Creating a New Kind of OWL: Online Writing Support that Makes a Difference

The Excelsior College Online Writing Lab (OWL) is a 2014 recipient of the WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Award and will accept the award at the WCET Annual Meeting.  Today Crystal Sands, Director of  the OWL shares with us the goals, process and results of a pilot study on the OWL’s use that resulted in their award.

We knew we wanted our Online Writing Lab (OWL) to stand out, to be more student friendly than other online writing resources, and to use some of the latest research about what works in writing instruction and in online education. It turned out to be a monumental task; we had just one year to build it. But, the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab was a labor of love for all of us, and I think it shows.

The Excelsior College OWL is a first-of-its-kind, open-source multimedia online writing lab. While we continue to expand its resources, the OWL already provides comprehensive writing support for students across eight areas:

  1. Locating Information and Writing with Sources takes students through the entire process of writing a research paper.
  2. Grammar Essentials provides students with detailed, student-friendly grammar, punctuation, and common error support.
  3. The Writing Process area helps students develop a strong writing process for papers that do not require research.
  4. The Essay Zone provides comprehensive support for the major rhetorical styles students are likely to encounter in college.
  5. Digital Writing supports students who are writing in digital environments, with coverage for everything from e-mails to digital presentations.
  6. The Avoiding Plagiarism tutorial explains what plagiarism is, what its consequences are, and what students can do to avoid it.
  7. The ESL Writing Online Workshop provides detailed writing process support for ESL writers.
  8. Paper Capers is an original writing process video game, allowing students to practice writing process steps and build a writer’s vocabulary, which is essential for skill transfer. The game also features mini assessments, allowing students to practice lessons from the other areas of the OWL.

Funding for building this kind of comprehensive support was generously provided by the Kresge Foundation. To fit within the funding criteria, our team worked quickly to build the OWL, completing it in just one year. During the second year of the grant, we conducted a national pilot study and based revisions upon feedback from the study.

Creating the OWL

Excelsior OWL mascotExcelsior College worked with one writing faculty member from each of its five community college partners to develop specific goals for the OWL. We knew we wanted to create an OWL that was different than other online writing labs, one that was student-centered, warm, and engaging. We wanted to make the OWL a fun learning experience, a place that students would come back to even after their writing class was over. We decided to focus on helping students build a strong writing process, as research indicates that students who have a better writing process also have better writing products. We also needed to help students build a rhetorical foundation and vocabulary, which would assist them in becoming more flexible writers. As part of the creation of OWL, a writing video game was created to reinforce both the writing process and a rhetorical foundation.
As director, my job was to develop content based on feedback from the committee and try to imagine how the content could be brought to life for students. An instructional designer was critical in that process. Additionally, we worked with an outside vendor, who was committed to our idea to do something creative and fun, on the website build and design. The brainstorming sessions we had were remarkable at times, and it was not long before we were seeing our ideas become reality.

As we neared the end of the first year of the project, we realized we were doing more than we had originally envisioned in the scope of the grant—adding new content, additional areas, and working to add a creative flair to the OWL. The hours were long, but our committed, small team got the OWL ready for the pilot study, which was to begin in the fall of 2013.

The summer of 2013 was an epic time. As the project director, I was responsible for making sure deadlines were met and budgets were kept. Thankfully, we had a wonderful grants office that supported me and our team in this endeavor. My family also became involved in the project as well, with my husband providing audio, and when testing on the site began my high school-aged son joined us in the testing as well. The OWL became our dinner-time conversation, and when my toddler asked me, “Mama, what is a thesis statement?” I knew I had probably crossed that work-life balance line. I knew I was not alone in crossing that line, as our team of five went above and beyond that summer. Thankfully, we were just about ready for the pilot study.

It truly was a labor of love. I don’t think we could have built such a resource in such a short time otherwise. Fortunately, our hard work has been rewarded.

The Pilot Study

Course Grades OWL pilotThanks to an amazing team effort, the OWL was ready to go, minus a few tweaks, for the pilot study. Our team of teachers from our partner colleges worked together to build the OWL into the curriculum of their writing classes. We ran treatment and control group classes in order to have sets of students working with the same curriculum without the added support of the OWL. The results were positive and gave us a good start on future study of the OWL and how it benefits students.

We found that students in the treatment groups, who used the OWL regularly, scored 6.6 points higher on their final grades than students in the control groups. We also ran a “writing about writing” assessment in order to evaluate how students approached the writing process. In six of the seven categories we assessed, students in the treatment groups exhibited more growth than students in the control groups. In our assessment of the final product essays, something we knew would be tricky, as it is difficult to show improvement in just one semester, we had positive results as well. Students in the treatment groups exhibited more growth in three of the five categories we assessed, showing greater improvement in context and purpose for writing, control of syntax and mechanics, and genre and disciplinary conventions.

Students also completed extensive surveys on the OWL and their attitudes toward writing at the beginning and end of the semester. Students responded well to the OWL, reporting that the content felt relevant and helpful. Students in the treatment groups also reported greater improvements in their general attitudes about writing, with many students indicating they were more likely to write in their spare time after using the OWL.

These results are promising and are in line with the goals of the OWL. While longitudinal study is needed, we have evidence that the Excelsior College OWL provides students with a strong foundation in writing, one that is going to help them transfer the skills they learn in writing classes to other writing situations, which is, of course, the ultimate goal of writing instruction.

The OWL team at Excelsior College feels we have set the stage, through solid writing instruction and extensive multimedia support, to be the kind of free resource that students can rely upon and come back to, throughout their college careers and beyond.
Our team has been honored with the WCET Outstanding Work Award. We are excited that high schools, community colleges, and universities across the country are beginning to use the OWL in their classes and their writing centers. We have been successful in our goals to create a warm, engaging learning environment. The structure of the OWL makes it a valuable resource, whether students need one short lesson on documentation or extensive instruction in writing support. There is something for everyone in the OWL!

Crystal SandsCrystal Sands, Director
Online Writing Lab (OWL)
Excelsior College

Email Crystal

Seven Key Takeaways from the State Authorization Webcasts

In partnership with M-SARA (run by MHEC), the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), we offered two webcasts in August with updates on state authorization. The first webcast focused on state and federal regulations. The second provided background on the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) processes and an update on progress made by states in joining SARA.

Archives of the webcasts, the presenters’ slides, and responses to questions that were not verbally covered in each webcast are freely available for your use.

Seven Key Takeaways
To save you some time, I’ve developed a list of seven key takeaways that will help you in your thinking about state authorization. Many of these are not new, but I’m surprised at the on-going misunderstanding and misinformation on some of these issues. Forgive the repetition, but we keep getting these questions. Repetition reinforces the message.The words "state authorization surrounded by all the state names.

1, There is No Federal Regulation or Deadline
I often hear, “I know that we have to be in compliance with federal state authorization laws by July 1 of (fill in the year).” That is not correct. There is currently no federal regulation for distance education. The regulation issued in 2010 (600.9 (c)) was “vacated” by the courts and the Department of Education will not enforce it. Earlier this year, a Negotiated Rulemaking Committee failed to reach consensus on a new regulation for distance education.

Therefore, there is no regulation. There is no deadline.

Don’t be confused about another regulation regarding distance education within a state. Enforcement of that one is delayed until July 1, 2015. But, that regulation (600.9 (a) and (b)) does not cover distance education across state lines.

The Department may issue a new regulation regarding distance education, but that effort is currently on “pause.” OLC (then operating as Sloan-C), UPCEA, and WCET jointly suggested to the Department of Education what should (and should not) be included in any new regulation. Such a regulation may be issued for public comment early next year.

2. States Expect You to Comply Now
You are not off the hook. States expect you to follow their regulations BEFORE you conduct any regulated activity in their states. Depending on the state, this could include direct marketing, enrolling a student, expecting students to participate in a clinical experience. If the student is in another state from where you are located, you are expected to follow their regulations whether there is a federal regulation or not.

3. State Authorization Covers All of an Institution’s Activities in a State
State Authorization regulations are not confined to distance education courses. There are states that regulate direct marketing, having faculty in a state, conducting field experiences (clinicals, practica, etc.) in a state, or just about any other activity that you might be conducting in another state. This is true whether those activities are tied to distance education or not.

4. SARA is Growing
As of the webcast, SARA had nine states that were fully approved to participate in SARA. Several institutions from those states have already been authorized by their state to participate in SARA and now eligible for all the agreement’s benefits.

Looking to the future, SARA expects to have 20-24 states in the fold by the end of this calendar year and around 40 by the end of next year. Progress in each state can be tracked on the SARA website. Talk with the SARA Director in your region should you wish to promote it.

5. State Licensure Programs – Requires Separate Approvals and Not Covered by SARA
Academic programs in fields that require state licensure (such as Nursing, Psychology, Social Work, and others) sometimes require extra approvals from the appropriate boards overseeing those professions in each state. The requirements vary widely by state and profession. Students have been restricted from participating in clinical experiences or kept from sitting for the licensure exam if they attended an institution that was not approved in the state.

SARA does not cover the authorization of academic programs in professional licensure fields. Whether it is a SARA member or not, colleges are expected to follow state regulations regarding these programs in each state.

In the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee discussions earlier this year, it was clear that the Department of Education is very interested in this issue. Once a new regulation is released for public comment, it will not be surprising if expanded requirements for notifying students about an institution’s approval status in each state for each profession in which it enrolls students.

6. The Origin of the C-RAC Guidelines Used by SARA
We have heard many “interesting stories” about the origin of the C-RAC Guidelines for distance education programs. Among the theories that we have heard is that they were the product of for-profit colleges, corporations, or national accrediting agencies. I think I heard someone say that they came from the lost island of Atlantis. None of these are true.

The Guidelines are based on Best Practices developed almost two decades ago by the Council of Regional Accrediting Agencies (thus the initials C-RAC) and WCET. Over the years the regional accrediting agencies have updated the Guidelines. They were used to advise accreditation review teams on items they should exam in their campus visits. Most of the regional accrediting agencies still use these guidelines.

7. Should Institutions Pause in Seeking Authorization?

Given the pause in the federal regulation and the growing adoption of SARA, some wonder if it might be good to wait.

First, you should be following state regulations regardless of the federal regulation.

Second (if the first reason does not sway you and you are more focused on self-preservation), it looks like the federal regulation will return. I would not be surprised to see a short deadline for institutions to be in full compliance in each state in which it serves students. If you wait and discover that a state that is important for your enrollments is not part of SARA, you will probably want to quickly seek authorization. Don’t expect the state regulators to do you any favors. The regulators are great people, but they already have a long line of applications ahead of you. You might get trampled in the rush to seek approval.

Thank You to Our Partners
I am very glad that we were able to partner on these webcasts. Within a few days in July, I learned that there were plans for at least three different webcasts with essentially the same content scheduled for the same August timeframe. It made sense for us to partner to produce these two webcasts in which we could share expertise and delve deeper into questions that you may have.

Thank you to Jenny Parks and the group at MHEC for hosting the reciprocity webcast. Thank you to Laurie Hillman of OLC for expertly moderating the regulations webcast. Thank you to Jim Fong of UPCEA for lending his expertise on the survey that we conducted on institutional progress in seeking authorization. Thank you to all our presenters. And thank you to Megan Raymond for organizing WCET’s webcasts while trying to pull together our Annual Meeting.

Your Turn
Do you have additional takeaways that you would like to share or questions that you would like to ask? If so, please share them in the comment field.

Thank you!Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat


Russell Poulin
Interim Co-Executive Director
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
Twitter:  @RussPoulin

WCET’s Annual Meeting includes several sessions on state authorization and regulations.
Join us November 19-21 in Portland, Oregon.

Education 3.0 – Around The Globe

What do Greeks, Vietnamese, Australians, and Americans have in common? The answer is no joke…

I travel a lot. For the past several years, I have accumulated over 200,000 miles per year, going around the world to speak about education reform, effective practices, education technology, learning analytics, and neo-millennial learning, to name a few.   In fact, by my calculations I have spent over 15,000 hours in front of audiences over the past decade.

But lately, I have been socializing the concept of “Education 3.0.” I don’t know if I can say I coined the term or not – some other notable bloggers and leaders have been using it too – but in my estimation, if education was able to truly use the most effective, study driven practices from 1) neuroscience, 2) learning research, and 3) education technology, we could fix much of what is wrong with education at every level. As some of you know, my Research Center / Think Tank created a short-film (“School of Thought”), actually shooting in Hollywood last year. The premise for the 21 minute film was essentially a question: What could be, if Education 3.0 was actually implemented?

Photo of numerous motorcycles parked at a technical college in Vietnam.

Education 3.0 can be found on two wheels at this technical college in Vietnam.

While I travel, I try very hard to keep my wits about me – I try to notice what education looks and feels like in other places. I not only deliver keynotes and workshops, but I also have lengthy conversations with educators at all levels and of all types. These insiders often give amazing feedback and insights regarding the state of education today. And while I am always humbled and inspired by the simple experience of traveling abroad (if you haven’t done so, add to your bucket list touring the Acropolis, swimming off at the beaches in Perth, or taking a motorcycle cab ride in Ho Chi Minh city…), I’m most fascinated by the similarities between educational issues we all seem to share.

Neuroscience: Apply What We Know about Learning

When in Vietnam I witnessed something I had seen in other Asian countries. I walked past classrooms (both K12 and Higher Ed) where students were asleep on pillows sold specifically for that context. Why? Because in many Asian cultures learning does not end when the school day is finished. Formal learning may happen over the course of 18 hours, every day. So, students will buy these specially designed pillows as well as quality recording devices and the teachers will lecture to the devices while some students sleep, others surf the web, etc. In Vietnam, my specific consulting was around the cultural implications of a lack of interactivity between the teacher and the students, but it was obvious that a paradigm from the USA is shared by many Asian cultures: time = Learning.

We know some interesting things about time and our brains. We know that waking up during a REM cycle can potentially impair a person’s cognitive ability, equivalent to being drunk. This impairment can last for several hours. Yet we still promote and/or require students to attend early classes. We have researchers like John Medina telling us that some learners (and some teachers!) should have all learning completed before noon, while others should not start until noon. Yet we do nothing to even test which students fall into which categories, let alone to act on it.

And we all know the trouble with the Carnegie Unit. You know, the 110 year old, industrial aged model that says spending X amount of time on a subject means it has been learned. Silly, right? Yet the rules, regulations, accreditations, and policies persist. Sure, Competency Based Education is trying to fight this notion, and is making some great headway, but there is a ton of enculturation and baggage to push through.

I heard some game manufacturers recently explain that they had a product which would guarantee students to learn math faster, retain it longer, and apply it better than any college Algebra course. Yet nobody would adopt it. Why? Because the teacher had to give up approximately 40% of their traditional teaching time (classroom time) and instructors wouldn’t do so. We know more about the brain than ever before. Without using neuroscience to inform practice, we’ll never reach Education 3.0

Photo of the Acropolis in Greece at night.

Education 3.0 had its roots in Greece.

Learning Research: Apply What We Know about Teaching

The Greeks showed me much of what I consider the origins of my cultural heritage. To walk the paths and roads where great philosophers stood, where ideas like democracy were first debated, and where architectural beginnings happened was humbling! But I also heard from educators who are struggling with yet another common American problem – the lecture.

I get the allure of lectures. I do! I go around the world (essentially) lecturing. But keep in mind a few things. I’m lecturing on about 12-15 total hours of material that I’ve developed over 20 years because I only have 1 hour with which to make an argument or propose an idea. Yes, there are new pieces every time, but 90% of the lectures are polished and have gotten solid feedback. A GREAT lecture can be amazing and I try in my keynotes to deliver a great lecture.

But in my classes it’s a different story! I rarely lecture at all anymore. I have those students for 45 hours a term – I don’t need to cram anything into an hour. And I know that nobody can create 45 amazing lectures per term. In fact, after polling about 20,000 teachers and professors, the average number of great lecturers on campus seems to be 3 and the total number of great lectures any one person delivers seems to be 3.

So, despite years of research and confirmation that lecturing should be rare and surgical in its use, we still see evidence in polls like the National Survey of Student Engagement which suggests that ½ of a college student’s experiences in every class, every term is lecture. Despite the work of Dr. Eric Mazur, lecturer of the year at Harvard, who has proven that lecturing doesn’t work, many teachers still engage in the practice. Despite Richard Light’s Harvard Assessment Seminars, showing that student’s best experiences in college are the non-lecture based classes, we still over-use it to a fault. Without using learning research to inform practice, we’ll never reach Education 3.0.

Photo of an Australian beach.

Education 3.0 can be found in the beaches of Australia.

Education Technology: Apply What We Know about Technologies

I was down under very recently. I spent some time in Melbourne training faculty with regard to effective use of education technology. The people in Australia are quite remarkable. They are simply the kindest culture of people (collectively) that I’ve experienced in my travels. But that kindness cannot mask the frustration by some faculty at the notion of being asked (forced?) to use ed tech.

In the states, we share this trouble. I have spent over a decade “e-vangelizing” the usage of education technology. I believe it is impossible to reach all students in meaningful ways without ed tech. History has shown us that education without technology cannot scale. Yet many educators still balk at the idea of infusing technology in the classroom and if they do, most still only substitute ed tech for non-technical activities. (Instead of paper test, they’ll use a computer test, etc.)

But as Puentedura points out nicely in his S.A.M.R. model of transformative use of ed tech, it is not until we actually Modify and/or Redefine our activities, making use of the power, scalability, and connect-ability of these tools, that we start to see substantive, meaningful changes for our students. Until we use education technology to inform practice, we’ll never reach Education 3.0.

Let’s Strive for Education 3.0

I’m honored to have been asked to share some thoughts with the WCET community. It’s been a few years since I spoke at your conference and I hope to do so again soon! But as we all strive to fix our own corners of education, I really hope we’ll start to let the same important frameworks and research-driven practices inform those fixes. I hope we’ll all start to strive for and use Education 3.0. There is a lot at stake.

Good luck and good teaching my friends.

Dr. Jeff D Borden

Photo of Jeff Borden.

Dr. Jeff Borden (@bordenj), Pearson’s VP of Instruction & Academic Strategy is a consultant, speaker, professor, comedian, and trainer, all while leading the Center for eLearning (an Academic research center and think tank). As a University faculty member of 18 years and past college administrator, Jeff has assisted faculty, administrators, executives, and even politicians in conceptualizing and designing eLearning programs globally. Jeff has testified before the U.S. Congress’ Education Committee, blogs for Wired Innovations, provides global keynote addresses, promotes research findings from the academic think tank he directs, and has been asked to help determine the “Academic Vision” for Pearson Higher Education. To read Jeff’s blog, follow the cMooc his research group is building, or get more information, check out:

To see the Short-Film “School of Thought” that Jeff wrote and produced:


The Evolution of Education

This year, the WCET Annual Meeting will kick off with a keynote from Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY).  Today she shares with us how her team is addressing three fundamental principles in education – access, completion and success. 

The Evolution of Education: Responsibilities for Post-secondary Education in a New Age

Education as we know it is rapidly evolving. From the earliest stages through post-secondary, some gaps in the pipeline have persisted as educators, administrators, parents, and students play catch-up with advances in technology, teaching methods, higher standards, and an increasing need for critical thinking guided by the STEM disciplines. As the world adapts to this new age, the mission of higher education has pressed beyond teaching and learning to include a more encompassing fate—the reliable delivery of education and job training that directly supports the innovation-driven 21st-century economy and today’s careers.

More so than any other sector, higher ed is equipped to lead the nation’s work to seal the leaks in our education pipeline. As anchor institutions founded on answering society’s highest needs while improving quality of life by creating a skilled workforce, colleges and universities have deep roots in local communities and, collectively speaking, we are perhaps the nation’s most reliable and powerful force of economic development.Road Map by Teijo Hakala

We have always been that engine. What’s new, though, are the creative, evidence-based, scalable interventions that are fueling our evolution. Applied learning, digital access, seamless transfer—these are the kinds of transformational changes that our sector should be implementing as we embrace our role in the education of every student, from cradle to career.

SUNY has developed a roadmap for what we view as the future of public higher education in the U.S. It is guided by three fundamental principles—Access, Completion, and Success.


With our cradle-to-career partners across the state, SUNY brings the opportunity of college to every New Yorker regardless of their background, family income, or other factors that may deter a student from pursuing a degree. We partner with schools and communities across the state—particularly those in our most challenged zip codes—to reach every student as early on in the pipeline as possible and see to it that they have access to the teaching, mentoring, and out-of-school support they need to prepare for college and career. These “cradle-to-career” partnerships utilize the StriveTogether collective impact approach to improving education outcomes.

We are doing what we can to reach non-traditional students too, such as returning veterans and adults who have life commitments such as a family to support and a job (or jobs) that keep them from believing college is an option. Open SUNY, our new platform for online education, allows us to vastly increase access to courses from across our 64-campus system and to power certain high-demand degrees with online “anytime” access as well as various supports for students and faculty that contribute to their success in this environment. With digital courses ready to take any time day or night, Open SUNY gives us the capacity to adjust to the schedules of our students and not the other way around.


Through a number of initiatives, including one of the nation’s foremost student transfer policies, we are also helping all students finish school faster, because cutting time-to-degree is still the number one way to cut costs. We have made it seamless for students to transfer credits all throughout our system of 64 colleges and universities. There is no valid reason why the nation’s institutions of public higher education can’t collectively do the same.

Today, the average SUNY student takes 4.4 years to earn a bachelor’s degree, and New York ranks fourth in the country for students graduating within four years—after only the smaller states of Delaware, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Part of that success comes in the form of awareness—doing all we can to be sure students know what it takes to earn a degree not only academically but financially. National focus on cutting college costs has led to our pairing of one of the most affordable educations in the country with one of the most aggressive financial aid transparency campaigns, SUNY Smart Track. We comprehensively show students what college is going to cost, detail for them their financing options, and support them as they decide how much to borrow and develop a plan to pay it back. SUNY Smart Track follows every student borrower from their decision to enroll through graduation and even as alums. As a result, SUNY students incur less debt than the national average, our loan default rate is significantly lower than average, and 40 percent of our students graduate with no loan debt at all.

Of course, the advent of technology in the digital age has been a significant boon to our efforts as well. Open SUNY is aiding our completion agenda, but it’s just the beginning. We are on the cusp of implementing web-based degree planning and auditing software that will track classes and degree requirements for students, enabling them to quickly see what courses they still need to graduate and when and where they can take them, be it at their “home” campus, a potential “transfer” campus within our system, or through Open SUNY. This will also be a powerful new tool for parents, faculty advisors, and admissions counselors as they assist students.


Today’s high-tech, global economy is fast-paced and moving forward every day, and we have to ensure that, above all else, we are preparing our students to be a part of it. That’s why there is so much hype— and justifiably so—surrounding the expansion of applied learning opportunities in college, including everything from clinical placements and cooperative education to service learning, volunteerism, student research, and field study.

At SUNY, we believe in the power of learning by doing, and we are retooling our workforce development programs en masse to take these approaches to the broadest possible scale. We are expanding our prior learning assessments so incoming students don’t have to re-learn what they already know. And through innovative on-the-job training programs like apprenticeships, internships, and co-op across our system, SUNY faculty are working side-by-side with the state’s employers to craft new, engaging curricula that integrates classroom study and (often paid) work experience. So our graduates have a significant advantage as they enter the workforce. Importantly, we are tailoring our applied learning offerings to meet the unique community and workforce needs of regions throughout New York State, so truly, everybody wins.

Through this education evolution, the core purposes of our sector remain, and traditional classroom settings are by no means extinct. But higher education in its finest, most effective 21st-century form integrates real-world work experience, modern technology, cradle-to-career networking, and other systemic evidence-based reforms as much as possible. The challenges that post-secondary education faces in a new age are daunting, but with creativity, openness, and a commitment to collective impact, higher education can rise to the occasion.


 Dr. Nancy ZimpherNancy Zimpher


State University of New York





Road Map Photo Credit: Teijo Hakala

You can learn THAT online?!?!?

Online learning has been popularized through programs in business, technology, education and even nursing.  However, over the years, the diversity of programs you can take online – even those which require extensive clinical hours – has grown.  For a little fun this summer, I dug around to find the most unusual online learning programs from an accredited university or a recognized industry association I could.  Here are some of the programs I unearthed:

  • Enjoy a frosty craft brew? Perhaps you’d like to learn the business of craft brewing before moving your operation out of the garage and into the public. There’s a certificate at Portland State University to help you with that.
  • Can you spot a diamond in the rough? Perhaps you’d like to become a Graduate Gemologist.
  • Maybe you’re into Casper and friends and want to go the Paranormal Investigation route.Organic Farmer
  • Maybe you’d like to learn to grow your own organic vegetables, but don’t have your own row to hoe. This program at Washington State University allows you to learn the basics and then intern with an organic farmer, organic business, or organic certifying agency to get your hands dirty.
  • You can become a leader in the energy industry, with a bachelor of applied science at Bismarck State College.
  • Learn to help people undergoing dialysis by earning a certificate that provides both theoretical and practical training. Or become a surgical assistant and support surgeons in fields from obstetrics to neurosurgery.
  • You can move up the healthcare ladder by earning your Nurse Practitioner degree through Duke University or Georgetown University
  • Perhaps you’d like to be among the first Canadian Architects trained online?
  • Maybe your heart resides with the animals and earning a veterinary technician degree would help you put your compassion to work.
  • You can even learn to become a professional pilot, prior pilot’s license not required but can be applied towards prior learning credits.

I also found lots of programs from unaccredited institutions in everything from blackjack dealing to tarot reading to becoming a wedding minister.  There is that saying that ‘you can be anyone online’ or as Brad Paisley said “I’m so much cooler online.”  So, what about your institution?  What is the most unusual program you offer online?  What isn’t offered online right now that you’d like to see offered online? UConn eCampus Puppet Arts

I’ll leave you with one idea – Coming this Fall from UConn: an online graduate certificate in Puppet Arts.

11:25am edit: *This is by no means an exhaustive list, I’m sure there are lots of other good programs in these fields and other unusual programs – please, add them to the comments – join the fun!

Photo of Cali MorrisonCali Morrison

Communications Manager, WCET

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Photo Credit: Steve Hanna

The Starbucks Plan: A Big Step Forward, But Challenges Remain

Our WICHE Colleague, Patrick Lane, senior policy analyst and the project coordinator for the Adult College Completion Network, shares with us today a recap, originally posted on the ACCN blog, of what the Starbucks-ASU partnership means for employees and how for many of them, as adult students with many commitments, there are still barriers the program doesn’t address.

The Starbucks-Arizona State University (ASU) partnership that will provide tuition reimbursement for employees in their last two years of postsecondary education garnered a good deal of press recently. The program has many interesting components that will benefit a broad range of students who are employed by Starbucks, but this post focuses on the implications of this new program for adults with prior college credit but no degree. Looking more closely at the agreement  highlights the importance of several policies and practices that can be barriers to adult degree completion.

First, here’s a quick recap of the benefit, which is linked to ASU’s online program, and what it offers to Starbucks employees:

  • Employees who work at least 20 hours per week and have at least 56 credits accepted by ASU are eligible for College Achievement Plan (CAP) reimbursements to cover tuition and fees. Starbucks will reimburse them after accounting for federal financial aid, military benefits, and institutional financial aid.
  • ASU will give enrolled employees a “CAP Scholarship” that effectively reduces employees’ tuition.
  • Eligible employees will receive reimbursements after completing certain academic milestones. As envisioned, reimbursements would come after students reach 21-credit “milestones.”
  • Employees will be required to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Starbucks Baristas Bozeman, MT

None of the baristas in Bozeman are taking advantage of the ASU program yet, but they had heard of it.

Starbucks certainly deserves commendation for making an aggressive move to support employee education, regardless of whether or not it benefits the company’s bottom line. (Some research shows that tuition reimbursement programs can have a positive return on investment mainly due to lower recruitment costs and increased retention, but typically those programs have a smaller overall reimbursement than imagined here.)

Still, like many other tuition reimbursement programs, the Starbucks-ASU program presents some barriers for potential returning students, but also highlights some promising strategies.

The up-front costs for students will be high. If employees only receive reimbursements each time they complete 21-credit chunks, they will be on the hook for a portion of tuition and fees even after accounting for Pell grants and other sources of financial aid. This burden will likely reduce the number of Starbucks employees who take advantage of the benefit. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has found that eligible employees are much more likely to take advantage of tuition assistance programs when those benefits are prepaid compared to when they are on a reimbursement basis. Their research shows participation in prepaid programs at 14 percent of eligible employees compared to 5 percent for reimbursement-based programs.

Starbucks – and other employers offering tuition reimbursements – could reduce this burden by converting the program to “tuition assistance” that is distributed when the employee has to pay his or her tuition bill. Other incentives or mechanisms to require repayment if the employee does not complete the milestone could be put in place to achieve the same ends without unduly burdening the employee.

Coaching can pay off. Part of the arrangement calls for Starbucks to pay for students’ retention coaches. Research on coaching – which typically involves intensive advising focused on managing commitments within and outside of postsecondary education, navigating the college bureaucracy, and focusing on post-graduation career goals – has shown some evidence of success, with students who receive coaching being more likely to persist and graduate.

Evaluation of transfer credit is crucial. It is probably safe to assume that many of the Starbucks employees hoping to take advantage of the program have earned college credit at institutions other than Arizona State University. Like many other non-traditional students enrolling at a new institution, the amount of time they will need to spend to finish their degree will depend a great deal on how their transfer credit is evaluated and applied (or not) toward a major. Rejecting credits or granting only elective or general education credits can cause returning adults to spend significant extra time finishing a degree.

Competing demands on students’ time may make completion difficult. Some of the press commentary and critiques have noted that employees working 20 hours a week or more may find that it is difficult to fit in the necessary coursework to finish a degree. This is hardly news for those who work with adult students, and not really a valid critique of Starbucks’ benefit, but more a reflection on what working adults returning to college regularly face. Generally speaking, institutions can adopt policies and practices that make it easier to manage these demands, such as advising options outside of business hours, having business and financial aid offices open longer hours, or providing “concierges” to help guide students through the difficult process of reenrolling. As an example, ASU provides ways for students to talk with financial aid staff 24/7.

Overall, Starbucks’ offering has (for the moment) shined a bright spotlight on the challenges faced by adult students, as well as some of the promising strategies to help them succeed. It will be interesting to watch to see whether other companies begin to adopt similar programs and to what extent this affects the broader landscape of adult education.

Patrick Lane HeadshotPatrick Lane

Senior Policy Analyst
& Project Coordinator
WICHE Policy Analysis & Research

Email Pat

This Summer, Online Collaborating is Hot!

It has been a good summer and a good year for colleges finding ways to work together online. I’ve been meaning to note this development for some time, but this week’s developments with California State University Online prompted me to share my observations. Meanwhile, there have been exciting advances with inter-institutional partnerships, both old and new.

Reboot of CalState Online
Our friend, Phil Hill of the e-Literate blog, wrote an excellent piece It’s the End of Cal State Online As We Know It… that found:

In a letter to campus leaders, Cal State University system office last month announced that Cal State Online will no longer operate as originally conceived.

Based on their work, Inside Higher Ed wrote: “California State U System Nixes Online Degree Arm for Shared Services Model“, which said:

Photo of jalapeno peepers arranged to spell the word "hot"

Online Collaboration is Hot!

The California State University System is replacing its distance education portal with a shared services model less than two years after its launch, as the system’s campuses decide they would rather do the work on their own.

What seems to be happening is that they are moving from an ambitious plan to “create a standardized, centralized, comprehensive business, marketing and outreach support structure for all aspects of online program delivery for the Cal State University System.” Although they ae abandoning much of the centralized academics, a shared services model was always part of the plan. It now appears like it will be the central focus. That may be what is politically feasible.

We will know more about next steps in the next few months. First, CSU officials will conduct a “listening tour” of each campus, gain advice from a new Commission on Online Education, and obtain feedback from an online discussion forum.

Some “Partnerships” Don’t Work As Expected
Please take one minute and 10 seconds to watch the U.S. Congressional leaders hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome.”

That looked more uncomfortable than wearing Brillo underwear.

Colleges are Having Better Luck Singing in Harmony
While politicians seem to have an increasingly hard time in working in concert, there have been several recent announcements about colleges singing in unison:

Unizin emerges from the shadows and has big goals in sight
A partnership among several large universities was highlighted by the e-Literate blog in May and was officially announced in June.   They have ambitious goals that they could reach: “…we want to bias things in the direction of open standards, interoperability, and scale. Unizin is about tipping the table in favor of the academy by collectively owning (buying, developing, and connecting) the essential infrastructure that enables digital learning on our campuses and beyond.” See their website for more details.

Washington’s community colleges partner on competency-based learning
A dozen of Washington’s two-year colleges are partnering to create a competency-based degree that will increase student completion and speed student’s time to completion. They will rely on adaptive learning. Working together makes sense as it is project that is probably larger than any one institution could tackle and it leads to creation of compatible competency modules from the start.

eCampusManitoba is a new one-stop shop
Students will be able to access one portal to learn about online offerings from institutions throughout the province.

The University of Missouri System begins course sharing
By working together, they plan to allow students to enroll in courses at any of the four campuses. The goals are: “to create an online alternative for classes that typically have low enrollment, to broaden access to unique classes and to give partnering faculty members time to work on other projects, such as research, because they’re ideally alternating semesters of teaching their online courses.”

Pat James to head new California Community College System collaboration
Former WCET fellow Pat James will head the Online Education Initiative, which has at its goal to: “dramatically increase the number of California Community Colleges students who obtain associate degrees and transfer to four-year colleges each year by providing online courses and services within a statewide CCC Online Education system.”

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?
This seems like a remarkable amount of activity and we are not even to August yet. Add to that the expansion of eCampusAlberta to more institutions and BCcampus continuing to expand its open textbooks.

Keeping with the collaborative theme, at the WCET Annual Meeting we will be featuring Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY). One of the items she will discuss is Open SUNY, which is “a seamless way for you to access the courses, degrees, professors, and rich academics of all 64 SUNY campuses flexibility.”

We have been updating our profiles of e-learning consortia, but we have much more work to do. If you know of a partnership that is missing or if one needs to be updated, let us all know.Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat

Collaboration is hot!


Russell Poulin
Interim Co-Executive Director
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

If you like our work, join WCET!



Photo credit for peppers: Morgue File.

State Authorization: Education Pauses, Defense Follows, and We Webcast It All

It has been a few weeks since Ted Mitchell, the U.S. Department of Education’s Under Secretary for Postsecondary Education, announced that there will be a “pause” in proposing new federal state authorization regulations for distance education. According to Inside Higher Ed, he said: “It’s complicated, and we want to get it right.”

In this blog post, I comment on the future of the Department of Education’s “pause” and what this means for those signing the Department of Defense’s MOU. We also announce a partnership to bring you a series of two webcasts to help bring clarity on these (and many other) state authorization issues.

The U.S. Department of Education Regulation on “Pause”

As of last week, there were no immediate plans by the Department to move forward in issuing a new proposed language for the regulation. The official word is that they are on “pause” with the federal state authorization regulation. My guess is that they do “want to get it right” and that they take their time to create a new process.

Graphic of a pause button.

The federal state authorization regulation has hit the “pause” button.


  • There is no federal deadline for compliance with state authorization regulations for distance education.
  • Don’t get confused by the Department’s letter announcing a one year “delay” on enforcing the part of the state authorization regulations. That letter references sections 600.9(a) and (b), which are about regulating institutions within a state and is NOT about distance education.  You can learn more about the differences in a blog post that Greg Ferenbach of Cooley,  LLP wrote for us earlier this year.  In brief, some states are still confused about what the Department wants in terms of authorizing colleges within their state and they needed another extension. Otherwise, some colleges would have lost their financial aid eligibility.
  • It is unclear what next steps the Department will take. It is likely that they may wait until after the elections this fall before moving forward.
  • Finally, state regulations are still in force. States expect you to be in compliance prior to enrolling students, marketing, or performing any regulated activity in their state.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Memorandum of Understanding Joins the “Pause”

The Department of Defense issued a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that institutions must sign if they wish to offer Tuition Assistance to their students in the military.  We received questions about how to interpret the state authorization language, which, in part, refers to the U.S. Department of Education regulations.  Of course, Education’s distance education regulation is on “pause” for now.

Thank you to our friends at the Cooley LLP law firm who led us to a new FAQ from the DOD on the MOU.   How’s that for a mess of letters?

Question 29 addresses state authorization. Both Cooley and we (at WCET) are taking that response to mean that the Department of Defense will follow the Department of Education’s lead in the “pause” on enforcing state authorization. Since Defense has been referencing Education’s state authorization regulation all along, it makes sense that they wait until the Department of Education issues the new regulation.

Announcing Two State Authorization Webcasts

Need more updates and details? WCET partners with the Online learning Consortium, the University Professional & Continuing Education Association, and the Midwest Higher Education Compact’s State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement to offer two informational webcasts:

  • August 14: State Authorization for Distance Education:  The Future for REGULATIONS
    Covers the latest on the state, federal, and military regulations.  It also advises colleges on what to do next.
    (2:00 PM Eastern / 1:00 PM Central / Noon Mountain / 11:00 AM Pacific)
  • August 19: State Authorization for Distance Education:  The Future for RECIPROCITY
    Everything you ever wanted to know about the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA).
    (2:00 PM Eastern / 1:00 PM Central / Noon Mountain / 11:00 AM Pacific)

Learn more about these free webcasts. Separate registration is needed for each event and we do expect that they will fill-up. An archive of each webcast will be made available.

It is great that these organizations are working together to give you these updates.

Meanwhile, have a great summer!Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat


Russell Poulin
Interim Co-Executive Director
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

If you like our work, join WCET!

Fresh air, Fresh ideas

As military boot camp serves to bulk up the physical endurance and mental preparation for combat service, WCET’s data boot camp brought together cross-functional teams to bulk up their knowledge and preparation to build analytics capacity at their specific institution.  Unlike other events where the focus is on keynote speakers, the boot camp allowed for valuable networking and group problem solving by using small group break-outs, subject matter expert led discussions, and plenty of time for beneficial conversations.

Networking begins at WCET Boot Camp in beautiful Vail, CO.

Networking begins at WCET Boot Camp in beautiful Vail, CO.

As the character of the boot camp was centered on conversations, what you will not find here, or on the boot camp resources page, are video recordings or a blow-by-blow of who said what when.  Rather, the purpose of the event, and the true value, was for attendees to take away their personalized plan for implementing data analytics on their campus.  In that frame of reference, what follows are some highlights of information shared by our subject matter experts (SMEs) – I have tried to credit direct quotes but have often taken ideas from several people and condensed them into one point. For more direct quotes and learning be sure to check out the Storify of the tweets using #wcetbootcamp!

  • Postsecondary institutions need to examine the validity of our work – are we measuring the right things? Are our programs adding value for students and is it worth the cost?
  • Are institutional innovations sustainable once grant and other one-time funding are gone?  Dennis Jones noted “A really good innovation is of little use if it isn’t economically viable.”
  • The key to success for innovations is creative use of human resources – using existing team to work on innovations by shifting small amounts of time to it.  The only outlay of cost is time, no other monetary investment. (As Linda Baer called it… “skunk works projects” – done under the radar and eventually funded when they become necessary.)
  • Develop a short term plan (3-5 years) that aligns with your institutional strategic plan which is accepted by all stakeholders and has specific deliverables for design, pilots, scaling to the entire population and measuring, monitoring and optimizing moving forward.
  • Keep it simple and focused – determine your strategic need and pose the question you’d like to answer using the data before you start. As Mike Sharkey shared on twitter “If you don’t know where to start, think of a single use case to help narrow the scope.”
  • Accept imperfection.
  • Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis – move from analysis to action.
  • Identify the low-hanging fruit – find ways to develop small wins.
  • Coordination and documentation of the data collection processes are key to building a sustainable analytic culture on campus.
  • Get approval from your institutional review board early in the process so you can avoid the “we can’t do it because of FERPA” detractors.
  • Communicate the plan with all stakeholders – don’t leave anyone out of the implementation planning.  Strong communications will support cultural change within your institutional culture.
  • Look all around your institution for experts to support your analytic endeavors.  There are smart faculty and practitioners in all disciplines from math to academic advising to English and geography.  You don’t necessarily have to depend on outside expertise.
  • If you do hire consultants, the best consultants are always working themselves out of a job – they come in and build capacity within your institution so you can be self-supporting.
  • As Vernon Smith noted, “Innovation meets a need in a new way. Be prepared to fail. Then fail fast and move on.”
Next steps discussion led by SMEs Vernon Smith, Lisa Foss, Ellen Wagner, Mike Sharkey and Linda Baer.

Next steps discussion led by SMEs Vernon Smith, Lisa Foss, Ellen Wagner, Mike Sharkey and Linda Baer.


We invite you to join or continue the conversation at WCET’s 26th Annual Meeting in Portland, OR November 19-21, 2014.   If you have an analytics story, or other projects, research or practices in e-learning to share, be sure to submit your proposal by Friday, July 18th.


Special thanks go out to all of our SMEs for sharing your experiences and knowledge and participants for your active participation in WCET’s data boot camp!




See you in Portland!

Photo of Cali MorrisonCali Morrison
WCET, Manager, Communications
Support our work.  Join WCET.

U.S. Department of Education ‘Pausing’ on State Authorization

In an address to the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) yesterday, Ted Mitchell (Under Secretary for Postsecondary) Education announced a ‘pause’ on state authorization.  This announcement was reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed today.  I’ll share what I know about this.

The Department’s Earlier Announcement of a Delay was Not about Distance Education

The Department of Education published a notice a few days ago that it will delay the deadline for state authorization compliance by another year.  The letter references sections 600.9(a) and (b), which are about regulating institutions WITHIN A STATE and is NOT about distance education.  You can learn more about the differences in the two types of ‘state authorization’ in a blog post that Greg Ferenbach of Cooley,  LLP wrote for us earlier this year.  In brief, some states are still confused about what the Department wants in terms of authorizing institutions within their state and they needed another extension or some of their colleges would have lost their financial aid eligibility.The words "state authorization surrounded by all the state names.

There Has Been Considerable Contact with the Department about the Distance Ed Regulation

WCET joined with Sloan-C and UPCEA to write a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Under Secretary Mitchell about our concerns with the direction the Department was taking and to give recommendations on how the Department might proceed.   I have also been talking with numerous groups and individuals that have been writing their own letters or have used their contacts.

On Tuesday of this week, Marshall Hill (Executive Director of the National Council on State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements) and some high-ranking members of the National Council leadership board met with Mr. Mitchell.  According to Marshall, Mr. Mitchell was aware of many of the concerns that they raised and was very supportive of reciprocity.  From that meeting, Mr. Mitchell indicated that more work needed to be done, but did not suggest the delay.

Mr. Mitchell’s reference in the Inside Higher Ed article about addressing a “specific problem” showed that our message was being heard.

Ted Mitchell’s Announcement to CHEA

The original timeline was for the Department to issue proposed distance education regulations for public comment in July or August.  They would address the comments and issue a final version of the new regulations by the end of October.  That date was important, as it is the deadline for regulations that are to be implemented by July 1 of next year.

Given that Mr. Mitchell is new in his position as Under Secretary and the great concern from all sectors about both types of ‘state authorization’ regulations, it is understandable that the Department would wish to put a pause on proposing a new regulation.  Additionally, the “reauthorization” of the higher education act (which governs the federal financial rules) is now getting underway.  State authorization has already been a political football in those discussions.

It will be interesting to see if this issue is left for reauthorization or if they will create another process to address this issue. I will let you know what I learn.  Meanwhile, I’m having conversations with organizations of states about engaging with the Department on real dialogue on this issue.  As we suggested in our letter, if the Department has concerns about what states are doing or not doing, they should directly involve the states in seeking solutions.

State Regulations are Still in Place

As a reminder…there is no pause or delay on state regulations.  States expect institutions to follow their laws and regulations before enrolling students or performing any other regulated activity in that state…whether there is a federal regulation or not.Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat


Russell Poulin
Interim Co-Executive Director
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

If you like our work, join WCET!


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