Fight the FoMO: Catch up on OER

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

Thanks Tanya!

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

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

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

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

What is the WCET Z Initiative?

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

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

Activity around OER and Open

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

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

Colorado: Open Educational Resources Council and Report

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

Here are some ways you can get involved:

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

~Tanya Spilovoy

Photo from WCET17

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


Tanya Spilovoy

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

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

2017WOW_Logo_0Today we continue the WCET Frontiers series on the 2017 WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Awards. These awards honor member institutions and organizations that develop technology-based solutions to challenging educational needs. The 2017 award winners will be honored this week at the 29th WCET Annual Meeting.

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

Enjoy the read and enjoy the day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

Motivated by Our Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Showtime

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

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

Ask and you Shall Receive

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

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

The Result

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

  • Building immersive assessments and activities,

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

    Sentinel City® Home Assessment, Hazard Identification

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

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

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

Inside Sentinel City

The Road Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Word of Appreciation

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


author headshot of Megan Sellers
Megan Sellers

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




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New Survey Tracks Online and Distance Education in Canada

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

The Canadian Context

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

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

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

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

The Findings

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

Comparisons to the United States

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

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


Image of Dr. Tony Bates

Dr. Tony Bates

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 2017 Canada survey team

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

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


Russ Poulin


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



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OIG Report on WGU, Part 3: A Brief History of ‘Regular and Substantive Interaction’

Thank you to Van Davis for this third entry on our series examining the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General’s Audit Report of Western Governors University. Today, Van examines the changing nature of definitions used over time. Is it just me or is it hard to comply with changing definitions? Thank you, Van!

 Watch for a new pop-up session on these issues at the WCET Annual Meeting next week. See you in Denver.

-Russ Poulin, WCET

A little over two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released its long-awaited and much anticipated financial aid audit of Western Governors University (WGU). Since then, there have been a number of great discussions of the report as well as its potential impact on higher education. Today, in the third post of our series on the audit, we are going to take a trip down memory lane and revisit a post that we wrote last year that reviewed all of the available information at that time on “regular and substantive interaction,” the issue at the heart of both the audit findings and the source of much discussion among online educators.

A little history on “regular and substantive”

If you follow graphic novels, or even Marvel or DC movies, you know that every hero and villain has an origin story, and “regular and substantive interaction” is no different. The ‘80s saw an explosion of postsecondary vocational education programs offered via correspondence. Unfortunately, the Department of Education found substantial amounts of fraud among these programs, leading to the expansion of the Department of Education’s regulatory authority in 1992. Under the Higher Education Amendments of 1992, institutions at which more than 50 percent of its students were enrolled in correspondence education were no longer eligible for Title IV financial aid.

After realizing in the late ‘90s that these regulations were hampering the development of distance education, Congress authorized the Distance Education Demonstration Program in the 1998 Higher Education Amendments. The Demonstration allowed students in selected distance education programs to utilize federal financial aid.

As a result of the increased regulations, Congress defined correspondence in 1992 in 81 FR 92262. Central to that definition of correspondence is this piece (emphasis added):

“A course provided by an institution under which the institution provides instructional materials, by mail or electronic transmission, including examinations on the materials, to students who are separated from the instructor. Interaction between the instructor and student is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are typically self-paced.”

After the success of the Distance Education Demonstration Programs and in response to the explosion of distance education, especially online courses and programs, the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act – the Higher Education Opportunity Act – added to statute the definition of distance education (emphasis added):

Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously.”

The statute goes on to specify four categories of technologies that include: the internet, one-way and two-way transmission broadcasts, audio conferencing, and, in some cases, recorded material.

So why this trip down memory lane? These definitions, and the “regular and substantive interaction” language embedded in them continue to be at the heart of debate over the financial aid eligibility of both competency-based education (CBE) and online education. And, in terms of the most recent OIG report, the definition of “regular and substantive interaction” appears to have shifted.

Defining “regular and substantive”—then and now

image of a dictionary page

The OIG first applied “regular and substantive interaction” in its 2011 audit finding against St. Mary-of-the-Woods College (see Russ’s excellent post for more background) where it focused on the technologies used for interactions between faculty and students. According to the audit, faculty teaching distance education courses at St. Mary-of-the-Woods rarely used technologies such as a learning management system or online discussion forums. As a result, the OIG ruled that “instructors did not deliver lectures or initiate discussions with students. Tutoring and other instruction resources were provided at the student’s discretion.” Thus, St. Marys-of-the-Woods was offering correspondence education and ineligible for federal financial aid.

In December 2014, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter in an effort to clarify what constitutes “regular and substantive interaction” within the context of competency-based education. In that letter, the Department indicated what “regular and substantive” was not (emphasis added):

We do not consider interaction that is wholly optional or initiated primarily by the student to be regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors. Interaction that occurs only upon the request of the student (either electronically or otherwise) would not be considered regular and substantive interaction.”

However, that still begs the question—what constitutes “regular and substantive interaction?” The same Dear Colleague letter went on to list several different types of educational activities, that at least within the context of competency-based education, might constitute “engagement” including:

  • “Participating in regularly scheduled learning sessions (where there is an opportunity for direct interaction between the student and the faculty member);
  • Submitting an academic assignment;
  • Taking an exam, an interactive tutorial, or computer-assisted instruction;
  • Attending a study group that is assigned by the institution;
  • Participating in an online discussion about academic matters;
  • Consultation with a faculty mentor to discuss academic course content; and
  • Participation in faculty-guided independent study.”

Sadly, though, the letter quickly goes on to state, “Note that not all of the educational activities described above fulfill the requirements for regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors.” Nowhere does the letter go on to elaborate or clarify this last statement.

So, we’re back to the question—what’s regular and substantive interaction?

Question mark drawn on a chalkboardThe recent OIG audit report goes a bit farther in defining “regular and substantive.” Unfortunately, those definitions have no basis in statute. On pages 14-16 of the report, the OIG lays out what they believe to be the “ordinary meaning” of “regular and substantive” interaction between students and instructors. Instructors are, according to the OIG, “someone who instructs or provides knowledge about the subject matter of the course,” and that includes only course mentors and evaluators. Substantive interaction is defined as “relevant to the subject matter” and involves a “student interaction with a course mentor or required an individual submission of a performance task for which an evaluator provided the student feedback.”

Most importantly, the OIG goes on to define what is NOT substantive, and here’s where online education programs should especially pay attention. Substantive interaction does NOT include:

  • Computer-generated feedback on objective assessments
  • “Recorded webinars, videos, and reading materials if the course design materials did not require the students to watch the webinars and then interact with an instructor.”
  • Contact with mentoring staff who are not directly providing instruction on the course’s subject matter.

Finally, the OIG tackles regular interaction and defined it as “occurring with some reasonable frequency considering the school-suggested length of the course.”

What does this look like on a practical basis? We can find a hint at that on page 5 of the report where the OIG recommends that WGU should: “Ensure that the school-defined academic year will include at least 30 weeks of instructional time and each of the weeks will include at least 1 day of regularly scheduled instruction or an examination” (emphasis added). But where did this definition come from?

In March 2011, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague letter on program integrity. Although that document did not directly address “regular and substantive interaction,” it did delve into the definition of credit hour and “week of instructional time.” It is in that definition of “week of instructional time” that we find the following (emphasis added):

“In general, a week of instructional time is any seven-day period in which at least one day of regularly scheduled instruction or examination occurs… Thus, in any seven-day period, a student is expected to be academically engaged through, for example, classroom attendance, examinations, practica, laboratory work, internships, and supervised studio work. In the case of distance education and correspondence education, academic engagement would include, but not be limited to, submitting an academic assignment; taking an exam, an interactive tutorial, or computer-assisted instruction; attending a study group that was assigned by the institution; contributing to an academic online discussion; and initiating contact with a faculty member to ask a question about the academic subject studied in the course.”

Concluding thoughts

In its recent audit report, the OIG appears to take this six-year-old description of an instructional week as the basis of what “regular and substantive interaction” might look like. In some ways we may be a little closer to at least an understanding of what the OIG believes constitutes “regular and substantive interaction.” But the OIG does not make regulatory policy; they are only supposed to interpret regulations. Unfortunately, without Department of Education clarification or Congressional action to actually define “regular and substantive interaction,” we aren’t much closer to a legal definition of what has increasingly become a key term for all forms of distance education.

In last week’s post, we laid out some suggestions about what you should be doing in light of the most recent report—react but don’t over-react; engage faculty; engage administrators; engage government affairs staff; and be open with students and employer partners. And you should do all of those things.

Image with galaxy that says "don't panic and grab your towel"But we would also argue that the broader distance education community now has an opportunity to substantially engage in what may be the most critical conversation yet—how do we walk the line between crafting regulatory language that ensures that the students enrolled in all forms of online education receive a high-quality education, without stifling the very innovation that can improve student access and success?

In the meantime, let’s all find our towels and take our cue from the cover of the greatest travel book of them all– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t Panic.

Photo of Van Davis


Van Davis
Associate Vice President
Higher Education Policy and Research
Blackboard, Inc.



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Blackboard Ally: Tackling Accessibility in Higher Education

2017WOW_Logo_0Today we continue the WCET Frontiers series on the 2017 WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Awards. These awards honor member institutions and organizations that develop technology-based solutions to challenging educational needs.

We welcome Blackboard to discuss their award winning program Ally. Thank you for your work to increase student success!

Enjoy the read and enjoy the day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

Problem: How can institutions tackle the accessibility of their online courses and course materials?

Accessibility is a hot topic in education today for good reason. Thanks to advances in educational technology, we are seeing an increased demand for more options and more flexibility when it comes to how students learn. Up until now, conversations around accessibility were often limited to how accessible the platforms are that students and instructors use, but stopped short when it came to how people interacted with the courses and content in those platforms.

Universal Design for Learning

With such vast amounts of courses and content, where do institutions go from here? It can be difficult not to fall back on a more reactive approach to the challenge of making online courses accessible. This can mean a lot of manual remediation and wait time for the students while alternative formats are created on a request by request basis. This also means more time and resources devoted to retrofitting course material while trying to create new material at the same time. By enabling more flexible and inclusive learning experiences, coupled with a shift in mindset and the implementation of new tools, institutions can take a more universal approach when it comes to online learning. This is where Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, comes into play. Instructors/instructional designers should keep in mind the following key concepts within UDL:

  • Equitability – Design your courses to be useful and usable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility – Design your courses to consider a wide range of preferences and abilities.

How can courses be made equitable and flexible? How can these concepts optimize every student’s experience?

Solution: Taking a more proactive, inclusive approach to learning.

Shifting mindset is easier said than done, but moving to a more inclusive approach can be achieved by a small shift and adjustment of standard working routines. For example, consider student engagement in class in the form of a discussion. Some students may feel comfortable speaking up face to face while others may find a virtual classroom setting makes it easier for them to interact with their peers. By providing options, students are provided with equal opportunity to learn in their own style that meets their needs. With this example, universal design has just been incorporated into the course.

As another example, consider PDF materials and how students use them. PDFs can sometimes make up about half of all course material in online courses, but many documents are not always designed to be compatible with screen readers or other assistive technology. In addition, sometimes the documents themselves are scanned or have other issues which make them hard to read or view on another device. Having options and alternatives for these documents from the start can increase the accessibility but also improve the quality and usability of the materials for all students. Not only is this incorporating universal design, it is creating a more inclusive learning environment to enable student success.

Proactive, inclusive approach to learning

This is why we are so excited about Blackboard Ally as another way to help encourage this proactive, inclusive approach to learning. Blackboard Ally was developed to help institutions understand and tackle accessibility in a way that benefits all students. One of the driving forces behind the creation of Ally is the belief that accessibility should not be connected only to disabilities. Accessibility should be about providing better access to everyone and improving the quality of the educational experience for everyone.

How does it work?

Using inclusivity, sustainability and automation as its key pillars, Blackboard Ally integrates seamlessly into the Learning Management System and the workflows that students and instructors already use to help make digital course content more accessible. It does this in three specific ways:

  1. Alternative Formats – Blackboard Ally will automatically run instructor course materials through an accessibility checklist that checks for common accessibility issues. Using advanced Machine Learning algorithms, Ally will generate a range of more accessible alternatives for the instructor’s original (e.g., audio, ePub, electronic braille) and will make these available to all students in the course.Screenshot of Ally showing options for downloading accessible PDF versions
  2. Instructor Feedback and Guidance – Using the insight gained from its accessibility checks, Ally will also provide instructors in-context feedback about the accessibility of their course content and guidance on how to fix the identified accessibility issues.Screen shot of Ally showing the accessiblity score of an image
  3. Institutional Reporting – Blackboard Ally provides an institution-wide course content accessibility report that allows for deep insight and understanding into how the institution is performing and evolving from a course content accessibility point of view.Report of accessibilty over time (accessibility score with and without Ally)

The Results

The response to Blackboard Ally has been equally exciting. It was recently awarded a 2017 WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) award, which is traditionally given to organizations and institutions that “implement exceptionally creative, technology-based solutions to contemporary challenges in higher education.”

The Ally team works with institutions around the world to continue to gather feedback and improve, and contribute to the momentum and scale that’s required to help institutions make the shift to a more inclusive environment.

If you’re interested in staying up to date on Blackboard Ally, please be sure to sign up for the Ally User group to participate in the discussion.

author headshot Nicolaas Matthijs


Nicolaas Matthijs
Product Manager, Blackboard Ally
Institution:  Blackboard, Inc.




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Digital Credentials for Faculty Professional Development

I’ve held many conversations with higher education professionals about how to encourage the use of instructional technologies in the classroom. Many times the conversation revolves around the newest innovations, what tool is the most user-friendly, or which new tech will capture student’s attention. Eventually, the conversation typically ends with us talking about faculty training and support. How do we motivate our faculty to be attend technology training sessions?

Luckily, today we are joined by Preston Davis (Northern Virginia Community College) and Luke Dowden (University of Louisiana at Lafayette)  to learn about how their institutions incentivize faculty participation in teaching with technology professional development. Thank you both for your advice!

Oh, and I can’t wait to check out their WCET Annual Meeting session about digital credentials! Read on to learn more!

Enjoy the read and enjoy the day,

~Lindsey, WCET

Higher education institutions are facing increasing pressure to demonstrate innovation. Students, faculty/staff, and employers have different priorities and expectations, especially when it comes to the use of technology. The need to incorporate instructional technology tools into an effective learning environment is apparent, and there is no shortage of products and services available to faculty and students alike. The problem with the use of these available instructional technologies often lies with training faculty to effectively use technology in their classroom, whether physical or virtual. Moreover, most faculty, regardless of institution type, are trained in their discipline (e.g. math, english, nursing) and have little to no preparation in teaching or teaching with technology.

Northern Virginia Community College and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette have identified faculty preparation to teach online as a high priority and are using digital credentials to incentivize faculty participation.

At Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), Dr. Preston Davis adopted a new approach to faculty training in instructional technology with the following objectives (note: among all the faculty objectives, the following apply to this story):

  • Provide accessible, convenient, high-quality training for faculty and staff across the college in the use of instructional technologies for teaching and learning,
  • Provide training and certification in Blackboard, hybrid instruction, and online instructional tools with a focus on quality training outcomes,
  • Emphasize synchronous and asynchronous virtual workshops over in-person trainings,
  • Leverage existing resources such as video tutorials to quickly build out effective trainings and job aids,
  • Recognize faculty initiative through digital credentials that acknowledge their professional development accomplishments.

NOVA is a large community college serving over 70,000 students in the Washington DC metro area at six campuses and online. Providing training support to over 3,000 faculty/staff members spread throughout one of the most heavily populated regions in the nation is no small task. Our approach to this is a comprehensive training program that leverages online technologies, and uses certifications and digital badges to encourage and recognize example of a digital badge (green circle with a head icon, gears inside of the head to showcase thinking skills)

Badges are digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a web page or other online venues.

NOVA’s Instructional Technology Training Digital Badges provide faculty participants with a digital credential as evidence of completing professional development workshops and programs focused on instructional technology.

Examples of digital badges

These badges are useful for faculty evaluations, appointments and promotions.

A collection of badges can also function as a distributed portfolio that may be accessible from a variety of social media sites, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google Plus.

When badges serve as part of a résumé or portfolio, they tell current/prospective employers and professional organizations a more detailed story about the technology skills and interests of faculty, including both the hard and soft skills that were acquired.

We developed our new digital badge initiative to complement our certification programs for teaching hybrid and online courses. We currently offer tracks in advanced Blackboard tools, Google Apps for Educators, Microsoft Office, and Free Tools for Enhanced Teaching and Learning. These programs are open to all faculty and staff, and apply to teaching in all modalities. This is a new initiative at NOVA, but early feedback indicates that faculty are very interested in our updated training program and see the value in being able to showcase their knowledge and use of technology to support learning outcomes and student success.

Aligning Digital Credentials with Training Pathways

At the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Dr. Luke Dowden and the Instructional Support Team within the Office of Distance Learning have aligned digital credentials to existing training pathways. According to Dowden, faculty are required to be ULearn certified in order to teach a hybrid or online course at UL Lafayette. Faculty may select from two pathways. Distance Learning also internally certifies online courses using the Quality Matters Rubric standards, which is another opportunity for faculty to earn a digital credential as a peer reviewer or by having their course certified. “We have aligned our initial iteration of digital credentials to the University’s tenure and promotion standards of research, teaching and service. We intend to expand our digital credentials through this ecosystem,” stated Dr. Dowden.

Since launching the first credential in 2016, a total of four have been created with 573 issued and 18,600 views of the credentials on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.Examples of certifications within three categories: 1. Certifications: Certified Course Designer, Certified online teacher, 2. Service: Course Reviewer, and 3. Research: Conference Presenter, Dowden credits his team member, Carey Hamburg, a Senior Instructional Designer, for his diligent work to create digital credentials that balance the University’s brand while recognizing a specific achievement.

Digital Credential Platforms

There are many platforms that can be used to create and distribute digital credentials, a few examples include:

  • Credly– helps users create badges, upload their own designs, and give credit through the platform. It is available as a web-based version and an iOS app.
  • Open Badges– Open Badges by Mozilla allows users to create and issue badges that do not have to be tied to a certain platform.
  • For All Badges– iOS app that works in conjunction with For All Rubrics to align your rubrics with the badging system. The app also integrates with Mozilla’s Open Badges platform, and allows students (or staff members) to save badges to their “backpack.”
  • Badgewallet – Android app for earning, managing and distributing digital credentials.


Want to learn more, or share your own experiences with digital credentials? Come to Luke and Preston’s presentation: Want Buy-In on Digital Credentials? Start with Faculty at the WCET Annual Meeting October 25-27, 2017. See you in Denver CO!


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Wm. Preston Davis
Director Educational Technology and Online Instructional Services
Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA)




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Luke Dowden
Director of Distance Learning
University of Louisiana at Lafayette




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The OIG Report on WGU, Part 2: React…But Don’t Overreact

It has been more than a week since the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued its Final Audit Report declaring that “Western Governors University Was Not Eligible to Participate in the Title IV Programs.” Word cloud with words: Hysterics, panic button, have a fit, alrm, sare, panic, lost it, go to pieces" written several times.Both of us (Russ Poulin, WCET and Van Davis, Blackboard) have been following the activities surrounding the audit (competency-based education, regular and substantive interaction, the definition of faculty) for some time. Last year we wrote a post trying to compile and interpret previous OIG and Department of Education information about “regular and substantive interaction.”

This is the second in a series of blog posts on the OIG Report. This post begins with some additional background. We also want to be the first to provide advice as to what this means for distance educators and suggest some issues you and your institutional colleagues should consider.

What Has Happened Since the Report Was Issued?

During the last week, there have been numerous articles and opinion pieces denouncing the OIG’s recommendations. They consistently highlight WGU’s stellar reputation and the fact that it performs better on many higher education metrics than most other institutions. A sampling of articles:

Knowing that the audit was coming, WGU produced a web page with text and video responses in which they are emphatic that the institution followed all laws and regulations in the care for and disbursement of federal financial aid. Last week, Jarret Cummings of EDUCAUSE joined us for a conversation with Robert Collins, WGU’s Vice President of Financial Aid, who echoed this message.

What You Need to Know

A red button with the word "panic" on itIn the whole discussion, there are some key details that have been lost that we want to highlight for you. We believe that these may be helpful in discussions with your colleagues.

  • Only institutions with more than 50% of their coursework declared “correspondence education” are at risk of losing their aid given the concepts used in the Report. So, react, but don’t overreact. Here is the background provided on this issue in the Report on page 1:

“In 2006, Congress removed restrictions that limited participation in the Title IV programs by schools offering distance education programs. Congress provided that distance education courses (then referred to as telecommunications courses) would no longer be considered correspondence courses as long as the distance education courses offered by a school exceeded 50 percent of its total course offerings…Schools also continued to be ineligible if courses offered by correspondence exceeded 50 percent of the total course offerings or student enrollment in correspondence programs exceeded 50 percent of total enrollment. Additionally, students enrolled in correspondence programs continued to be limited to a half-time Federal Pell Grant Program (Pell) award. In 2008, Congress further amended the HEA to require that distance education programs ‘support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor.’

  • The ruling also does not apply to any institution that has received authorization by the Department of Education to offer financial aid on the basis of direct assessment.
  • WGU is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Normally, an institution’s accrediting agency reviews the academic issues prevalent in the OIG Report. WGU was in good standing with its accrediting agency on these issues.
  • The Office of Inspector General is a semi-autonomous (our term) unit of the Department of Education. It performs reviews and audits that are recommendations to (in this case) the financial aid unit of the Department for their review and action. The ultimate authority to act on the recommendations lies with the Secretary of Education.
  • We have yet to talk to anyone who believes that the Department of Education will accept the Report. There are differences of opinion on how long it will take before action is taken and on exactly what actions the Department will recommend to remedy the situation. We believe it will be resoundingly rejected, but will the rejection help only WGU or will it be couched in broader language that might apply to all institutions?
  • Although the report’s findings were aimed only at WGU, we simply don’t know at this time whether or not these standards will be applied to other institutions. It is especially uncertain if the OIG’s interpretations of “instructor” and “regular and substantive interaction” will be applied to non-CBE modalities like adaptive learning or even general distance education. It is a concern.

How Can This Be Resolved?

This issue needs a Congressional solution, but Congressional action is hard to come by these days. The pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act would be a great place for a solution, but we are hearing that reauthorization may be delayed until 2019. (Collective heavy sigh.)

Meanwhile, the Department of Education needs to address these issues beyond just WGU; ED needs to provide clear direction regarding “regular and substantive” and acknowledge that the Inspector General’s definition is prohibitively narrow and does not acknowledge evidence of quality outcomes. Although the use of negotiated rulemaking has a mixed track record, absent of a legislative response, it may be time for the Department to use the process to issue regulatory language clarifying “regular and substantive.” Another possible solution would be passage of legislation that creates statutory definitions and standards for things like “instructor” and “regular and substantive.” And since CBE continues to enjoy bipartisan support, a legislative response is possible. However, any such response would need to go beyond addressing WGU’s situation and should instead address the larger issue of how to foster innovation while still assuring quality educational outcomes and the centrality of faculty that “regular and substantive” language is thought to protect. While the issue of compliance for non-traditional innovations is open, let’s solve as much of it as we can.

What Should You Be Doing?

The recommendations of the Report may cause hesitancy by faculty, administrators, and board members to shy away from any innovation for fear of putting federal financial aid (Title IV) eligibility in jeopardy. Our main message to you is to react, but don’t overreact. Done properly, this Report can be used to prompt healthy reflection on quality, faculty and student interaction and other practices in your distance education, CBE, and other courses.

We do have suggestions on actions that you may wish to take:

  • If you think compliance could be a problem for your institution, we recommend engaging in a series of conversations. Keep the focus on improving learning, but also keep an eye on compliance requirements.
  • Engage faculty. Encourage and sponsor proactive conversations about how to assure quality across all of your course and program offerings, not just in CBE or distance education. Conversations are especially important with leads and key faculty of academic programs that might be affected.
    • Consider the OIG Report’s definition of “regular and substantive interaction”. Which interactions do they count as interaction and how do they define a faculty person? We find that it helps to clear your head of any preconceived notions of what interaction entails prior to reading their interpretation. Their definition is very, very narrowly prescribed and their notion of “interaction” sounds more like dissemination to us.
    • Would your courses be in compliance? If not, how many would not? This is particularly interesting for places that make extensive use of lecture capture videos or use an unbundled faculty model.
    • Stepping away from compliance concerns, what does quality interaction look like?
    • If changes need to be made in courses, it is good to get campus-wide understanding and support.
  • Engage administrators. Engage in conversations with affected administrators from your institution, such as financial aid administrators, the provost, compliance officers, legal counsel, and (especially) leads and faculty for academic programs that could be affected.
    • Find out if you have a financial aid review or an accrediting visit coming in the near future. If yes, start thinking about responses.
    • Do you want to continue to call your programs self-paced (see previous advice on this point) or claim they can be “completed on your own”? The recent report makes it clear that how your program is marketed can impact compliance.
    • Help administrators understand that any changes to courses needs to involve faculty and instructional design resources. In fact, instructional designers are even more important in light of the audit findings as they are the ones best suited to work with faculty on developing activities and interactions that will meet the Inspector General’s definition of “regular and substantive.”
  • Engage government affairs. Get the compliance issues raised in the Report on the list of your government affairs officers.
    • If you make extensive use of CBE, distance education, or other modes of instruction that break from the traditional model, you may wish to contact your Congressperson and/or Senator now to express your opinion on the OIG Report.
    • The government affairs person should have this topic on their list of issues to discuss any time they engage with Congress members or their staff.
  • Be open with students and employer partners. Develop a response so that you are prepared in case students have anyA graphic of a news paper questions. Students might read the papers and worry that their financial aid or entire degree is in jeopardy because of the recommendations of the OIG Report. Employers may be concerned about the quality of the academic program. Being proactive with a prepared response will help everyone understand the situation. If the issue becomes more widespread, be prepared to proactively communicate with students and employers more broadly.

We will continue to follow this issue and keep you informed. Our next blog post will be an update of last year’s post on “regular and substantive interaction.” We gathered the documents we could find on the subject and attempted to bring all the interpretations together in one analysis. We will use that work as a starting place and indicate where there are additions or changes in how compliance was interpreted in the WGU case.

Oh…and one last thing: be ready for action should the time come. We believe that the Department will be strong in its rejection of this Report, but it’s been a surprising year. It pays to be ready… but don’t overreact.

Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat
Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies



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Van Davis
Associate Vice President
Higher Education Policy and Research
Blackboard, Inc.




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Learning Design for Innovation

Hello and welcome to today’s WCET Frontiers blog post, with guest author John Gillmore, Research Fellow with the Institute for Learning Environment Design at the University of Central Oklahoma. John is here to discuss a new system of course, program, and curriculum innovation: the Learning Environment Design for Innovation (LEDi) model. This is an exciting example of innovation in higher education directly benefiting the learning success of our students.

Thank you John for explaining this new model for us!

Enjoy the day and enjoy the read,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

The landscape in higher education is changing. Colleges and universities are having to reexamine traditional practices and consider new ways of doing things. This takes something called “innovation.” Innovation is somewhat of a buzzword these days, but the only way to adapt to this new ecosystem is to come up with new ideas or methods. So how do you support innovation in academia, a sector that is known to be quite rigid in structure?

How are Higher Education Institutions Addressing Innovation?

Higher education institutions are approaching the problem in different ways. Some are outsourcing their change management to publishers, technology companies, or consultants. This is an expensive and risky proposition with mixed results. Others attempt to tackle the problem on their own, but they often find that planning and leading change initiatives prove to be too time consuming and challenging. Politics and good-old-fashioned resistance to change are typically the victors of these efforts.

Introducing Learning Environment Design for Innovation

In response to these challenges, The University of Central Oklahoma has developed something called the Learning Environment Design for Innovation (LEDi) model. The LEM model used in a case study to plan and organize a debate activity in an online courseLEDi, a concept based in Design Thinking, provides leaders, learning designers, and facilitators with a simple and straight forward process for implementing course, program, and curriculum innovations. The system provides value by promoting relevant and effective learning that is planned and implemented efficiently.

Why It Was Developed

The system was borne from the need to effectively plan and communicate learning designs. Like many academics that have attempted this before, we found the lack of a universal medium frustrating. Fortunately, an important communication breakthrough facilitated both of these things and paved the way for the LEDi system: a revolutionary visual design method called Learning Environment Modeling™.Job shadowing to create portions of a model for learning

Learning Environment Modeling™ is an easy-to-use tool for designing all levels of learning – from courses to programs to institutional curriculum. It also enables users to communicate these designs easily and effectively. LEM is elegant in its simplicity and new users are able to learn LEM very quickly.

How It’s Being Used

LEM model compenents on a white boardThe system is being used successfully at UCO for all types of curriculum design. Individual UCO departments are using the system to collaborate, redesign, and align programs with impressive efficiency and effectiveness. As an added benefit, those charged with leading assessment procedures appreciate the level of precision in the learning blueprints – this makes it easy to show how curriculum links to learning outcomes.

In addition, UCO instructional designers use LEDi and Learning Environment Modeling™ to develop and design every new and renewed online course. This system allows instructional designers to focus on learning design instead of being simply “course builders.”  LEDi and Learning Environment Modeling™ promote effective learning design and collaboration. When using this system, faculty and designers come away with a better understanding of the environment and a higher level of confidence.

So Effective, We Began Sharing It with Others

Two users of the modelOur efforts with LEDi and Learning Environment Modeling™ were so successful, we began sharing it with other institutions, first with other Oklahoma colleges and universities, and more recently with those in other states. To accommodate these efforts, UCO launched the Institute for Learning Environment Design, or ILED. ILED provides training and consulting using LEDi and Learning Environment Modeling™. In addition, ILED offers the Certified Learning Environment Architect™ program: a professional credential-of-choice designed for leaders who are responsible for facilitating academic innovation. See our university website for more information, or to order the Learning Designer’s Guide to LEM book at

John Gillmore (author) showing the model

John Gillmore
Research Fellow
Institute for Learning Environment Design
University of Central Oklahoma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Post Series

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

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

Improving Quality and Access Do Not Matter?

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

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

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

Departmental Guidance on “Regular and Substantive Interaction”

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

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

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

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

When is Interaction Not Interaction?

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

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

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

The OIG is looking for interaction that is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Might Happen?

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

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

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

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


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

WOW Award: Oregon State University’s Virtual Microscope for Distance Students

This year I had the exciting opportunity to coordinate our WCET Awards initiative. The most valuable aspect of this initiative was the chance to learn about the meaningful, student-focused work being done by various institutions and organizations in higher education. The WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Awards honor member institutions and organizations that develop technology-based solutions to challenging educational needs. 2017WOW_Logo_0

I am pleased to announce the winners of the 2017 WOW awards: University of Central Florida, Blackboard Inc., Oregon State University Ecampus, and Healthcare Learning Innovations, a division of American Sentinel University.

Over the next several weeks, each of these institutions will be featured here on WCET Frontiers.

Today, we welcome Oregon State University Ecampus to discuss their award winning 3D Virtual Microscope. Congratulations to OSU Ecampus and thank you for your work to increase student success!

Enjoy the read and enjoy the day,

~Lindsey Downs, WCET

The Problem: Biology Students Needing Access to Microscopes

It was a fundamental question in search of a much-needed answer: How can distance students taking introductory biology courses online truly learn to operate a microscope without being in a physical laboratory?

The simple answer was that they couldn’t.

Students could buy a compound microscope to use at their homes, but with costs ranging from $50 for the cheapest ones on the market to well over $1,000 for the advanced variety, it was an untenable solution.

They could enroll in a campus-based course at their local college and use its labs. Commuting to and taking a class on campus, however, would further drain adult learners of their most valuable and fleeting resource: time.

The ultimate cost was that the lack of a sufficient, interactive online lab experience delayed and, in some cases, prevented many students from completing their degree requirements.

Those days, thankfully, are over.

The Solution: Create a Virtual Microscope

Oregon State University now offers a series of three biology courses online that effectively puts a microscope in the hands of every distance learner. Believed to be the first virtual microscope of its kind, this academic breakthrough is the result of a partnership between OSU’s Department of Integrative Biology, the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, and Oregon State Ecampus, the university’s online education division.

The groundbreaking lab series recently won a WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) award, given to institutions that “implement exceptionally creative, technology-based solutions to contemporary challenges in higher education.”

It was a significant challenge. But trying to do something that’s never been done before is Oregon State’s comfort zone.

Easier Said than Done: Here’s How We Did It

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of what it took for Oregon State to create the virtual microscope experience and, thus, eliminate a significant barrier to degree completion:

  • Six months of research and development
  • One year producing a 3-D microscope animation project
  • The collaboration of 30-plus OSU faculty, department heads, Ecampus multimedia developers, instructional designers and other staff

Dr. Bouwma, instructor with OSU EcampusDr. Andrew Bouwma and Dr. Genevieve Weber are the faculty members who piloted the development of the lab series. The end goal was not just to increase access to education but also to make that educational experience rigorous and engaging. The comprehensive development process was necessary to ensure the labs meet the same learning outcomes as OSU’s on-campus labs.

“I teach on-campus and online biology courses, and I wanted to find a way to give my online students the same, meaningful experience my on-campus students receive,” Bouwma said. “I started using the virtual microscope in my online classes immediately, and it’s been an effective tool in my teaching since it allows me to give my students more realistic assignments in cell biology, which I believe improves student engagement.”

The first step in building the virtual microscope was to design a way to replicate the in-person experience in an online, interactive environment. That massive undertaking was tasked to the OSU Ecampus multimedia development team, which pushed the limits of what’s possible in online education.

“I took the exact microscope that the students on campus use, and I measured it down to the millimeter so that I could model the virtual one precisely,” said Ecampus multimedia developer Nick Harper. “Then, using 3-D modeling software, I was able to manipulate basic shapes like cubes and cylinders to build an accurate digital model of a real microscope.”

Then came a year’s worth of animation work, using game development software that would enable students to manipulate all of the microscope’s controls – adjusting the brightness, increasing the zoom, focusing the viewer and so on. PHoto of the 3d microscopeThe Ecampus staff then mounted a camera on a real microscope and took photos of slides that were central to Bouwma’s instruction and programmed those images to create the virtual simulation.

“Ultimately, we were able to create a solution for students to maneuver a microscope’s settings and adjust the images the same way they would in a face-to-face environment in a lab,” multimedia developer Mike Miller said.

It Worked – with Minor Setbacks- and Has Been Expanded

It was a safe bet that the virtual microscope and corresponding online lab courses would be in demand among distance learners, but it has exceeded even Oregon State’s high expectations. Since the series was launched in 2015, OSU has had to add sections for each course in the online series because each one enrolls incredibly quickly.

The virtual experience has not been devoid of hiccups, of course. There have been some challenges with tech support along the way, but luckily the instructors are so familiar with the material and software that they answer questions quickly. Members of the Ecampus multimedia team also have been able to lend a hand when needed.

Oregon State has also added more slides, fine-tuned the virtual microscope’s features as needed. It’s also being used in other Ecampus classes, and it’s been added to the university’s open educational resources (OER) library, giving anyone in the world access to this innovative and, for many, essential tool.OSU 3d microscope 2

Success = Need + Collaboration

“When I describe this project to others, I tell them that this is the kind of collaboration that all others should aspire to,” said Shannon Riggs, the Ecampus director of course development and training.

“Everything was created based on student need, and that really galvanized all the people who worked on the project. It helped us approach the project with enthusiasm and passion – to boost student success and break down barriers to degree completion.”




Tyler Hansen
Marketing Communications Manager
Oregon State University | Extended Campus




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