Federal Enforcement Activity Focusing on Accessible Technologies

Thank you to Nancy Anderson and Paul Thompson of the Washington, DC law firm, Cooley, LLP. Over many years, Cooley has been of great service to WCET members in keeping us abreast and advising us on how federal regulations will affect the use of educational technologies in the United States. As part of our month of focusing on accessibility issues, Jarret Cummings informed us of upcoming legislation. We’re pleased to have Nancy and Paul inform us of how current regulations are being enforced.
Russ Poulin, WCET

cooley-logo-black-2015_250pxDespite the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) being on the books for a quarter century, affording every learner accessibility to education remains a critical issue.  The rapid evolution of new technologies and online media, which has been seen as a key solution to reaching learners, has given rise to significant challenges for students with various disabilities, a population that has grown as more people become aware of their rights under the ADA and other laws.

The issue of accessible technology that supports educational programs has not gone unnoticed by regulators. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) are increasingly focusing on this issue, with DOJ recently terming the use of inaccessible technologies in higher education an area of “great public importance.”

Disability Actions Include Online Course Offerings and Inaccessible Technologies

The ADA, and its sister law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, generally prohibit excluding otherwise-qualified individuals from any covered program or activity or denying such individuals the benefits of any program or activity because of their disability. Cooley has been closely tracking both DOJ and OCR enforcement in this area, and we have issued Alerts describing two notable developments in DOJ’s enforcement trends.

Here are the headlines:

  • While the ADA and Section 504 have always been understood to apply to traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, the applicability the laws to Internet-based learning has been less certain. DOJ’s recent enforcement activity against edX—one of the largest and earliest distributors of MOOCs—makes clear that DOJ intends to construe disability laws to apply to online service providers that conduct instructional activity, regardless of whether the entity is an institution in the traditional sense, and regardless of whether it receives federal funds. You can read our full alert on the subject here.
  • DOJ’s new enforcement activities focus on holding institutions responsible for any inaccessible technology incorporated into curricular and co-curricular activities, even if that technology is created by a third party. While in principle this is not a new position, DOJ’s recent decision to intervene on behalf of a student who claimed to have been denied educational services due to inaccessible technology is instructive. The agency has filed its own complaint in the case, focusing on the many types of software and technology-based services that may not be compliant. You can read our full alert on the subject here.

Both Colleges and EdTech Companies Need to Address Accessibility

These developments pose important challenges both to traditional institutions and to other entities, such as edX, that the agencies classify as places of education. Traditional institutions that have significantly increased their online programs to enable them to become engaged in a range of educational initiatives face unique challenges associated with growing size and scope, such as controlling the many entry points for technology and promptly identifying and meeting student needs. Institutions of all types should take note: any technology that provides or enables online learning needs to be accessible. This means that, at a minimum, online content should meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 standards, which outline technical guidelines for making web content accessible.

With respect to non-traditional entities such as online coding academies and companies marketing web-based platforms to K-12 and postsecondary schools alike, DOJ’s new position will require small companies and startups to commit more of their limited time and resources to ensure that the use of their product can result in effectively reaching students.  As institutions increasingly focus on adopting technology that contains proven accessibility features, failing to consider accessibility when designing a platform could leave many companies with an unmarketable product.

For more information, please do not hesitate to contact us.



Nancy Anderson




thompsonp_ch 100px


Paul Thompson


Faculty Skills for 21st Century Learners

WCET Steering Committee member Preston Davis guest blogs today about the skill requirements for modern faculty. After reading his post, join him on October 6 as he leads a Google Hangout addressing the question:  “is there a digital divide between Millennial students and today’s traditional teaching faculty? And what do we do about it?” Thank you Preston for raising these questions in today’s post and in next week’s Hangout discussion.
Russ Poulin

Earlier this year, I hosted a course development workshop for a group of faculty to promote collaboration. These faculty were experts in their disciplines, and highly capable teachers.  As the group began to collaborate on creating some instructional materials, I found that nearly half of the group did not know how to create, edit, or share a Google Doc. It just so happened that the night before, my daughter was working on an assignment in Google Docs and needed my help finding a specific image to attach to her document before submitting it online… to her 3rd grade teacher.Hand holding two cell phones. The screen on the first phone reads "Technology is a given." The second phone reads "not a debate."

Our workshop facilitators were able to get everyone collaborating in Google in a relatively short time, and with relatively few calls to simply let them use Word, but this stuck with me. This was a very impressive group of highly respected and expert educators, who were current in their academic fields, yet behind in a current instructional technology tool widely used by K12 teachers and students.

The Rift: The growing digital divide between Higher Ed faculty and millennial students

Higher education has made some significant advances in the 21st century. Online learning has gained legitimacy within the academy and institutions are innovating in many interesting and creative ways. But one of the key technology platforms of the last century that helped to extend teaching well beyond the classroom, the LMS, has become somewhat of an obstacle to the expansion of learning. The need for a closed system for instructional materials has been replaced by a collection of resources and opportunities that reside in an expanding open ecosystem.

Young students are thriving in this evolving open digital landscape, but many higher education faculty find the digital frontier overwhelming and seek comfort in the more closed and controlled environment of yesterday. Comprehensive faculty development programs can have a significant impact on bridging the technology skills gap between faculty and students, but only if faculty have the necessary tools and are willing participants.

I am witnessing the growth and development of bright young millennial students in my own home. I watch my daughters go online to access assignments and materials for homework. There is not a single textbook to be found in either backpack. The school system’s LMS contains basic information, but the learning takes place outside of the LMS. Students are connecting to information, and to each other, in very different ways than when I was a student…which was not that long ago.

Take it to the Bridge: Digital Literacy and Openness

TES Global surveyed 1000 US teachers as part of a global Teachers and Technology Survey presented at the 2015 SXSWedu conference. Results showed that 96% of U.S. teachers surveyed agreed that technology plays a significant role in their classroom, 83% use technology to deliver group or differentiated instruction, and 69% said that open educational resources (OER) are used more often than textbooks. Textbooks are increasingly becoming optional purchases for students.

Innovative educators are linking technology with pedagogy, and the results are impressive. Some institutions are replacing static textbooks with dynamic digital and/or open educational resources for entire degree programs, or are spinning off entire units as for-profit Ed Tech startups companies. Some academic departments that were assessing learning outcomes with throwaway assignments are now assessing demonstrated mastery of applied competencies that match employer needs.

We live in a complex information age where instant access to information is available to us anytime, anywhere. Young millennial students are much more at ease in this digital, connected environment than are many of their Gen X faculty. These digital natives will soon be entering our institutions, if they aren’t here already, and we need to be able to engage these students in meaningful ways both inside and outside of the classroom.

Preston Davis holding a WCET WOW Award.

Preston with NVCC’s 2014 WCET Outstanding Work Award


Wm. Preston Davis, Ed.D.
Director of Instructional Services
Northern Virginia Community College


Photo Credit: John Biehler https://www.flickr.com/photos/retrocactus/7179067109

Universal Design: An Accessibility Philosophy that Helps Everyone

Thank you to Howard Kramer from the University of Colorado-Boulder for this interview on Universal Design’s power to assist those with accessibility needs…and to benefit everyone else in a course. Howard is a cofounder of the annual Accessing Higher Ground Conference: Accessible Media, Web & Technology. Thank you to Howard for agreeing to add this interview to WCET’s month focused on accessibility issues…and to Sheryl Burgstahler for sharing her expertise.
Russ Poulin

With WCET’s focus on accessibility for the month of September, I thought it timely to discuss the concept of Universal Design and how it can be applied to online education. This recalled a recent interview I conducted with Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler, the Director of Accessible Technology Services at the University of Washington and an expert in Universal Design in Education. She also is the director of the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) Center, funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and other funders to offer outreach to other post-secondary institutions, K-12 teachers, technology companies, and students with disabilities. DO-IT increases the success of people with disabilities, particularly in high tech fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Photo of a curb cut on the side of a road and through a median.

Curb cuts are an example of universal design that helps more than just the physically challenged.

Universal Design incorporates accessibility in its approach but aims to go further by considering the diversity of audiences from the beginning of the design of a website, environment, product, or course. Since Universal Design takes a more proactive approach to accessibility I thought it would be useful to review some of the key points from my recent conversation with Dr. Burgstahler. The interview with Dr. Burgstahler will be followed with some suggested resources for both course accessibility and accessibility to electronic resources in the post-secondary environment.

Defining Universal Design…

Howard Kramer: I gave a very brief introduction on Universal Design. For those who may have never heard of the term, can you describe what Universal Design is and how it’s implemented in higher education?

Sheryl Bergstahler: Let me start with a basic definition. But, pause for a minute—so what is the typical way that we provide access to students with disabilities, particularly at post-secondary institutions but specifically in online learning? We tend to provide accommodations. Which means a student with a disability will provide documentation that shows they have a certain disability and they’ll request an accommodation in an online learning class or an onsite class to make it more accessible to them.

This might involve a sign language interpreter, taking inaccessible files and converting them to accessible format, providing extra time on tests, and so forth.  So that’s the typical approach.  We look at the individual with a disability, we determine what their functional limitations are, and then we adjust the class or the facility or whatever so that they have access.

In contrast, Universal Design is the development of products and environments that are usable by all people to the greatest extent possible without the need for an adaptation or a re-design. When universal design is applied to education, it takes the form of developing educational products, such as curriculum and environments like an online class or a science lab, that are usable by people, primarily students, but could be faculty and staff as well… usable by everyone without the need for re-design or some type of an adaptation or accommodation.

So, you can see it’s a proactive approach to access rather than the reactive approach seen with the accommodation model. Universal Design can be applied to any product or environment in postsecondary education or any other educational program.

Universal Design Helps Everyone

Howard: Key to Universal Design is that there are different types of learners. Can you explain this and also how Universal Design for Education aims to address this diversity?

Sheryl: What we’re talking about today is primarily universal design in an instructional setting.  And there a central characteristic of universal design: you provide multiple ways to gain knowledge, multiple ways to demonstrate that you have knowledge according to the topics in a class, multiple ways to interact, and so forth.  You have multiple ways to do things and to show that you have learned whatever the content is in the class.

An example of a Universal Design feature is captioning videos. Offering video content in an online class can provide another way to gain knowledge – by listening and viewing a video in addition to reading printed material. But if you don’t caption the videos, then it’s not accessible to some people in your course, such as students who have hearing impairments. Once you caption your video, then you’ll see it not only benefits someone who’s deaf but it benefits someone where English is not their first language. It benefits someone who just wants to see the spelling of a technical word you might be using, or people whose written understanding of English is better than their verbal comprehension, and those that have audio processing issues that make it better for them to access content in writing. So, if you caption your videos, then it benefits everyone—a large portion of your class, not just students who are deaf.

This is in contrast to an accommodation approach, which would wait until a student who is deaf enrolls in your class and then find some way—often scrambling—to find some way to provide access to that video very quickly.

Have a Clear Syllabus. Provide Options for Student Communication and Assessment.

Howard: You mention captioning and the universal benefits it provides. Can you discuss some other approaches and tips for implementing Universal Design?

Sheryl: As an example, in online learning, or any type of class, I recommend that people take a Universal Design approach starting with the syllabus, making a very clear syllabus where it’s easy for students to know how to communicate and reach the instructor. For a student with a disability there’s a statement that suggests how they can request accommodations from the disability services office. But also how you would like input from them about the accessibility or usability of your course, which may or may not be disability-related.

Key is the idea that you stay open to improving your course so that more people can access the important content that you’re teaching. That’s important—your syllabus should be organized in discrete sections or modules with a good outline of the topic—maybe week to week even would be good, but at least the different modules in your course so that people can look ahead to what they’re going to be learning. Make your assignments clear—in most cases you could describe your assignment very specifically in your syllabus even though students will not need to start working on it for weeks to come. Some students may want to be starting on it right away. And have a rubric for how you’re going to grade those assignments and the points the students are accumulating, and how you’ll formulate the final grade in the end.

Making things really clear and easy to follow in the syllabus is your first step. Then be really thoughtful throughout your course regarding acronyms and specialized terminology. When we’re teaching a course, some terms—like universal design, in my case—are so obvious. We use it so often we kind of forget that most of the people that are in our course, at least some of them, are not able to understand those acronyms – so describe them. Be careful of both the use of acronyms and jargon. Did you really need to use an acronym in that case when you’re only going to use the name of that organization once or twice? Why not just spell it? And, as far as jargon, sometimes the jargon we use isn’t essential to the course and so avoid it. But if it is important to the course, then define it, maybe even several times in several different ways.  Maybe even include a link to a resource that would give further description of that concept. Organize your material in a meaningful way as well, dividing blocks of material into short sub-sections that are easier to scan and read.

Provide multiple communication options, particularly if you’re having a small group discussion. If you have your students organized in small groups, don’t require only one way for them to communicate (such as using Skype), because that may not be accessible to all the participants.  But you can ask your students to, as their first item of work in their small group, to decide what technology they’re going to use to engage in that small group. Students then do not have to disclose their disability but if a student is not able to use Skype because of a disability, they will promote some other way to communicate in their group. There are things you can build into an assignment like that that will assure that there’s accessibility without requiring that the student disclose their disability.

Provide outlines—that goes along with organizing your content by outlines of things, maybe as a preview of what’s to come. And make sure that your assessments are universally designed. Don’t just assess one way, assess multiple ways. Again, give people multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge. So you might have a choice that students can have in how they’re going to be assessed by doing a project, creating a video, doing a power point, or taking an online test, or whatever. Or if everyone is taking the same test, consider different ways for them to share their knowledge: a short answer part, a multiple choice part, a true and false part, an application part, etc. And then, as you’re teaching the class, make sure that they’ve had a chance to practice sharing that content in the format that you’re using in the test so it isn’t a big surprise when you ask certain questions in a particular format.

How Can I Learn More about Accessibility and Universal Design?

Howard: We have only a limited space for this discussion and although we’ve covered some important aspects of universal design I know there’s much more to learn. Where can readers go from here to learn more?

Sheryl: There are some good resources online about universal design to continue the conversation that we’re having right now in this particular topic (see url for this resource and others below).  There is a National Center for Universal Design where you can find out about the history of universal design. There’s a national center that focuses on universal design in education that’s actually housed here in the DO-IT Center at the University of Washington.

There’s the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) —we’re on version 2.0.  It’s very technical but has excellent guidelines on how to make your websites and related products like videos accessible to people with disabilities. If you find WCAG too daunting, another organization, WebAIM presents much of the WCAG concepts into easy-to-follow tutorials.

We have here a project called AccessDL, which is access to distance learning. On the AccessDL page you’ll have an opportunity to join a community of practice, an online community for people who want to continue this discussion about making online learning courses more accessible to students with disabilities.  You’ll see a lot of links to other resources, such as the great resources at CAST that are primarily focused on K-12 education and universal design.

Howard: Thank you Sheryl. Any final comments before we close?

Sheryl: My final thoughts on universal design are to think about universal design in this way:  it is an attitude—it’s very inclusive.  It’s a goal.  You’ll probably never reach it; you’ll probably never ever create a course or any other application that’s fully accessible to everybody in the world.  But you can be looking at that as your goal as you take incremental steps to more inclusive design.


Below are listed some the resources mentioned in the interview. I am also including links to an upcoming conference that I coordinate: Accessing Higher Ground, an upcoming MOOC on Basics of Inclusive Design Online, a course I’m developing with two colleagues, and some other relevant resources.

AccessDL – The Center on Accessible Distance Learning – http://www.washington.edu/doit/programs/accessdl

Accessing Higher Ground: Accessible Media, Web and Technology Conference – November 16 – 18, 2015, Westminster, CO – http://accessinghigherground.org/

Basics of Inclusive Design Online – check for this MOOC on Coursera.org in late October or email hkramer@colorado.edu for information

CAST – http://www.cast.org/

EasyChecks – an easy to follow guide on getting started with web accessibility based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 – http://www.w3.org/WAI/eval/preliminary.html

Universal Design & Accessibility for Online Courses – a set of guidelines and tutorials developed for Online Credit at CU-Boulder – http://webdevgroupcu.org/conted/

WebAIM – Web Accessibility in Mind – http://webaim.org/ Howard Kramer

Howard Kramer
Accessing Higher Ground, Conference Coordinator
Lecturer, University of Colorado-Boulder

Sheryl Burgstahler

Sheryl Burgstahler
Founder and Director, DO-IT Center and Director of Accessible Technologies, University of Washington


Photo credit: By Andrew Bossi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Progress on New Federal Electronic Instructional Materials Accessibility Legislation

In today’s blog post, we have a conversation with Jarret Cummings, EDUCAUSE’s Director of Policy and External Relations. Jarret has helped lead negotiations on new federal legislation that would facilitate the development of voluntary accessibility guidelines for electronic instructional materials and related technologies in higher education. We thank Jarret for this update as part of a series of webcasts and blogs during WCET’s accessibility month.

Russ Poulin:  Jarret, you’ve been part of the ongoing discussions regarding the accessibility of educational technologies in higher education. EDUCAUSE, your organization, the American Council on Education, and other higher education associations have been working with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) on new legislation. The discussions seek to find a compromise position among organizations with diverse constituencies on the development of voluntary accessibility guidelines for postsecondary electronic instructional materials and related technologies. What started this process and how has it unfolded?

Jarret Cummings:  Thank you for inviting me to discuss this, Russ. I really appreciate it. In terms of the genesis of the process, NFB and AAP began collaborating in 2012 on a bill that they named the Technology, Equality, and Accessibility in College and Higher Education—or TEACH Act. It was an outcome of the Postsecondary Accessible Instructional Materials Commission that Congress chartered under the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. That Commission looked at instructional considerations related to higher education and developed some recommendations.

ipad anita hart 400 pxOne of the Commission’s recommendations was that the federal government foster the development of voluntary accessibility guidelines for instructional materials in the postsecondary space.  Following the release of the Commission’s report, NFB and AAP started working on a bill to implement that recommendation. They were able to have the bill introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives in late 2013 and subsequently in the U.S. Senate early last year. EDUCAUSE, along with a number of other higher education associations, took a look at the proposal and felt that it actually would not lead to the voluntary guidelines it was intended to produce. We chartered an expert analysis to determine if those concerns were valid, and it confirmed the problems we thought we saw in the bill.

When we started sharing the results of our analysis with the broader higher education community and others, we unfortunately ran into some miscommunication with NFB and AAP about the nature of our concerns. We were trying to get across that we shared the goals of the original legislation, but didn’t think the bill, as then constructed, would lead to workable, voluntary guidelines. Once we got past that initial miscommunication, we were able to sit down with NFB and AAP and agree to work together on a joint bill that would establish a process for developing the guidelines that all three communities could support.

On behalf of a number of other higher education associations, a small team from ACE and EDUCAUSE has been working with NFB and AAP representatives since late last year to develop a joint legislative proposal. We started by developing a shared concept outline for the bill, which we finished earlier this summer, shared with a range of stakeholder groups, and then revised based on their feedback. Since late July we’ve been working on translating that concept outline into an actual bill. The process is well underway; we’re actively working on edits as we speak. Hopefully, we will be able to release a public draft of the bill later this fall.

Russ: I’m taken by the term “voluntary” guidelines. Why have those negotiating the bill focused on “voluntary” guidelines and how do those organizations see those guidelines coming together?

Jarret:  I think AAP and NFB focused their initial legislative proposal on voluntary guidelines because they recognized how fluid and complicated a space this is.  As you know, the range of disciplines and pedagogical considerations that electronic instructional materials and related technologies must address in higher education is extremely broad as well as extremely deep.  A rigid regulatory approach to try to advance accessibility in that context would likely generate significant unintended consequences that could limit the availability and effectiveness of teaching and learning with technology for all students, including students with disabilities.

So, on the higher education side, we thought the original idea that NFB and AAP had about addressing these issues through voluntary guidelines was a good one. In our view, voluntary guidelines would raise awareness and inform decision-making while also preserving institutional flexibility to meet students’ unique needs.

Taking that as our starting point, AAP and NFB joined us in agreeing that the process needed to be more clearly stakeholder-led and stakeholder-driven. One reason this matters from a higher education perspective is that any discussion of instructional materials and technologies necessarily involves pedagogy. The higher education community wanted to make sure that the process for producing effective voluntary guidelines wouldn’t negatively impact institutional oversight of the teaching and learning mission, which the federal government has long agreed should remain higher education’s responsibility. A stakeholder-led process with equal representation from higher education leadership ensures that the guidelines will develop in a balanced, well-informed context, which will also ensure that institutions genuinely have the flexibility they need to meet student needs to the extent they reasonably can.

Russ:  Given that negotiations are still ongoing, what else can you say about what we’re likely to see in the bill that will be submitted to Congress?

Jarret:  I think the most important point about the bill is that it isn’t intended to set the voluntary guidelines itself.  Rather, it’s designed to create a process for developing voluntary guidelines for postsecondary instructional materials and related technologies that the major stakeholder groups involved can all agree will successfully do that.  As envisioned, it asks Congress to charter an independent commission with equal representation from the disability advocacy community, publishers and technology producers, and the higher education community. The resulting commission will have about 18 months to two years to produce guidelines with the support of a technical expert panel, which itself will also have equal representation from each community.

Another important aspect of the process is that the guidelines will not recreate the wheel when it comes to IT accessibility standards. There are already well-established national and international standards, such as for web accessibility. We don’t need to develop general IT accessibility standards specific to higher education. If anything, that would probably severely complicate the ability of higher education to produce accessible environments because the marketplace for digital content and technologies is quite large. In some sense, when you think about the overall market for publishing and technology, higher education is not that big a piece of the pie.  Separating higher education off into its own sphere, specifically for technology accessibility, would probably be fairly detrimental to us all, because it would limit the applicability of materials, technologies, and innovations in the broader market to higher education, and vice versa.  All of the groups realize that there are aspects of pedagogy that might lead to considerations about accessibility that fall between the gaps of these general standards.  The idea is that the commission will look at these general IT accessibility standards in relation to pedagogical needs and concerns and develop voluntary guidelines to help institutions, publishers, and technology producers bridge those gaps.

I think another benefit of the process is that the bill will call for the commission to leverage its review of those general standards to also produce a reference list of general IT accessibility standards. Included will be notes for institutions on how those standards might apply to specific needs in the higher education context.

Russ:  These efforts all arose out of a concerns regarding how well colleges serve students with disabilities. In focusing on those students, how will these guidelines benefit them and the institutions that serve them?

Jarret:  I think the guidelines will give institutions, as well as publishers and technology providers, more information with which to address accessibility needs in relation to teaching and learning in higher education. Current law recognizes that not all disability needs can be addressed in a general manner, given the unique requirements that an individual disability may pose in a given context. This is especially true in relation to a particular discipline, how that discipline is taught, and what materials and technologies are used to support that teaching and learning process.

So, in short, the guidelines will help institutions make decisions about adopting materials and technologies that take accessibility into account to the extent possible, which in turn will better enable institutions to help students with disabilities achieve their academic goals.

Russ:  Great!  Do you have any recommendations about what colleges should be doing now or how they can keep updated on the progress of your joint proposal?

Jarret: First, I would encourage everyone to participate in the EDUCAUSE Live! webinar that I’m conducting on September 22nd with my colleague Jon Fansmith from ACE. We’re going to discuss the current state of the process in greater detail and what we think the likely outcomes are.

I also provide updates via the Policy Spotlight blog on the EDUCAUSE Review website. Those updates cover major developments in the process and, as I mentioned earlier, we’re hopeful that later this fall we’ll actually have a public draft of the bill to share. Once we do, the Policy Spotlight blog is probably one of the first places that information will become available.

In terms of what institutions should be doing now, I think it’s important for institutions to assess the accessibility of their technology environment generally and on a regular basis to make sure that they’re in compliance with current law and regulation. Institutional personnel may want to look at some of the consent agreements that other colleges have entered into with the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice and groups like NFB to help inform their thinking. The background slides for a panel on “accessibility in the cloud” that I moderated at the 2015 Internet2 Global Summit highlight a few examples. I would also encourage anyone with questions about how to assess their institution’s approach to IT accessibility to get in touch with the EDUCAUSE IT Accessibility Constituent Group. Group members are IT accessibility professionals representing a wide range of colleges and universities, and they’re always happy to help colleagues at other institutions.

Russ: WCET can also help with that as we’re set to host a webcast on September 29 about “turning a negative into a positive.” Accessibility leaders who helped Penn State University (although he’s now at Rutgers) and the University of Montana in creating new strategies to serve disabled students will give their advice on what colleges should be doing.

Jarret: That’s great – Penn State and Montana have been very proactive since they came to fully understand the issues that led to their consent agreements. I think they’ve really embodied the spirit that higher education generally is striving to achieve in this area. By and large, institutions involved in consent agreements just didn’t have a complete awareness of the nature of their accessibility problems and what those problems meant for their students. Once they did, they’ve generally taken the responsibility to address those problems very seriously, and others can learn a great deal from their example.

Russ: Agreed. Jarret, on behalf of our members, thank you for your work in negotiating the new bill. And thank you for updating us on its current progress. We look forward to hearing more in the future.


Photo of Jarret Cummings.Jarret Cummings

Director, Policy and External Relations



Photo Credit: Anita Hart

A Review of the Department of Education’s New College Scorecard Website

Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of Education released its long-awaited College Scorecard. Originally envisioned as a way to help the Department in determining whether institutions should remain eligible to offer financial aid, the focus is now on student-as-consumer information.  According to President Obama in his weekly radio address:

“Americans will now have access to reliable data on every institution of higher education.”

“Well, kinda.” – Russ Poulin, not President and not running for President or I would have had to call people names.

The College Scorecard Home Page

The College Scorecard Home Page

I realize  I have much less stature than the President, but I was asked last year by the Department to be on a data panel when they began their quest to create (what was then called) the Postsecondary Institutional Ratings System. Several issues were raised by that panel. Some were solved. Many remain.

I did not have time for an exhaustive study of the site, but I do have some initial impressions. Some of my questions might be answered with more experience and research.

The Good!

Student-as-Consumer Focused.
The data is intended to help students make informed college selections. This is a great goal and is much better than their original plan of grading colleges based upon Departmental data sets that were ill-equipped to do so. Institutions respond to student focused info or ratings. Look at how they try to game the U.S. News rankings or those who have already touted their standing in the Scorecard.

They focused on a simple, relatively easy-to-understand, mobile-centric layout. The site is easy to navigate and the graphics and pleasing and informative.

It’s Open.
The data sets are open for others to use and create tools to enhance the site. I enjoyed their “Under the Hood…” revelations of how they created the site, in which they say: “By giving developers access to an API, even more customized tools will be created, providing students more options than ever before to find the right school for them.

Click for More Info.
When students conduct searches, they are given several colleges (often over several pages) from which to choose. Students can click to find even more information about a college that might interest them.

There is No Information about Distance Education.
You may thing that’s odd coming from me. Thankfully, the old College Scorecard page has been relegated to the “Page Not Found” graveyard. In my testimony last year, I showed how the “Distance Education” option lead you to only those handful of institutions that are fully at-a-distance. Well, sine the vast majority of colleges now have distance education, that leaves out many, many distance education options. Being silent on distance education is better than being so misleading.


Some colleges are missing.

Webpage that shows colleges surrounding the F's and there is no Front Range Community College

Front Range Community College is Missing on this Alphabetical List of Colorado’s Associates Degree-granting Colleges

I live n the Front Range Community College district in Colorado. I thought I would check the data on them. I could not find them. The President did say “every institution of higher education,” didn’t he? Most of the colleges are there, but I noted some other absent institutions (this is not an exhaustive list, just some research to show that this was not an isolated case):

  • Colorado – Aims, Front Range, Pueblo, and Otero Community Colleges.
  • Arizona – Rio Salado College.
  • California – Bakersfield College.

Perhaps I did something wrong, but I searched both by variations on their names and by looking the state lists of colleges.

The dreaded first-time, full-time completion rates are used.
I knew this would be the case, but it really irks me. Under current data collected by the Department’s IPEDS surveys. They the group on which they base their “Graduation Rate” as: “Data are collected on the number of students entering the institution as full-time, first-time, degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students in a particular year (cohort), by race/ethnicity and gender; the number completing their program within 150 percent of normal time to completion; the number that transfer to other institutions if transfer is part of the institution’s mission.”

This rate has long been a massive disservice to institutions focused on serving adults and community colleges. Here are some example rates: Empire State: 28%, Western Governors University: 26%, University of Maryland University College: 4%, Charter Oak Colleges: no data, and Excelsior College: no data.. The problem is that these numbers are based on incredibly small samples for these schools and do not reflect the progress of the bulk of the student body.

I won’t quote data for community colleges because they are all negatively impacted. They often serve a large number of students who are not “first-time” or define “success” in other ways

I know that they are working on a fix to this problem in the future. Meanwhile, who atones for the damage this causes to these institution’s reputation. This data display rewards colleges who shy away from non-traditional or disadvantaged students. Is this what we want?

Chart shows "Data Not Available" for Average Annual Cost and Graduation Rate.

Why is “Data Not Available”?

Why is “Data Not Available” for Some Measures?

For some measures for some colleges, the data field is “Data Not Available.” I have good guesses as to why that is. Will the average student? There should be an explanation.

Is the Focus on Salaries Good Public Policy?
I understand that this is put out by the Department of Education and they want to make sure that students enter fields in which they can repay their loans and make a good living. I’m all for that. But is that the highest and only goal of higher education? Frankly, I’m hoping that we continue to graduate a few social workers, teachers, nurses, and actors. They don’t measure well on this scale.

Some observations on this:

  • One of the first three charts that appears in the initial search for every college is the “Salary After Attending.” This gives salary great importance.
  • Salaries are compared to a national average, but salaries vary greatly by region. I can understand wanting to make it simple, but is this an over-simplification?
  • Salaries are institution-wide. They may vary greatly by program.

The “Are You Kidding Me? Charts
I’m not going to say much about these charts they provided, on “30 four-year schools with high graduation rates and low costs” and “Schools with low costs and high incomes.”   Williams College on a list of low-cost colleges? That’s interesting. Again, the site seems to be rewarding colleges with highly selective admissions. I’m biased because I don’t really think these colleges need yet another boost.

In Conclusion
The site is a good beginning at addressing the needs of the traditional student leaving high school and seeking a college. It leaves much to be desired for the non-traditional students who now comprise a very large portion of the college-seeking population.

I applaud the consumer-focused vision and hope that feedback continues to improve the site. I actually think this could be a fantastic service. I just worry that in the haste to get it out that we did not wait until we had the data to do it correctly.

What do you see when you look at College Scorecard?


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

If you like our work, join WCET!

Progressive and Innovative, Denver is the Perfect Host for #WCET15

Denver and its surrounding area, including Boulder, is known for progressive and innovative tech business incubation and growth. The urban landscape adjacent to the foothills and the Rocky Mountains nurtures an innovative yet reenergizing spirit.  The WCET Annual Meeting, commemorating it’s 27th milestone, will be held in Denver November 11-13 at the Westin Downtown Denver and the conference program is both reenergizing, innovative, and practical.

Denver Super Moon Bo InsongaSince the preliminary program was posted late July, the speaker line-up, workshops, and sessions have evolved. We have several great additions we are pleased to highlight. View the program and make sure to register; registration is capped at 450 to maintain the collegial feel WCET is known for.

Preconference Workshops | Wednesday, Nov. 11
Two preconference workshops are scheduled for Wednesday morning.  Workshops provide an opportunity to dive into a key topic with expert session leaders and a limited number of colleagues. Both are free to WCET members  and a nominal charge for non members.   Space is limited to 40 attendees and participants can register during online registration.

Implementing and Scaling Innovation
WCET Steering Committee chair and the director of Distance Learning  at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Luke Dowden, and Sasha Thackaberry, the district director of eLearning Technologies at Cuyahoga Community College are leading an interactive workshop- Strategic Innovation: Working Through the Strategy and Skeptics.  Attendees will explore concrete strategies for implementing and scaling successful innovation within existing institutional structures.  Through discussion and interactive activities, participants will leave with mini-plans to take back to their institution. Learn how to leverage your college’s culture and context to implement and scale innovation.

Adaptive Learning
On the heels of our successful Leadership Summit, we will be providing a workshop on Adaptive Learning.  The final group of workshop leaders is being confirmed and the description will be posted shortly.  Attendees will explore the many challenging elements of choosing and applying an adaptive learning approach for remedial, undergraduate and graduate, and professional education.  Participants will learn about exciting metrics and tools for incorporating adaptive learning into your programs.

Other Program Additions

National Distance Education and Technological Advancement (DETA) Research Center Workshop | Thursday, Nov. 12
In 2014 the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee established a National Distance Education and Technological Advancement (DETA) Research Center to conduct cross-institutional data collection with 2-year and 4-year Institutions of Higher Education. WCET is pleased to bring Tanya Joosten, the director of E-learning Research and Development at UWM, and her remarkable team, to provide a two-hour workshop on Conducting Research in Blended and Online.  This hands-on-workshop will prepare attendees to take a plan back to their own institution to successfully gather research on blended and online teaching and learning. The session is first come-first served so be sure to grab your seat.

Westin Downtown Denver Mezzanine FoyerEdtech Meet-up | Thursday, Nov. 12
Over the years we have heard from attendees that they like that the WCET meeting doesn’t have a large exhibit hall where sponsors sit and wait for attendees.  However, the feedback is that attendees are still seeking ways to connect with businesses in the edtech sector so they can learn more and connect directly. This year, we are trying something new and we hope it provides value to the attendees from the corporate and institutional side, WCET’s Edtech Meet-up.  The meet-up will include invited corporate participants, businesses that the WCET community wants to hear from, who will have an opportunity to participate in a conference session as well as the meet-up.   The meet-up is a casual venue where tables are setup throughout the mezzanine area of the conference hotel for the invited corporate participants to showcase their product or service on tabletops (not exhibits). Lounging areas are setup throughout the space so attendees can disconnect or reconnect.  We think this will be a great way to see what tech trends are on the horizon, foster interaction, and create an inviting space to mingle.

Opening and Closing General Session: We Need to Be Ready for IoT | Wednesday, Nov. 11 and Friday, Nov. 13
Gartner defines IoT as “the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment.” Think- smart coffee pots and thermostats. What do we do with an increasing number of IP-enabled students who show up in IP-enabled vehicles (or via high speed networks), wearing IP-enabled garments, bearing multiple IP-enabled devices, with the expectation that our community has the resources required to meet their expectations? To help institutions address this emerging technology challenge and opportunity, WCET is spotlighting IoT in higher education during the Annual Meeting. The opening and closing keynotes at WCET will discuss many of the IoT implications, considerations, and fun ways connected devices can impact our students and institutions.

connected devices from perspecsys.comThe opening session will be a fun look at the technologies and innovative by  applications for teaching and learning. The ever dynamic and Robbie Melton, associate vice chancellor of mobilization emerging technology with the Tennessee Board of Regents, will guide attendees through mobile aps and alternate realities that help set the context for what IoT on your campus might mean to administrators, instructors, and students.

The closing IoT panel brings together experts in higher education that are exploring and experiencing the impact of IoT. The session will be a lively moderated panel discussion about IoT in higher ed- what are the implications for your campus? What about student privacy? What about accessibility/students with mental illness affected by alternative realties? Who owns the data? and more.  The discussion with Michael  Abbiatti, WCET’s executive director, Florence  Hudson  the senior vice president and chief innovation officer for Internet2, and Bruce  Maas the chief innovation officer and vice provost for information technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is not to be missed.

What’s next? Stay tuned for information about additional activities and the release of our 2015 mobile app.  The WCET Meeting is capped at 450 attendees to maintain the collegiality of the event. Registration is nearly halfway full so be sure to register soon.  

Megan Raymond Headshot

Megan Raymond
Manager, Events & Programs

Photo Credit: Cloudy Hazy Denver Colorado September Super Moon by Bo Insogna

Photo Credit: Westin Mezzanine Foyer

Photo Credit: Perspecsys

Sustaining Innovation: Tips for Leading a Maturing Entity

Note: This blog post is for those managers of online learning or extended learning units who are in maturing organizations. If you have started an online learning unit or recently been asked to transition an operation to partially or fully self-supporting and are experiencing growing pains in more than one way, this article was written for you.

In terms of online operations, we are fortunate that we have some very good models from which to model part or all of our organizational structures. We have national quality standards that we can choose to adopt, budding research to point to the successes and challenges in our field, and a strong group of national organizations to help us learn more and remain engaged. Depending on the size of your institution and the scope of your role, some aspects of moving the innovation dial may be easier than others. Yet, as a leader of online learning on your campus, you have the responsibility for applying your knowledge to advance your institution’s mission.

For many years, I have been reflecting on my own successes and deficiencies with leading a maturing online learning department at a selective admissions research university with high research activity. When I was recently asked to transition my Office into a fully self-sustaining unit within two years, my need for reflection intensified.  

Below are a few tips from what I learned through five years of leading a new and now maturing Office of Distance Learning. If I am honest with you and myself, I learned some of these lessons through trial and error or from just making a mistake. Either way, my hope is that these tips and kind suggestions will enable or embolden you in some way on your journey to sustaining innovation.

Acquire Talent.
Your success will depend on how well you can acquire the talent you need. First, you must make your case to the decision makers about why the positions are needed and show your vision for maximizing your human resources. Honor the investments by hiring right. Don’t rush the process. I suggest using a four phase process where you involve your current staff in reviewing applicants, conducting phone interviews with your staff and candidates you are interested learning more about, having the top performers participate in responding to a scenario dealing with a real issue they would face if hired, and inviting your best finalists for a face-to-face interview with a committee.

Be Visible.
Show up. Your visibility on campus is directly linked to your success. Take an active part in opportunities outside of your department and get engaged on issues of University importance that may not be directly related to online learning. This strategy is especially important if you are a self-support unit that depends on departments to provide your courses and programs. Being visible will force you into a new reality of the larger culture and context in which your program belongs. Since that culture and contexts shifts, keeping your finger on the pulse is very important. You also need to tell your story and share your story. Do not assume that faculty, staff, and administrators know and understand the contributions that you make to the larger teaching and learning enterprise.

Eggs in a basketBe Flexible.
My version of flexibility is to have a lot of projects on the drawing board and to offer those ideas to our decision makers. The options allow us to move forward based on the interest of those in charge and prevents me from putting “my eggs in one basket” to use a colloquial term. Moreover, offering options for different ways that projects may evolve is an important strategy when presenting projects to your administrative leaders. Those making decisions want to consider different pathways and to see that you are open to pursuing multiple approaches towards the same end.

Avoid Being Disillusioned.
Accepting that  “control is an illusion” (credit to Wayne Smutz at UCLA) will be the most empowering thing you can do for yourself. None of us are truly in control and remembering will help you to focus your energy on people and relationships. Building relationships and consensus on a path forward has produced the most challenging and rewarding times of my brief career. Accepting that I am not in control, but have influence has helped me avoid wasting energy on the wrong efforts. Remember to not take relationships you have successfully established for granted. I fell into this trap and realized that I had to do a better job of nurturing those original partners in my success. It is easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day operations and forget how important strategic relationships are, especially when control is not reality.

Engage Faculty in Inclusive Problem Solving.
When we have a problem to solve related to Distance Learning at my institution, my staff and I do our very best to engage faculty. Be it testing an upgrade for our learning management system or discussing policies for student authentication, we ask faculty. Typically, we convene task forces or discussion groups. Set an agenda, moderate the discussion, and let our brightest resources (our faculty minds) problem solve with us. They appreciate being heard and contributing to a better path forward.

Find a Mentor.
I have had the good fortune of having seasoned higher education administrators and faculty members willing to serve as formal and informal mentors to me. Many times, I was being mentored without any awareness that mentoring was occurring. Without their guidance, I no doubt would have made more missteps than I am naturally inclined to make. The point is to find several people who you trust to be honest with you, seek their guidance, and apply what they advise. I am very grateful to those who have mentored me in the past five years of my current journey.

Be a Mentor.
In return for someone mentoring you, you should pay it forward by sharing what you have gained with others, especially your direct reports. The biggest impact you can have on your long-term organization’s growth is to invest your energy and time in those who work for you. I try to create work environment built on investing in my staff’s professional development, showcasing their talents, and pushing each beyond their individual comfort zones. The down side of my approach is the threat of poaching, but I prefer to see someone wanting to hire my staff as a compliment of how well they are being prepared for leadership. So, don’t be afraid to showcase your team’s talents and give them credit. You may end up reporting to them some day.

Timing and Being Told No.
If you want to have sustained success innovating, get used to being told “No!” Unfortunately, I had to learn not to take “No!” as a personal affront because of the time, energy, and effort I had put into a proposal. Over time, I began to understand that “no” really meant, more times than not, that the timing was bad. Asking at the right time or better yet, asking when would be a good time to half finished wall paintingdiscuss X problem is the better solution. I am happy to report that I am experiencing more success when I ask the following. “When would be a good time for us to discuss ….?”

Not Finished.
I am not a finished product, nor is the unit I lead. I have to remind myself often of the strategies that got me here. And if there is one takeaway, it is to put people first. You can never go wrong by putting people first.

Learn More.
If you enjoyed this blog post, then I personally invite you to join me, Susan Aldridge, David Clinefelter, and Cali Morrison for “Developing and Sustaining Strategic Partnerships” at the WCET 2015 Annual Meeting on Thursday, November 12 from 9:45 – 10:45 am in Denver, CO. Come and join in an engaging meeting experience with leaders in many current and emerging aspects in the field of online learning.


headshot of Luke Dowden


Luke Dowden
Director of Distance Learning
University of Lousiana at Lafayette


Note about the author:

Dr. Luke Dowden is the founding Director of Distance Learning at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He was the inaugural recipient of the 2014 Online Learning Consortium’s Bruce N. Chaloux Award for Early Career Excellence in Online Education. He serves as the Chair of the WCET Steering Committee, a programmatic advisory group of leaders from WCET’s member institutions. Previously, he led the Louisiana Board of Regents adult learning initiative, Center for Adult Learning in Louisiana (CALL) and served as Dean of Accelerated Learning at Bossier Parish Community College.

Photo Credits:

Eggs in a Basket by Kate Hiscock

Work in Progress by Miquel Wert

Congress Proposes Changes to Student Data Usage and Privacy Regulations

Van Davis, Blackboard’s new Associate Vice President of Higher Education Research and Policy, is today’s guest blogger. We’re all engaged in assuring that student data is used properly. Van gives us an insight into legislation that may add new responsibilities in protecting student data and privacy. Thank you for the update, Van.

We live in a society awash in a sea of data. The collection and use of millions upon millions of data points allows for an unprecedented level of personalization when we log into service providers like Amazon, Netflix or iTunes.  Our data, the record of the most personal and private parts of our lives, fuel the algorithms that order our lives.

But,  there is a darker side to the ubiquitous presence of our personal data.

We decry the ability of the National Security Agency to access phone records. Librarians staunchly advocate the right of patrons to keep borrowing histories private.  We monitor our credit after massive data breaches stretching from national consumer outlets to the federal government. But we reserve our most critical and contentious conversations around data and privacy for discussions of student data usage and privacy.

Photo of Keys

Congress seeks the keys to securing student data.

Given the antiquated nature of federal privacy legislation, the highly charged contemporary conversations about data privacy, and the more than 180 pieces of legislation filed in 47 state legislatures, it should come as no surprise that there are no less than eleven bills and amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) before Congress that would reimagine student data and privacy for the 21st century.


Congress has been debating student privacy since President Ford signed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) into law in 1974. Focused primarily on regulating schools and local and state educational agencies, the goal of FERPA is to provide parents with access to their child’s educational records, provide them with the ability to amend those records, and ensure that they control the disclosure of those records. There are, however, some consideration made for researchers—personally identifiable information (PII) can be disclosed to third parties for the purpose of educational research without explicit parental consent.

The greatest challenge that FERPA has faced is that despite the numerous amendments by Congress and changes in regulations by the Department of Education, the fact still remains that FERPA was written at a time when student records were more likely to be paper files kept in a locked file cabinet or vault than digital records that can be disseminated at the press of a button or illegally accessed by some nefarious hacker.

What’s Being Proposed to Update FERPA?

There are three proposed bills pending that would either amend or completely re-write FERPA:

  • HR 3157, The Student Privacy Protection Act; Todd Rokita (R), Marcia Fudge (D), John Kline (R), and Robert C. Scott (D)
  • S 1322, Protecting Student Privacy Act; Edward Markey (D), Orrin Hatch (R), and Mark Steven Kirk (R)
  • S 1341, Student Privacy Protection Act; David Vitter (R)

All of these pieces of proposed legislation share a common desire to bring FERPA into the 21st century and update it for new and emerging technologies while bolstering parental rights, but two pieces of legislation have garnered the most attention—HR 3157 and S 1341.

HR 3157
HR 3157, the most heralded of the proposed bills, represents a bipartisan attempt at completely re-writing FERPA and has garnered the most cautious support from the educational and technology communities. Meant as a total rewrite of FERPA that would clarify and codify existing regulations, HR 3157 would also improve data transparency, increase parental rights, and close loopholes regarding the use of data for direct marketing towards students.

For example, under HR 3157 third party companies would be required to enter into written agreements with educational agencies that explicitly outline how and what information would be transferred, what personally identifiable information would be created, descriptions of any subcontractors with access to the data, and the assurance of data security policies built on industry standards. Additionally, this proposed legislation includes robust transparency requirements that would require any institution or educational agency to provide parents with copies of written agreements with those third parties accessing student data.

The bill does attempt to balance the need for research and innovation against privacy concerns by allowing researchers to continue to access data without parental consent as long as it “improve[es] the instruction or testing of students.” Moreover, it recognizes the potential importance of personalized learning and would not negatively impact the ability of service providers to use data to provide personalized learning.

S 1341
Senator Vitter’s proposal, S 1341 Student Privacy Protection Act, has little in common with HR 3157 and has drawn the largest amount of criticism and concern from educators and service providers. Although Vitter’s bill also seeks to update FERPA and strengthen parental consent, the similarities end there.

Under S 1341 any data used by third parties would be required to be de-identified and destroyed as soon as the student is no longer serviced by the agency or institution. Additionally, parents would be given 30 days notice prior to third party access of the data and, unlike allowances for research under existing legislation and HR 3157, parental permission would be required if any non-aggregated, non-anonymized, or identified data is used. Finally, the bill expressly prohibits collection of “psychological data” for any purposes.

Not only would research abilities be severely hampered by Vitter’s bill, but personalized learning would be severely limited, if not completely impossible. In fact, S 1341 would create so many limitations to the use of data that over 1,000 organizations, institutions, and scholars signed a letter of concern written by the American Educational Research Association (AERA). In it, the signatories wrote that the bill would have a “devastating impact on education research.” After explaining that the proposed legislation would undermine the scientific validity of student data, prevent researchers from accessing the data necessary for their research, prevent the use of district and state administrative data for longitudinal research, and “drastically curtail the ability to collect information on student learning and teacher performance,” the letter closes with the warning that the bill would have a “calamitous effect on research and evaluation if it were to become law.”

What about Websites and Online Service Providers?

What’s in Place?:  COPPA
The 1998 passage of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was an attempt to bring privacy protection into the 21st century. Aimed at websites and online service providers, COPPA requires that “verifiable parental consent” must be present before a site or service provider can collect personally identifiable information from anyone under 13 years old.  Mirroring COPPA’s focus on the internet and online services, enforcement authority lies with the Federal Trade Commission, largely under its consumer protection and fraudulent services authority.

But even this bill, written at the turn of the century and the eve of the age of ubiquitous internet, is sadly outdated. Data collection and the targeted advertising that it supports are inadequately addressed in the legislation leaving children open to targeted advertising campaigns built on the backs of their personally identifiable information.

Photo of the U.S. CapitolWhat’s Being Proposed?
Another set of proposed legislation would directly address internet service providers and websites in an effort to improve student privacy. There are currently six bills that would either amend COPPA or otherwise address data privacy from the consumer protection vantage point:

  • HR 2092, The Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015; Jared Polis (D) and Luke Messer (R)
  • S 1788, Safeguarding American Families from Exposure by Keeping Information and Data Secure (SAFE KIDS) Act; Richard Blumenthal (D) and Steve Daines (R)
  • HR 2734, Do Not Track Kids Act; Joe Barton (R) and 14 other representatives including 12 Democrats and two Republicans [closely related legislation includes HR 1053, S 547, and S 1563]

All of these pieces of proposed legislation share a common desire to reimagine consumer protection and student data privacy for new and emerging technologies, but the two that have garnered the most attention are HR 2092 and HR 2734.

HR 2092
Representatives Polis and Messer’s The Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015 was the first of the student privacy bills filed this session. Although technically not an amendment of COPPA, it does focus on third party vendors, specifically the online service providers who work with state and local education agencies rather than the agencies and institutions themselves.

Much like HR 3157, HR 2092 attempts to balance the needs for data privacy and protection against innovation and explicitly includes provisions that would support the usage of data for developing personalized learning. Also, much like HR 3157, the bill would require providers to be transparent regarding the data collected from children and its usage as well as clearly prohibit the use of that data for direct marketing purposes.

Unlike HR 3157, the bill includes deletion requirements that would require providers to delete personally identifiable information within 45 days of a parental request or one year after service has ended. And rather than rely on the Department of Education for enforcement, HR 2092 would make enforcement the responsibility of the FTC.

HR 2734
The Do Not Track Kids Act of 2015 (HR 2734) specifically sets out to amend COPPA in order to update its privacy protections for the 21st century. Unlike HR 2092 which focuses on service providers working with education agencies, HR 2734 focuses on any company that is providing services directly to children. Under HR 2734 these providers would be required to obtain consent before collecting or using any data as well as allow minors or their parents the right to inspect any data collected on them, challenge its accuracy, and respond to any requests to erase, correct, or amend that data.

The bill would also simplify parental notifications by requiring that those notifications be made in “clear and plain language.” And although the bill does not directly address innovations such as personalized learning, it does recognize the role that data plays in innovation and balances that against privacy concerns. Finally, like HR 2092, the bill would make enforcement the responsibility of the FTC.

What Can We Expect?

What should we expect when Congress returns from its summer recess? There has been a spotlight on the limitations of FERPA and COPPA as currently written ever since President Obama called on Congress to better protect student data in his 2015 State of the Union address. All but one of the bills has been assigned to committee (Vitter’s bill is the lone hold out) but none have made it out of committee. Of the FERPA overhaul bills, HR 3157 is best positioned for passage with its bipartisan support and broad appeal among both educational agencies and industry. And the bill enjoys presidential support as evidenced by a recent blog post by Jeff Zients, Director of the National Economic Council, who calls the bill an “important bipartisan step.”

Additionally, both the House and Senate versions of ESEA had privacy related amendments attached. In the Senate, Orrin Hatch (R) and Edward Markey (D) offered Amendment 2080 that would establish the Student Privacy Policy Committee, a 20 member group that would study data privacy and make recommendations on changes to the existing regulatory framework as well as how to improve coordination between federal law and the growing body of state law.

While in the House, Will Hurd (R) offered Amendment 54 that expressed the sense of Congress that student privacy is “important to protect,” especially “with the use of more technology, and more research about student learning the responsibility to protect students’ personally identifiable information is more important than ever.”

But as ESEA heads to conference committee, the future of these amendments as well as the act itself is uncertain.

So although the fate of the current student privacy legislation may be uncertain, we can expect that the conversation around student data and privacy will continue to play a central role in our national conversations about education, technology, and innovation.Photo of Van Davis

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

Photo credits
Keys: MorgueFile
Capitol: JColman on Flickr

Recycling, Revitalizing and Reimagining

Today we welcome Stacey Güney, director, HLC ACCelerator, Austin Community College as she shares with us how the rebirth of the physical shell of the Highland Mall has led to the rebirth of hope in ACC students.

Rebirth of the Highland Mall

This past year has been an exciting one for Austin Community College (ACC). On August, 25, 2014, ACC concurrently launched a new campus that overhauled the idea of a college campus, introduced cutting-edge technology, and transformed a core curriculum using adaptive learning.  The Highland Campus is the first phase of the redevelopment of the former Highland Mall.  The Highland Mall opened in 1971 and for many years was the focal point for the entire central Texas region.  Every time I introduce the project, there are always people that want to share their memories of going to the mall over the years.  However, like many malls a variety of environmental issues (internet shopping, suburbanization, the recession, etc.) caused it to fade in recent years.  Everything that made it a great location for a mall makes it a great location for a college.  It sits at the confluence of several major highways.  It is just up the street from The University of Texas at Austin and downtown Austin.  It has great links to public transportation.  The college began purchasing property at Highland Mall in 2010 and acquired the final mall component in 2012. ACC now owns all of the buildings as well as the mall land (more than a million square feet of space and approximately 80.8 acres). The project also involves Redleaf Properties (a private developer) who has options for the areas surrounding the mall that will be redeveloped as a mixed-use community.  From the beginning of the planning, the reincarnation of the mall was envisioned as a center for innovative learning and a place where new ideas and technologies could thrive!  We were space-starved at our older campuses and this new space will allow us to create a state-of-the-art learning environment and center for community and business partnerships and allow us to expand education opportunities for all Central Texans.

Group of students sitting around a table in a study area using Dell Venue 11 Pro 7000 Series (Model 7140 Jefferson) tablets to work on math problems projected onto a large flat screen television, with FluidMath software interface shown.

Revitalizing the Entire Student Experience

While the initial focus of the space was born from the idea of the “math emporium”, it became readily apparent that we wanted to do something even bigger!  This is Texas…we like everything BIG!  MATD 0421 is the first of many courses to be redesigned and to be housed in the space.  Instructors from all areas take advantage of being able to schedule on-demand space for hands-on, collaborative activities using the computer resources to facilitate learning.  Whether it be for an entire course or for unique sessions, the ACCelerator is providing more opportunities for high-touch and high-tech experiences for students outside of the traditional classroom.

In its first year of operation, the ACCelerator has served over 9,500 unique students in over 100,000 visits. In the Spring 2015 semester, the Department of Motion Graphics relocated from another campus and now offers its courses in the ACCelerator and is expanding their footprint.  This fall, we are welcoming several new programs into the ACCelerator.  The computer-aided design (CAD) department will be offering courses. A competency-based Accelerated Computer Training program will be offered as part of both a new Career Expressway program and our Early College High Schools. Math is continuing to spread increase its enrollment.  We are extending our hours to midnight Monday-Thursday.  Besides content-specific instruction through scheduled courses, the ACCelerator also offers tutoring, supplemental instruction, open computer lab access, and academic coaching.  It is also home to the AARP Back to Work 50+ at ACC grant.

Reestablishing a Community

In the same way that the space functioned when it was a mall—as a gathering place—it is now serving the same role for the community in its reincarnation. Students have embraced the space and are developing a community of practice around learning how to learn. Several groups have “cohortized” themselves into study groups. While we do not offer nursing courses at this location, it is centrally located and a group of nursing students meet every afternoon after their clinical, even serving as ambassadors of the program for prospective students. We have a group of students who are meeting every Friday and Saturday morning for Maker Meetups using Arduinos and Raspberry Pis in order to create projects that span across numerous curriculum areas.  (My favorite project is the music student who also DJs at a local club and programmed sensors into a pair of gloves, thereby allowing her access to numerous controls without physically moving her hands around!)

In addition to students supporting one-another, we have five part-time “academic coaches” who are available for scheduled and drop-in meetings. They work with students who feel they “just don’t get it.” They are struggling not with a particular subject matter, but with what it means and what it takes to be a college student. The coaches work through a range of non-cognitive skills such as time management, organization, note-taking, test-taking and study skills.  Over 400 students have seen academic coaches for support in these techniques and skills. This fall, we will be expanding the use of the coaches and partnering with faculty to introduce “nudges” to boost student engagement.

Reengaging with Learning

Students are engaging with their learning in new ways. As a result, they come to the ACCelerator, they stay, and they return.  Anytime we have the opportunity at a commuter college to engage with our students in these deep and meaningful ways, we know that it directly contributes to student success. Students are coming to the ACCelerator even when there are no scheduled classes on campus. They are coming before their classes and staying on after their classes. Students that don’t even have classes at this campus, use the space as a study resource.

Older male college professor holding a Dell Venue 11 Pro 5000 Series (Model 5130 Midland) tablet computer and showing it to a young female college student, standing in the hallway of a campus building.

The space also means that there is “no back of the classroom”—the typical place where at-risk students tend to try and hide. The technology also used in the curriculum doesn’t allow for students to hide. Each professor knows exactly where each student is and this helps to create a much more personal connection with students. The withdrawal rate is significantly lower and the retention rate significantly higher in the developmental math compared to the traditional courses.

Other courses taught in the ACCelerator express that the environment is much more like the professional environment that the students are already in or will be in their professional lives. Courses that are scheduled in the space on an “ad-hoc” basis enjoy the benefit of having a flexible space that they can use for more collaborative and project-based learning.

Reviving Students Dreams

One of my favorite things is to be at the “Start Here” desk on the first day of a new semester and see the students arrive into the ACCelerator for the first time.  You can tell it is their first time in the space by the look on their face when they walk in.  First, they are first impressed by the sheer expanse of it all.  Then, they realize that this is something different.  It isn’t a traditional classroom where the focus is on many things but not necessarily on them.  They can see in the way that we all interact that they are the focus of this new environment.  I am reminded of one of my students, Rafina, who is an assistant in a nursing home. Last semester, she pulled me aside with tears in her eyes and thanked us for giving her hope back.  “I’m 52 years old and I had given up on my dreams of becoming a nurse.  But I can do math now in this program.  You have given me my hope back.”  This new environment isn’t just transforming their educational experience – it is giving them their hope back. Giving students hope that they can achieve their dreams through education is the reason that I am in the world of higher education in a community college.


Key Takeaways

  • Launching a huge and complex hybrid initiative like the ACCelerator requires buy-in, support and investment from institutional leadership.
  • A strong face-to-face support system is a crucial element alongside this technology-rich environment
  • Student are embracing the new incarnation of the mall and the opportunity to create a learning community.
  • The space continues to evolve in new and dynamic ways in order to support student needs and improve student access and engagement.


headshot of Stacey GuneyStacey Güney

Director – HLC ACCelerator, Austin Community College




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Three A’s Driving the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

This summer the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor & Pensions) Committee has begun the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act of 1965.  As some of you have experienced in previous reauthorizations, the committee has been holding hearings to determine what key factors of the Act that need updates.  Through modern technology I have been able to watch the hearings from my little office in the outskirts of Bozeman, MT and am happy today to bring you a little bit of what I’ve learned—three A’s are driving this round of reauthorization – Access, Affordability, and Accountability.

Consumer Information

HELPcomm5-6-15In the first of the spring hearings, the Committee addressed the issue of consumer information in college choice – what do students want and need to know?  As Senator Alexander pointed out, it’s been said that the U.S. Department of Education does a far better job of collecting data about colleges than they do of disseminating that information to students in a manner that makes sense to them.  The current vehicle for sharing that data is College Navigator, which can be hard for students to navigate and understand.  The witnesses also stressed that any consumer information produced must include information on sub-baccalaureate degrees.   And that we need to battle the fixation to only provide data at the institutional level — program level data is the most helpful for students to make informed choices about their postsecondary education options.  During this hearing, a recent student talked about how a chance encounter with a poster at a YWCA is what led her to a program which helped her gain the confidence to enroll and complete college.  She stressed, as did others on the panel, that having caring counselors at teh disposal of students who can help them translate what higher ed jargon means is extremely important to the success of especially first-time, first-generation students.

Skin in the Game

In the second hearing the Committee explored the idea of institutional risk sharing in student loan defaults.  By this they are proposing that institutions will be held accountable for a portion of the student loans from their students that go into default.  Douglas Webber, a professor at Temple University made the point that his research suggested that if institutions were to assume some of this risk, tuition would raise an estimated 1 -2 %.  There was also a lot of talk of limiting the ability of students to borrow more than what tuition and fees are, especially for part-time students.  How this affects you, our members, if the committee limits the use of student loans for living expenses for part-time students, it’s a short, slippery slope to cutting the ability for online students, even full-time, to receive student loans to cover living and miscellaneous expenses.


In the third hearing, the HELP committee approached the topic of affordability directly.  Several of the experts attested to the burden of the FAFSA and advocated for paperwork simplification.  With simpler processing they suggested reallocating those counselors who help students fill out the paperwork for the more challenging and important task to advising students on academics and counseling them on financial planning/understanding what their loans mean.  They also talked about the shrinking state contributions to higher education and how the federal government can incentivize states to continue to contribute to higher education. This had both sides through the carrot of less regulation and the stick of more regulation, depending on which side was talking.  Otherwise as one person said, we’ll end up with a federal system of higher education rather than a state system of higher education.

Accreditation’s Role in Ensuring Quality

During this fourth hearing, which focused on accreditation’s role in ensuring quality, it’s important and interesting to note that there were NO regional accreditors on the expert panel testifying at the hearing.  Three of the witnesses, Peter Ewell, George Pruitt (President of Thomas Edison State College), and Albert Gray (CEO of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools) advocated for change not, in Peter’s words “blowing up” the current accreditation system. Pruitt suggested that we should divorce the quality assurance portion of accreditation and the compliance work the accrediting agencies are mandated to do by the Department of Ed.

Anne Neal, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said we should blow up accreditation and let the Department of Ed decide if a subset of ‘known entities’ are producing quality without accreditation (think Harvard, big 10, etc.) She suggested a model like LEED certification for higher education accreditation – voluntary, market-based and not the gatekeeper for federal dollars.  To me, this sure sounds like the accountability efforts which emerged after the Spelling’s Commission report in 2006 – Voluntary System of Accountability, Transparency by Design, UCAN, and Voluntary FrMerisotisLeBlanc7-22-15amework of Accountability… If you ask the average student on the street, from my experience, they would not be able to name any of these.

Exploring Barriers and Opportunities Within Innovation

In the fifth hearing, the witnesses were: Mr. Jamie P. Merisotis President And Chief Executive Officer Lumina Foundation; Dr. Barbara Gellman-Danley President Higher Learning Commission; Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc President Southern New Hampshire University; Mr. Michael B. Horn Co-Founder And Executive Director, Education Programs Clayton Christensen Institute. As this was the hearing on innovation, there was quite the robust twitter backchannel during this hearing.  I Storify‘d the tweets, if you’re interested.

The take away learning from this session:

  • Gellman:
    • Good innovation cannot be legislated. Legislators need to step back & allow creative people to do their good work.  Remove the regulatory/compliance barriers on accreditors and they can better assess innovative programs.
    • There are over 100 regulatory statues that govern the business of accreditation.
  • LeBlanc:
    • Title 1 constrains innovation because of the language related to ‘regular & substantive contact with faculty’ that was written in a time before the internet to distinguish correspondence courses from other offerings.
    • Title 4 is a barrier because all of its timeline restrictions such as disbursements are tied to the credit hour. Competency-based education is trying to break the dependence on time as a measure of learning.
    • Focus on outcomes, rigorous assessments & transparency, demand focus on outcomes not inputs. Create safe innovation spaces for institutions and for accreditors.
    • The accreditation site visit is antiquated — looking at the data analytics for a program is what should be happening now, that’s where you can really see the outcomes.
    • He expressed over and over again, just assigning experimental sites without evaluation and sharing of the learning is a waste and won’t move us in the direction we need to go.
  • Merisotis:
    • Today’s student is nothing like the student of 1965.
    • Put student learning at the center. Defining clear student outcomes will allow competition to emerge and bring costs down.
    • We’re all for affordability, however none of us have a common definition of what affordability means.
  • Horn:
    • Disruptive innovation is the process that makes services more afforadable and accessible to all.
    • Disruptive innovation often happens in those spaces where the choice is really no choice at all.  It happens in marginalized places/populations.  Shared the example of Learn Up started by two guys who had spent 6 months in the unemployment lines hearing what others in line were expressing as barriers to employement (primarily job skills training and setting yourself apart to get an interview).

Basically if I were to boil down this hearing into a sentence it would be this:  Higher education innovation needs to focus on outcomes, not inputs, utilizing rigorous, authentic assessments and share their results transparently in order to prove its quality so accreditors and legislators can feel confident the aid dollars directed at said programs are being well spent. 

Opportunities to Improve Student Success

In this final hearing up to this point in the process, the committee looked at ways to improve student success. The first question this hearing raised for me, and was danced around during the hearing, is what is success and who defines it? If we think narrowly, then it revolves around graduation/completion rates.  But if we think more broadly, what does success cover? Testimony at yesterday’s hearing encouraged the committee, and the higher ed community, to consider the breadth of student success, NOT just traditional degrees – industry credentials (certifications, nanodegrees, etc) are important for a key factor for students – employability.

Another point that was made directly and supported by various examples is that our students live on the edge – a transmission problem can force a student to drop out for a semester or for good.  Modern students drop out because life happens, not because of an academic deficiency.  Georgia State University shared the example of giving small grants, usually only a few hundred dollars, to help students get through those tough times to graduation.  In order to do that, they have to use their data proactively.  Analytics help identify a problem but the high-touch practices at Georgia State are what have made the most difference for students.  They have to go hand in hand – in order to be as effective as possible.

Related to the first ‘A’ – it was noted that an open door becomes a revolving door quickly – student swirl is a barrier to timely progression for most students.  Aiding this swirl is the lack of articulation agreements, even within state systems, that cause students to lose credits as they move around – incentivizing states to work on articulation could help this.

Finally, as Rachel Fishman tweeted during the hearing – Our #highered system & finance are complex, you can throw more info at the problem, but it won’t solve underlying issue: complexity. #Simplify.

They concluded reiterating their plan to have a draft for the whole committee review by “early Fall” and that the next meeting regarding the reauthorization of the higher ed act will be in September.

We will continue to track the issue and bring you insights as the reauthorization process continues!


CaliMorrison0615Cali Morrison
Manager, Communications



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