and civic success. Providing accessible pathways is not only the right thing to do, but the only way to close those gaps,” says Joe Garcia, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), WCET’s parent organization. “Fortunately, some of our best scholars and practitioners are making this possible through technology and innovation. Our association with the Digital Inclusion Award is highly aligned with WICHE’s goal of increasing higher education access and affordability for all, and I’m thrilled that we can honor and champion this work.”

Glass plaque for the 2017 award winner Dr. Nader Vadiee. Plaque reads "recognizing excellence in advancing digital inclusion for all learners."

2017 Digital Inclusion Award Plaque

From Dr. Nader Vadiee, inaugural winner of Digital Inclusion Award, said the following about Digital Inclusion:

“I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that the millennial generation is going to face daunting challenges and will encounter complex problems to solve. These complex problems include the global environment, energy resources, economy, cultural, conflicts, health, etc. The good news is that they will be equipped with more powerful tools in their toolbox to face these challenges. They will understand, measure, represent, and model, with high resolution and precision, and find surgical solutions to the problems. Their tools include innovative digital and computational tools, VR, AR, and big data technologies.”

Andriel Dees, Director, Diversity and Inclusion at Capella University, and one of the judges of the 2017 Digital Inclusion Awards spoke to me about the importance of this award in bringing awareness to digital inclusion, saying that “The digital inclusion award is an important statement about taking technology into communities that have not had access and opportunity to thrive and greatly enhance our STEM fields.”

Finally, Carol Carter, Founder & Executive Director of GlobalMindED, which co-created the Digital Inclusion Award with WCET, summarized digital inclusion and the digital inclusion award perfectly when she said that… “The Digital Inclusion Award represents the heart of the GlobalMindED movement in that it recognizes the courage, the innovation and the generous leadership needed to close the equity gap through technology solutions that put students and graduates first. In the age of technology, those students who are empowered to self-direct, self-discover, self-initiate, and collaborate with others will be able to create work for themselves and others, add value to any situation, and solve the world’s most challenging problems. GlobalMindED is honored to partner with WCET to recognize those individuals who are setting this important standard for the impact and effectiveness of technology which can move the levers of access through empowering the humans to contribute at the highest level personally and professionally.”

WCET is looking forward to celebrating this year’s Digital Inclusion Award winner at the 2018 GlobalMindED conference in June. Join us for this outstanding conference!

In Summary

We all need to consider RADICAL INCLUSION as we set out to create, operate, and scale educational opportunities for an ever-increasing population of learners.  Successful Learning, like successful leadership, knows no gender, no race, no culture, no socioeconomic strata, and is intensely personal. There is no “one size fits all.” Radical Inclusion is a critical component of success in our complex society.


Headshot of Mike Abbiatti


Mike Abbiatti
Executive Director
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies




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Open Textbooks and OER in Colorado: Lots of Interest and Great Promise

This week on WCET Frontiers Blog, Tanya Spilovoy, Ed. D., Director of Open Policy for WCET, discusses the outcomes of the Colorado Open Educational Resources (OER) Council recent work in open textbook initiatives, her research and consulting role with WCET, and how OER can be leveraged to meet state higher education goals. WCET is thrilled with the accomplishments of our Z Initiative (see Tanya’s description below).

Enjoy the read!

-Lindsey Downs, WCET

“Our goal is simple. Quote: “Our goal is simple. We want to increase student affordability and success here in Colorado,” said Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “WCET has been great in supporting and informing the work of our OER Council as they developed a plan to help us get there. We’ll keep striving to be a leader in this work.”We want to increase student affordability and success here in Colorado,” said Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “WCET has been great in supporting and informing the work of our OER Council as they developed a plan to help us get there. We’ll keep striving to be a leader in this work.”

Summary of the Work

Colorado college and university students could soon experience lower textbook costs due to coordinated leadership and potential state funding. This is good news for student leaders who have been advocating for lower textbook costs. “CU-Boulder has a plan, a working group, and chancellor buy-in, but we are hopeful that the legislature will fund the efforts for open educational resources on a state-wide level,” Troy Fossett, President of Internal Affairs, University of Colorado Student Government. Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) Open Educational Resources Council, a state-wide group established by SB17-258, addressed concerns and worked on a solution. As the consultant, I worked with the OER Council and WCET team to design and deploy three Colorado-wide surveys to evaluate the existing use of open educational resources by public institutions of higher education, analyze the data, and write a report with survey results and recommendations for the future. image of quote: “CU-Boulder has a plan, a working group, and chancellor buy-in, but we are hopeful that the legislature will fund the efforts for open educational resources on a state-wide level,” Troy Fossett, President of Internal Affairs, University of Colorado Student Government.The OER Council then used my report, Open Educational Resources in Colorado, to draft a plan and make recommendations to the Joint Budget Committee and the Education Committees of the Colorado General Assembly.

The OER Council requested $2,820,070 in funding to launch a Colorado OER Initiative to increase awareness, adoption, and creation of open educational resources. Recommendations include offering grants for institutions and individuals, professional development, the establishment of a permanent State OER Council, yearly reports, and a full-time staff position at the CDHE. While we eagerly await good news from Colorado’s legislature, let’s talk about how OER supports the state’s higher education goals.

What were the project highlights?

  1. Survey Participation was Remarkably High. Three surveys were used to gather input from a variety of stakeholders:
    • Colorado Public Systems of Higher Education OER Survey—This survey was designed to capture OER activities and initiatives originating from and managed by system offices. Survey instructions and questions explicitly asked system offices not to include OER activities at the campuses because each campus would respond separately.
    • Colorado Public Institutions of Higher Education OER Survey—To meet the legislative objective to “review and evaluate the extent to which each public institution of higher education is using Open Educational Resources and options for and obstacles to increasing the use of Open Educational Resources in public institutions of Higher Education.” Of the 31 separate public institutions of higher education in Colorado, 27 responded.
    • Solicitation of Individual Input OER Survey—3,009 surveys were received from a broad sample of stakeholders. Higher education students made up nearly 60% of respondents who took the solicitation of Individual Input Survey. The next largest category was “Faculty” (19.9 percent), when categories of “tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, non-tenure-track faculty” were added together. “College parent was the third largest percentage of respondents at 9.5 percent. Photo of graph from report showing roles of those who took the survey. Nontenure track faculty, 202, 8%; tenure track, 103, 4%; tenured fac 181, 7%; college parent 232, 10%; HIgher ed student, 1464, 60%
  2. There are OER champions doing great work on Colorado campuses, but they need coordination, funding, resources and professional development to make a larger impact for students. System offices and institutions said they would support a variety of open educational resources and/or open textbook activities if they had adequate funding and support. In addition, 100 percent of system and institutions reported that they would support workshops for faculty, librarians, and campus OER champions.
  3. OER aligns with Colorado Rises, the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) Masterplan, which identifies four strategic goals to advance education and talent development in the state. The CDHE has established several student-focused initiatives focused on meeting the objective: “By 2025, 66 percent of the adult population will attain postsecondary credentials aligned with their interests, equipping them for success.”

OER can help achieve Colorado’s Goals.

“Use of OER is a very clear strategy to speak to two very important concerns/barriers to education for today’s learner populations: cost and convenience. Judiciously applying OER to these two critical decision-making issues can lower the barriers for a wide variety of students.” Mike Abbiatti, Executive Director, WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies.

A well-executed open educational resources initiative would help educators in Colorado meet their educational goals to improve quality, ensure affordability, and promote access to postsecondary education. Nationally, the cost of textbooks has risen more than the rate of inflation, and in Colorado alone, total student textbook costs were estimated to be around $148 million in 2016. Other states, like Georgia, North Dakota, and Oregon, have seen significant student savings in the first year of implementation; Colorado also wants to see a big return on investment.image of quote: {“Use of OER is a very clear strategy to speak to two very important concerns/barriers to education for today's learner populations: cost and convenience. Judiciously applying OER to these two critical decision-making issues can lower the barriers for a wide variety of students.” Mike Abbiatti, Exec Director of WCET

In addition to cost savings, research has shown that OER can positively impact student outcomes. Feldstein et. al found that students enrolled in courses using OER had better grades and lower failure and withdrawal rates than students enrolled in courses using traditional textbooks. Tidewater Community College students have shown to achieve higher course retention and grades in courses using OER. Adopting, adapting, and authoring OER has been shown to reduce costs for students and allows faculty the freedom to innovate and customize their curriculum.


According to Open Educational Resources in Colorado, the state is poised to launch a successful initiative due to the convergence of four factors:

  1. Colorado college students are interested in reducing their cost of college attendance;
  2. The CDHE’s Four Strategic Goals align well with an OER Initiative;
  3. Public institutions of higher education administrators and faculty are willing to explore the use of OER;
  4. The Colorado Legislative Council is evaluating options for policy and funding. I am so grateful that I was able to be part of the OER work in Colorado, and I’m eagerly looking forward to what they will do next.

If you would like to learn more about how WCET’s Z Initiative, focused on helping systems and institutions implement open textbook programs, contact me. I would love to help!


Tanya Spilovoy


Tanya M. Spilovoy
Director of Open Policy
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies



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Professional Licensure Notifications & Disclosures for Out-of-State Courses/Programs

It seems like the complexity of compliance requirements increases each year. Luckily, we have WCET staff to provide updates on education regulations as we need them. Today, Cheryl Dowd, our Director of the State Authorization Network (SAN), is here to discuss requirements for professional licensure notifications and requirements for disclosures for out-of-state courses and/or programs. I appreciate Cheryl’s reminder that the focus of our programs and our compliance with these regulations is student academic success.

Thank you Cheryl for walking us through these requirements.

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

Why must institutions provide notifications and disclosures regarding professional licensure to students participating in courses and programs outside of the home state of the institution?

As an institution of higher education, faculty and staff should strive to serve the students to the best of their ability in helping those students reach academic success. This goal includes the institutional motivation to provide the information needed for the student to pursue his or her chosen career.

Photo of a smiling nurse

That responsibility extends beyond the completion of the education program to helping the student understand the steps necessary to meet the prerequisites for that career.

Compliance requirements, with the variety of regulatory agencies, entities, and boards for the out of state activities of our institutions, seem to be increasing in complexity. In addition to compliance, we need to be observant of the legal and moral obligations to our students. How do we separate these obligations and address them? We will provide four motivations for the institution to provide information and processes that serve the student to achieve their intended academic and career goals:

  • Regulatory obligation.
  • SARA obligation.
  • Liability mitigation/avoidance for the institution.
  • Institution’s moral obligation for the student.

Regulatory Obligation

As of this date, there are currently enforceable Federal regulations regarding Misrepresentation. Additionally, there are released Federal regulations that require public and individual notifications to students for distance education programs offered outside of the home state of the institution. These new required notifications are to be in place by July 1, 2018, when the released Federal regulation becomes effective.

The Federal Misrepresentation regulations maintain that an institution participating in Title IV HEA programs, must not engage in substantial misrepresentation. Misrepresentation is defined in 34 CFR 668.71 to include any false, erroneous, or misleading statement to a prospective or enrolled student and “substantial misrepresentation” is any misrepresentation on which a person could reasonably be expected to rely, or has reasonably relied, to the person’s determent. This definition has been interpreted to include passive omissions leading to misrepresentation in addition to active statements.

The Misrepresentation Federal regulation further addresses, in 34 CFR 668.72, the variety of types of misrepresentation regarding educational programs. The variety of types of misrepresentation by the institution, listed in the regulations, includes whether successful completion of the course instruction qualifies the student to pursue licensure, certification, or conditions to secure employment in a recognized occupation for which the educational program is represented to prepare the students.

In addition to Federal Misrepresentation regulations, the released new Federal regulations for state authorization of distance education (with an effective date of July 1, 2018) includes required public and individual notifications and disclosures for prospective and enrolled students participating in a solely distance education program and residing in a state in which the institution is not physically located (proposed new section 34 CFR 668.50). Among the required notifications is the disclosure of applicable educational prerequisites for professional licensure and certification for that program in the state which the student resides. Additionally, the institutions must decide whether the program meets the applicable educational prerequisites.

If the program does not meet the educational prerequisites, a statement to that effect must be made and an Individual disclosure made to the student. If the student decides to enroll anyway, the institution is required to obtain written acknowledgement from the student that she or he received the disclosure.

Therefore, a Federal regulatory obligation exists to provide professional licensure notifications and disclosures to prospective and enrolled students if the institution participates in Title IV HEA programs.

SARA Obligation

The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) addresses the SARA participating institution’s obligation to provide all students, applicants, and potential students who have contacted the institution as to whether the course or programs meets state licensing requirements. Section 5.2 of the SARA Manual indicates that SARA has no effect on professional licensing requirements.

However, it places an additional obligation on the institution to be forth coming about whether the course or program leading to professional licensure meets the requirements in the state where the student resides. The student must be provided this information in writing. If the institution, after due diligence, is unable to confirm whether the course or program meets the requirements, the institution must provide the contact information for the licensing board and advise the student to determine whether the program meets the requirements where the student lives. Some institutions have decided that they need to little work in determining licensing requirements and can leave that responsibility to the student. Discussions with SARA leadership indicate that the student option is a last resort after the institution has exhausted its options in determining the applicability of its program to a license or certification.

Liability mitigation/avoidance for the institution

From a private legal action standpoint, one may assert that the institution bares responsibilities for a program leading to professional licensure. In exchange for the student’s tuition, the institution has a contractual obligation to offer the programmatic aspects that lead the student to pursue the post educational steps (examinations, applications, etc.) to the profession as designated by the licensure board. The inability of the institution’s program to provide the required prerequisites could be a breach of contract unless there has been full disclosure that the institution’s program does not meet the prerequisites of the state where the student is located.

The new Federal regulation requires an acknowledgement from the student regarding an individual disclosure, such as the program not meeting the licensure board prerequisites. Not only would the acknowledgement be required by Federal regulation, it is a good practice to show acquiescence by the student with full knowledge of the limitations of the program. The ability for a student to claim a breach of contract is mitigated by the disclosure.

Institution’s moral obligation for the student

As we previously discussed, the institution’s goal should be to serve the students to the best of their ability to reach academic success. If a student is choosing the institution to prepare them to pursue a particular professional field, the institution must accept the moral obligation to provide the necessary information regarding the prerequisites to pursue that professional field.

students meeting Consider the inexperienced student vs. the academic department offering the program. Who do you think has better access to understand how to research and determine the prerequisites in another state? We have often heard that it should be the student’s responsibility to determine licensure applicability. But how is a student who has not taken the first course in their chosen profession supposed to know how a curriculum (which they did not design nor do they understand) matches their state’s academic requirements?

Consider also, the institution chose to offer the program in another state. Shouldn’t the institution have the responsibility to determine if the program the institution chose to offer in that state meets the prerequisites in the state? The institution is not obligated to admit or enroll that student.


Institutions have shared that this process of researching and coordinating with state licensure boards is difficult. That may be true.

There has been some progress at some institutions to coordinate this research work. At least one, if not more, institutional members of the WCET State Authorization Network (SAN) have coordinated with the academic departments to research their department’s own programs and prerequisites in the states where the programs are offered. The academic departments are then sharing the research with the institution’s compliance staff member as the central point for obtaining and managing the information to make the required disclosures. Additionally, there are many discussions among higher education associations such as WCET, SAN, and NC-SARA about reaching out to licensure boards to help them understand that the institutions are seeking this information and to make efforts to make the information accessible.

It is also true that the released Federal regulations regarding notifications and disclosures need some clarification or might not go into effect at all There have been many requests for clarification from WCET, SAN, and NC-SARA. If the new state authorization regulation is delayed or rescinded, your institution will still be subject to SARA (if you are a member), state, legal, and moral obligations.

Rest assured that these organizations will continue to seek clarification on regulatory obligations. There will also be further assistance to institutions with coordinated contacts and practice acts to simplify the research efforts as much as possible to meet the institutional obligations to supply students with the necessary information to achieve their goals.

Cheryl Dowd


Cheryl Dowd
Director, State Authorization Network (SAN)
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies




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