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.

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.

You Matter: A Community Garden Vision of Education

You matter. You matter in education. Notice that I did not state that teachers matter, students matter, parents matter, school leaders matter, or policymakers matter. I stated that you matter, regardless of your role. Only, it is imperative that all of us recognize the important fact that each person has a role in education. As with government and healthcare, education is too important to be left to a select group of people who make all the decisions. This is not some neutral endeavor. As I’ve written many times before, education is deeply values-laden; it transmits, muzzles, and amplifies core beliefs and values. As such, if you think that your beliefs and values are important, then your voice matters in education. If you choose not to speak, then that is a decision to let the beliefs and values of others dominate your education, the education of your family members, and the education of others in your community and beyond.

We are nearing an important crossroads in education. There is the persistent battle of ideas between whether education is primarily and art or a science. The advocates of making it exclusively or primarily a science are, whether they realize it or not, advocating for us to place education decisions into the hands of a new, scientific priesthood. To question these priests is to question science, and that is not to be tolerated. On the other hand, to give into the advocates who would make it entirely or primarily an art, may unknowingly be driving us away from incredibly powerful educational breakthroughs that can produce incredible results.

Education is neither art nor science. It is a field that encompasses both, not to mention ideas and practices that do not necessarily fit neatly into the category of art or science. The word “field” might be a useful metaphor. We talk about fields of study. What do we mean by this? The word “field” derives from the Old English “feld”, or cultivated land (in contrast to woodlands). There is a thoughtful, even systematic cultivation of select crops in a field, compared to the randomness of the woodlands. What you plant, how you grow it, and how you cultivate it depends upon the context. There are affordances and limitations to those decisions, informed by sometimes competing and conflicting values. This is why I’ve long argued for the value of a diverse education ecosystem. Or, if it helps, picture a massive community-based garden, with different people and individuals planting and cultivating alongside one another. Some opt for a beautiful selection of flowers. Others go for a wide array of vegetables. Some choose raised beds while others stick with old-school rows. There will we some shared rules for those who play and plant in this field, but there is room for variety.

I love driving by these community-based gardens, seeing the creativity and values of different groups expressed in what they grow. People help one another. Others stay pretty much to themselves. Individually, they have their chance at growing something meaningful to them. Collectively, they are contributing to a wonderfully diverse ecosystem.

That is my dream for modern education, and this vision benefits from each person, you included, seeing your role in one or more of those gardens.

Some will argue that it is more efficient to plow over these diverse gardens. For the sake of efficiency, let a centralized and authorized group of farmers (government, corporate, etc.) take over the entire field, replacing these distinct plots with a single plan for everyone. Others argue for ignoring any need for the managers of each plot to play within any shared set of rules. Both extremes steal something from what is truly special about a community garden. Yet, for this vision and value in education, it depends upon you being a champion for it, resisting the voice of the extremes, and recognizing the importance that you and everyone else can bring to it.

Audit Calls on WGU to Return $713 Million to the DOE & The Policy Innovation Opportunity this Creates

The Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General audit report of Western Governor’s University is, mostly likely unintentionally, an attack on higher education access and opportunity, but we can turn this into something good. According to sources describing the audit, WGU should pay back 700 million to the government and not be allowed to participate in the federal financial aid program. Regardless of whether this will happen, we are wise to use this to recognize an important problem and fix it. This is a multi-year audio sparked by narrow and outdated language in federal policy that leaves limited room for innovation, experimentation, or diversity of models and frameworks in teaching in learning.

If you look back at the article that I wrote on February of 2017 about what I would do if I were the next US Secretary of Education, you will see that “systematically review existing policies” was near the top of my list. I wrote that statement with these very issues in mind. There is narrow language in federal policies impacting education that do not take into account the diverse set of education practices that existed when many of the policies were first written, let alone today. As such, this is not just a matter of failing to keep up with the research and practice of our day. Many policies have long been barriers to promising practices, alternative methods (that are really not that alternative), and educational innovations that promise increased access, opportunity, reduced cost, improved retention and graduation rates, and any number of positive outcomes.

In one way, it is hard to blame those involved with this audit, because they are simply evaluating WGU on the basis of the existing policies, and a reasonable person can interpret them in a way that excludes a model like what we see at WGU and what we see on the micro level of élite and a myriad of other Universities around the country. For example, consider an élite University that creates a means by which bright students can propose a syllabus for a course and teach it. This happens as several highly ranked schools. The course needs a faculty adviser, but the student is really the teacher of record, lacking the academic qualifications typically required. Or what about the countless independent study courses used in almost every University in the United States? These are accepted practices in the field of education and produce equal or sometimes better results than the narrow frameworks assumed by federal polices associated with financial aid eligibility.

As such, this recent news is a perfect call to action for us to systematically review the existing policies, and prevent this sort of unhelpful audit from happening in the future. We can do better than this. I would love to see Secretary Devos form a truly diverse task force of DOE representatives, researchers, higher education representatives from across the country, as well as some students to help guide this review, making recommendations for quick and substantive changes. We can create policies that protect from fraud and offer reasonable protection of the government’s financial investments while also embracing and amplifying carefully considered education innovation and experimentation. I’d even be happy to help. Let’s create something good out of this unfortunate audit by doing this important policy revision work. As I wrote and say often, policies are muzzles and megaphones, and it is time for us to more carefully analyze what we are muzzling and amplifying.