In Defense of More “Extreme” Higher Education Policy Changes from the US Department of Education

In a March 30, 2018 article written by Jared Cameron Bass, Amy Laitinen, and Clare McCann; they offer a critique of what they clearly see as unnecessary and extreme moves toward deregulation from the current US Department of Education administration. In particular, they focus upon four policy areas of import for higher education: state authorization, the credit hour, accreditation, and the current definition of “regular and substantive interaction” in distance education programs. In each case, the authors point out their concerns about the direction that the US Department of Education is going, calling for a less extreme tweak or refinement of current policy instead of completely removing a policy and/or starting from scratch.

I encourage you to read this initial article for yourself, as the following remarks are, at least in part, an alternative view on key themes from that article. As I read it, I found myself trying to document what seemed to be the stated or underlying assumptions in the article. While I welcome clarification or correction, here are nine themes that seemed to emerge from my reading.

  1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.
  2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.
  3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.
  4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.
  5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.
  6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?
  7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.
  8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.
  9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

This is one person’s framing and understanding of the positions in the article, but regardless, I use these nine statements as a launchpad for my reflection on the the need for more significant, even extreme, policy changes.

1. Too extreme of policy changes can open the door for abuses and fraud that none of us want. In fact, this quickly turns into an access and equity issue.

This is always a good and important caution when it comes to policy reform. As I often write, there are always affordances and limitations to policies. With each policy there are winners and losers. It just seems like the authors of the article are representing a view that the current policies do not have serious enough limitations or they are not flawed enough to warrant more extreme interventions. If we were talking about a home remodel, they seem to be arguing for painting the walls and rearranging the furniture a bit, but not going to the extreme of taking out walls, addressing structural issues, adding new flooring, and getting brand new furniture. Only some of us have been living in that house and we know that there is a termite infestation, the furniture is filthy, there are concerns about how long the roof will last, and it is preventing us from the quality of life that we seek. As such, there is a genuine difference of opinion about the status of the current policies. I am well aware of abuses that the credit hour policy prevents, as well as the “regular and substantive interaction” stipulation for distance education programs. They are protecting against abuse, but at the same time, they are holding us back from countless promising practices and innovations. They are also putting higher education institutions at a disadvantage against those non-regulated providers of emerging education.

2. If institutions are finding a way to comply or survive with a current policy in one of these three areas, then the policy can’t be too bad. As such, minor revisions are better than starting from scratch. We should respect the work of those who’ve been addressing issues over the last decade.

Again, it is good to caution us about mindless changes or not considering the background and context. However, that does not mean that we should disregard the potential benefit of starting from scratch. The history also reveals a great deal of baggage and people harmed by current policies. Even more, there is an opportunity loss that has come from the extreme and narrow parameters of countless currrent policies.

3. The amount of time and money devoted by higher education institutions is not a significant concern.

To be fair, the authors did not explicitly state this. They just didn’t recognize it as a factor either. When you are a smaller higher education institution, it is no small factor when you find yourself having to devote multiple FTEs year round or during certain times of the year just to comply with the countless policies. That takes money away from other more immediate needs. In fact, the current policy landscape has been a boon for companies and consultants who are using the complexities to essentially scare institutions into paying for their help and participation. More accurately, these companies don’t do the scaring. They just offer to help protect people from the fears and threats associated with what some external entity might define as a regulatory infraction.

4. We should base our policies upon the feedback of the current higher education “winners”, namely those with the resources or privilege to have more of a voice at the table in shaping current policy and practice.

I can’t imagine that the authors would agree with this as stated, but I worry that this sentiment is present in their proposed approach.

At one point, the article references a letter that allegedly represented the collective voice and viewpoint of “the distance education community.” I’ve been involved with distance education for well over a decade, and that letter does not represent me. This is a growing frustration for me, in fact. The current “winners” are the ones who get consulted the most and those who have secured the public voice and place of influence. Then they invite a few others that the winners deem worthy of including, or they do so to argue that they are being more inclusive. This is coming from a person who has indeed been privileged to work and interact with thought leaders and leading organizations throughout the United States and the world, and yet I consistently find that my input and that of institutions like the one that I serve have not been a welcome part of past policy decisions. Over the past decade, at least from my vantage point, they have a handful of their favorite thinkers and voices, and they certainly did not represent the larger higher education ecosystem or the breadth of philosophies and ideals represented in that ecosystem.

5. We want to push beyond the status quo, but not in a way that might risk major disruptions, changes, or innovations that challenge our preconceived beliefs about what higher education should or should not be.

Here is my greatest concern with the proposal that we be content simply tweaking the current system. Just spend one day researching the breadth of educational innovations today. Then consider how many potentially beneficial efforts are inhibited by the current policies. Apart from some of the largely narrow innovative practices in CBE, much of distance education has been stagnant for almost 25 years. That is policy induced stagnation. Those in distance education are persistently forced into a narrow set of practices that comply with the given policies, thus abandoning or never fully pursuing practices that have promise. The policies have become dictators of “best practice” that don’t even allow for efforts that might reveal new promising practices. Even worse, the policies are created to prevent certain abuses without adequate or even reasonable consideration for the realities and opportunities of 21st century learning…or 17th-20th century learning for that matter.

6. IHEs are managing to comply with current state authorization policies and they are protecting against some abuses, so why get rid of it?

Yes, we are managing to comply, but it has taken a ton of money and human resources from institutions that are working hard to keep costs down for students while providing a great learning experience. In addition, it took a massive and expensive national consortium effort to help mitigate the incredibly problematic regulations from state to state. When it takes that large of an effort to just figure out a way that institutions can “manage to comply”, that is a sign of poorly defined policy. As it stands, there is a membership fee to be pat of the National Council for State Authorization and Reciprocity Agreements, and then, individual states can charge extra as well. This might seem like small money to massive institutions, but there are plenty of IHEs that are only talking about serving a few (yes, literally 2 or 3) students in a given state. Yet, that state might charge the institution as much as $5000 or $10,000 to do so. My point is simply that institutions are managing, but it is not without opportunity, time, and money lost.

7. The current definition of the credit hour has worked for many CBE programs, so it can’t be too bad.

I happen to serve at an institution that was one of the first 20 welcomed into the Competency-based Education Network. I quickly discovered that an immense amount of the effort was focused upon how to structure things so that we could be in compliance. That is a horrible way to produce the best results, at least when the policy is so mis-informed in the first place. So yes, the CBE programs that have a voice at the table are finding ways to work within the current policies. That is just because all the other voices are not at the table, they have been silenced or ignored (even if at the table), or they represent promising approaches to CBE that never launched because of regulatory challenges. I do not write on behalf of my institution, but I can say that I am keenly aware of institutions that went through two or more years of confused external regulatory exchanges, only to end the conversations with a decision to back off on even trying, or a lack of clarity about what was even expected or required from external agencies. This is fertile soil for mediocrity and a lack of innovation.

8. Accreditors need to be tougher on higher education institutions, and the DOE leverage on accreditation agencies should encourage that.

Turning accreditors into police will only create more winners and losers in the higher education space. There is already mass inequity. I’ve spoken to people at elite institutions where some faculty do not even create syllabi with learning objectives for their courses, and they go through accreditation with flying colors. These are sometimes the very institutions from which influencers on education policies graduate or teach/research. Some of the leading voices in education policy, higher education scholars, are the first to demand almost complete autonomy in how and what they teach, and yet they publish about the need to be tougher on those “other” institutions. It is a deeply flawed system.

One colleague explained it this way. At some Universities, we put on ties and suits for accreditors. In other institutions, the accreditors put on suits and ties to visit (yes, a bit of a male-centric way of describing it, but you get the idea). Regional accreditation is a peer review process that, at its best, provides a venue for higher education institutions to give useful insights and feedback on how to grow and improve. Only it can quickly turn into a policing toward the status quo and the dominant or preferred practices of the day. There are better ways to do this that allow more leeway for true innovation (even of the disruptive sort) while also keeping egregious abuses in check. Only we are wise to consider that an “abuse” to one person could be an incredible innovation to another. The current standards used to offer feedback by various regional accreditors are often too narrow, honoring a rather narrow set of beliefs and philosophies of education. Yet, only certain institutions feel especially bound by these agencies.

Yet, the greater problem is that the DOE justification for getting involved with regional accreditors is because they need to protect their financial investments. It has everything to do with money and very little to do with the best interest of the students. It has led to a spiraling debate and drive toward increasingly narrow definitions of what is defined as a good higher education experience. This entire relationship between the DOE and accreditors (and accreditors to individual IHEs) could benefit from a complete overhaul.

9. There is important history to the current “regular and substantive interaction” requirement for distance education, and that should be taken into consideration before completely removing the requirement or starting from scratch.

Yes, there is an important history, and that history is part of what calls us to consider completely new policies. The current wording doesn’t even reflect the reality of many face-to-face programs today. Consider a PhD student doing largely independent research for years, maybe only meeting with her advisor for 15-20 minutes a week. That is outside the philosophical boundaries of the current policy. The UK doctorate or degree by research is excluded in the US on the basis of this current policy. Student internships could be arguably outside of this policy. There are countless other teaching and learning approaches that we would have to stretch to fit into the expectations of this and other policies. I contend that this justifies a more fundamental rewriting of policy, not just a tweak to the current system.

As a reminder, this is largely a response and reflection to the New America article called The Department of Deregulation. As much as I critique it here, I am grateful that it was written and published. There are important cautions about considering affordances and limitations, looking at history and context, and not being too quick to start deregulating. These are all good and important points. We must move with wisdom and careful consideration, but we must move, and that is my argument. I am not satisfied with the “just paint the walls a new color” approach to higher education policy remodels. The problems of current policies are too significant for that.

What Can Schools Learn About Student Voice & Agency from March for Our Lives?

There are ample articles and essays that focus upon the current movement against gun violence in the United States, especially in light of recent events. This is not one of them. It is not a report on the status of that movement, an argument for its merit, or an argument for an alternative. Rather, this is an article about young people’s role as active, engaged, thoughtful citizens.

March for Our Lives (March 24, 2018) is arguably the largest student-led demonstration in the history of the United States. With the partnership and support of the 40 million dollar non-profit, Everytown for Gun Safety, these student organizers rallied over 200,000 participants in Washington D.C. and another 800 demonstrations throughout the United States. Following the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, a group of young people garnered media attention and focused their voice and activism on the specific topic of gun violence and gun laws, quickly deciding and arguing that changing gun laws is what they consider the best way to create schools that are safe for all young people.

Some argue that the most recent school shootings and the subsequent carefully organized campaign for changed gun laws is a turning point for the debate about gun laws in the United States. It may also be a tipping point for something even broader. Namely, this recent event represents an organized student voice unlike anything in recent American history.

In a short but powerful speech from 11-year-old Naomi Wadler at the DC March for Our Lives, she said, “People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It is not true. My friends and I might still be eleven and we might still be in elementary school, but we know… We know life is not equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong.”

Not every 11-year-old has the confidence or skill (although this can be learned) to craft and present such an eloquent speech. Many young people do not choose to focus their effort and energy on a social theme like this. Not every young person expresses this measure of concern or interest in many contemporary issues. Yet, that is not because they lack the right, responsibility, or capacity.

Some argue that it is important to recognize that the impetus for this most recent focused effort comes, in part, from young people in an affluent community who already feel a measure of voice and agency far more than those in many other communities around the United States and throughout the world. That was acknowledged in so many words by some of the young people. Further, the voices and faces that we see in the media are most likely representative of other young people who already believe that their voice matters, and they have the confidence to use it.

However, these are not fixed traits. People can and do learn that their voice matters. They can and do learn to exercise that voice to effect change.

What comes next? Some of the young people speak about the fact that they will use their future power to vote as a tool for creating change in this area. Yet, as active and engaged citizens, they are already effecting change. They are contributing to escalating and focusing public attention on a topic that they believe needs critical and immediate attention. They are influencing others with their words. They are learning how to partner with non-profits and others to organize around a shared vision and goal. They are learning to be powerful, active, and engaged citizens.

One need not be in full (or even partial) agreement with what these young people say. The incredible emotion at this stage of the movement is obviously not adequate to inform carefully considered changes in policy and law that achieve the ultimate goal of safer schools and communities. That requires our best thinking and research, looking at existing research and conducting more as needed. Some might argue that this next stage is, therefore, best left to the adults. The young people can lead with emotion, but when it comes to specific and actionable solutions that bring a high chance of success, many of us again assume that young lack the expertise or insight to contribute.

That would be a grave mistake. Many young people are likely inspired by these recent events, learning that their voice matters. Yet, this is also a time where they are learning that their minds matter too. Their best and deepest thinking matters. Their ability to navigate a complex social and political system matters. Their ability to listen, observe, analyze, look at issues from multiple perspectives, challenge their assumptions, explore a variety of solutions, prototype them, refine them, and propose larger solutions matters as well. In this current March for Our Lives iteration of youth activism, now is the time for young people to not only cry out for justice and change, but to also take a seat at the table when changes are explored, considered, selected, implemented, persistently evaluated, and revised.

This is democratic republic in action, yet there is still question about whether our schools are designed in such a way to actually equip young people for such deep engagement and action in their community, country, and world. Does the our school structure welcome student voice? Does it acknowledge student’s role as partners in learning and creating the best and safest learning community? Or do schools just assume that the adults know best, and the students have the proper role of obeying and conforming?

I am inspired by this recent event to deepen my own research into learning communities that take student voice and agency seriously, communities where young people are not just consulted, but they are leaders and co-creators of these communities. They develop and embrace the skill needed to understand problems and to work together toward finding the best solutions. That is an education that truly equips people for life in a democracy. If you know of such a school or learning community, please let me know about it. I hope to turn this into yet another new research and book project.

Into the Basement of the Higher Education Innovation Haunted Mansion at HAIL Storm 2018

“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” I can’t say that I consistently live this teaching, but I value it. It is part of why I share candid, idiosyncratic, under-developed, rough draft ideas and projects online. Scan a random sample of my 1000+ online articles and you will find ample inconsistencies, false starts, over-zealous goals that fizzled before having something substantive to show for them, along with a few wins and accomplishments. Look carefully and you will find an article where I share what I called my un-resume, a long list of failures and underwhelming moments in life. Why would I share such things with the public? Be assured that there is even more that I don’t share, but as I gain the courage and weigh the risks, I strive to offer such a public record because it is something that I’ve long sought from others.

Growing up, I saw people who intrigued me, did what I wanted to do, reached a milestone that I hoped to reach one day, and/or who inspired me in some way. I saw their titles, feats, polished accomplishments, published works, and I read stories of their achievements. Only, I wanted to see how they got there. I longed to know the stories behind the stories, the struggles, fears, failures, and crossroads moments. I wanted to know about their flaws and limitations and how they managed them, how they pushed through the down times, whether they struggled with moments of doubt or depression and how they didn’t let such things consume them. I wanted to know about the hard times that also turned into important lessons. Then, amid all of that, I wanted to hear those stories of achievement once again.

Recently, I had a very brief visit to Disney World. A group of us went through the Haunted Mansion. In room after room, we saw translucent figures floating about. Many get that experience of the Haunted Mansion, but not what I saw next. Afterward, our guide took us on a second tour, this time a side door that took us into the basement of that same mansion. Walking in partial darkness between the carefully marked glowing lines on the floor, we were given a glimpse behind the scenes. I saw boxes stacked in corners, unimpressive plywood constructions, and other sights that resembled more of what you might expect in a storage unit or old barn. As we continued, we found ourselves beneath the public exhibit in one of the rooms, a behind the scenes view of the ghosts and ghouls. Only now we saw mirrors, lights, props, and human-like figures.

When I went on the first tour, I was impressed and amused. Walking out of that second tour, I was more inspired and informed. I could envision working with a team to creating our own haunted mansion. That is the same sort of thing that I longed for over the years as I looked at mentors, role models, and others from whom I hoped to learn. I can be impressed and engaged by the polish and public side of accomplishments, but that real and raw behind the scenes view is something that points me to more of a roadmap. While we sometimes face missions and challenges in life that do not seem to have much of a roadmap, getting the raw view of other’s journey can be used to build both competence and confidence.

I’m writing this as I sit in the Hollywood/Burbank Airport, leaving from a professional development experience that I would equate with a tour of the Haunted Mansion basement. HAIL (Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners) Storm was a small gathering of 35 people who are passionate about higher education innovation with a purpose. Only we didn’t gather for a typical conference experience. Instead, unlike any professional development experience in my higher education career, this was a time to hear the stories behind the story, to speak candidly about successes, challenges, developing ideas, and yes, even some of our failures. As such, I head home inspired and informed, a little more confident to pursue new possibilities, a bit more emboldened to persist through failures and challenges, and committed to lean even further into mission-minded educational innovation.

Is there a Silver Lining to the Education Robber Barons Riding the Regulatory and Compliance Waves?

The educational technology space continues to expand, with new companies and products emerging every week. I welcome calls from vendors as I have time, but mostly because I am interested in how they present their products and services. What is the problem that they are solving? What educational values do they embrace? What do they believe about education and how do these beliefs manifest themselves in the product or service? Every educational product addresses these questions as does every person who speaks about a given product.

Educational software is a means of communicating, amplifying, and muzzling beliefs and values. The back-end architecture, the administrative console, and the overall user-inference communities educational beliefs and values. Educational products and services contribute to the establishment of policies, assumed practices, and quite often speaks to what one thinks is truly important in education.

I recall attending an educational innovation event years ago where a representative from the US Department of Education was discussing the implications of something new at the time, the Common Core State Standards. The tone in this small but significant room of people, with recording devices off, was clearly focused upon the financial benefit of more states formally adopting the CCSS. The conversation involved a candid recognition that the adoption of the CCSS was good for business. If more states are aligned to the same standards, then education companies can design a single product that meets the needs of a larger population. In other words, it would allow one to scale faster, and that certainly captured the interest of investors as well.

The intersection of educational products and policy is especially apparent when we look at the litany of what I call compliance products and services. We help you align objectives, learning activities, and assessments so that you are ready for your next accreditation visit. We help you track key data points that you need to include on compliance reports. We help you align with mandatory standards. You get the idea.

As I look at these products, I divide them in at least two distinct categories. Some help schools, learning organizations, educators, or learners navigate the sometimes confusing but current landscape so that they can focus upon that which is more important, namely learning and growth. The vendor realizes that these compliance issues can easily siphon precious financial and other resources and time from organizations, and  are offering help at a reasonable price. Others are companies and products that exist to generate as much revenue as possible by riding the waves of the latest regulatory developments or compliance trends. They are not thinking much beyond that. They see an opportunity in the policy landscape and they use it to make some money. I don’t suggest that there is necessarily anything wrong with this second category, not if it helps learning organizations spend less time on compliance.

Yet, both of these categories have risks. The first risks hiding and sustaining the life of poor policies and unnecessarily restrictive compliance requirements. It is an effort to make the best of a less than ideal situation, but along the way, people become so comfortable working amid that context that it can perpetuate the problem. The other depends upon the current landscape. Both have a vested interest in maintaining the policy and compliance status quo. Changes in policy are not good for them unless these changes increase the compliance requirements.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of many such products, but I confess to be drawn to one particular assessment technology that essentially functions like a monopoly on the K-12 level in many states. The product perpetuates some practices that many consider positive, but it does so while ignoring many others. It is not hard to argue that it limits the scope of teaching innovations. One might argue that it contributes to a more narrow definition of quality teaching and learning. Along the way, it generates massive revenue for the company involved. I’m not ready to name the product, but many readers can likely guess. Is this a bad product? It has affordances and limitations. However, even with its affordances, I have serious concerns about what it does to the larger education ecosystem.

There is a positive side to this. Because of situations like what I described in the last paragraph, it drives innovation to the grassroots, on the edges, and even beyond the reach of regulations. As such, there is a very real possibility that such practices will, in the long run, contribute to the creation of new and better ways of approaching teaching and learning, ones that are less hindered by the current regulatory landscape and that do not depend upon a given vendor.

Recently, I read The Tyranny of Metrics and followed that up by interviewing the author, Dr. Jerry Muller. In the book and amid our conversation, Dr. Muller reminded me of Campbell’s Law, which Muller paraphrases as saying “anything that can be measured and rewarded will be gamed.” While I’m applying it beyond the intent of Muller’s use in the book, I contend that this law is hard at work in the modern education ecosystem. The “gaming” includes education robber barons and those who are just not thinking deeply about the implications of their product or service, enticed by the opportunity generated by the current rules. Robber baron is a strong phrase and I’m convinced that most companies do not fit that definition. Few are ruthless. They are just making the most of the legal and educational context in which they find themselves. At the same time, there is a different “gaming” at work, people who see green pastures beyond the boundaries of these rules. They are venturing into these less chartered areas and they are creating some compelling and inspiring alternatives to the educational status quo. This is the silver lining in this current context.