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Panel wants to end confusion over online learning standards

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2013

Seeking to bring more order to the exploding world of online college course work, state education officials and leading educational organizations Thursday released a proposal designed to speed up the expansion of "distance learning" while offering greater consumer protections for students.

The voluntary national plan would set a baseline of regulations for the quality of online classes among the states, as well as create a complaint system for distance learners from outside of the state where the institution offering the class is located.

The report containing the proposed compact was released by the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, with a diverse group of leaders within the postsecondary education community, including Richard Riley, who was education secretary under President Clinton.

"We put the needs of the students first," Mr. Riley said about the final product of the commission's 10 months of work. He also said that, in addition to protecting students, the proposed system would bring uniformity to state regulations and reduce the financial burden on institutions, which often pass on the costs to students.

Nearly 7 million U.S. students are accessing college courses online, but the regulations that authorize the universities and companies that provide those courses vary from state to state. Many date to the pre-Internet era, when colleges operated only in the states where they maintained physical presences.

That confusion has hampered the spread of online options for students. While most for-profit and large nonprofit online providers have invested the time and money in some cases millions of dollars to get approval to enroll students in all 50 states, others have turned away students from Arkansas, Minnesota, Massachusetts and other states where the barriers to gaining approval to operate are higher. The system also has sowed confusion about such issues as reciprocity on standards among the states and what happens if a student moves to a state where the institution isn't approved.

Next week, the commission will host representatives from 47 states in Indianapolis to discuss the report and ways to implement it, said commission member Paul Shiffman, an assistant vice president at Excelsior College, an online-based institution with headquarters in New York state.

The report addresses a variety of online learning issues, but it does not address international distance learners, and does not directly affect the fast-growing world of MOOCs massive open online courses offered by an increasing number of top universities on a noncredit basis.

"Those online courses, if they offer accreditation, can be involved," said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. "We are looking to accreditors for quality."

Fellow commission member Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, was not as sure the free courses would be included.

"The platform is free, which means it is free from consumer protection issues," said Mr. Lingenfelter.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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