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


Connected Devices, Connected Colleagues

You will not want to miss the WCET Annual Meeting in Denver at the beautiful Westin Downtown,  November 11-13.  Though the fall meeting schedule is packed,  a recent attendee said, “WCET is the one meeting on my agenda that I WILL NOT miss.” The following are a few reasons the WCET Annual Meeting provides such significant return on your professional development investment,  whether you are a WCET member or non-member.

Tabor Center Denver ColoradoWith over 50 concurrent sessions and over 100 speakers, the 27th WCET Annual Meeting is an outstanding lineup of forward thinking innovators, practitioners, and thought leaders in higher education technology. We have pulled together people from across the U.S. and Canada to share their good practices and lessons learned regarding technology-enhanced teaching and learning.  In typical WCET fashion, nearly every session includes multiple perspectives to provide diversity of experience, institution type, and student populations.   Additional sessions, workshops, and speakers will be added over the next several weeks.

The topics included in the program cover key issues you and your institution need to be aware of — some may be on your radar while others are further on the horizon:

  • Adaptive learning.
  • The Internet of Things.
  • Federal policy and the impact on students, institutions, states, and accreditors.
  • Working with vendors.
  • Why and how to make accessibility a priority.
  • Managing CBE- from starting an initiative to developing a transcript.
  • Leading in an era of innovation.
  • Managing and inspiring adjuncts.

Additionally, the Annual Meeting program is a blend of panel presentations and unique session formats including loosely organized discussions around a key issue, flipped sessions where attendees view  a short video prior to the session and use the time for discussion, and extended in-depth sessions which  include panel discussions, audience interaction, and action oriented outcomes around emerging issues.

When you walk the halls of the WCET Meeting you will notice one thing is missing compared to other conferences- there is no exhibit hall.  We do not have a typical exhibit hall where vendors sit waiting for attendees to engage with them.  WCET finds it more valuable to connect institutional attendees and corporate attendees organically around the topics that matter to all of our work.  For the first time, we will be offering a tech expo where 10-12 companies are invited to showcase their edtech products/services.  They will each have about 10 minutes to present and then attendees will have an opportunity to visit with the corporate partners they are interested in connecting with. We want to hear from you, what companies would you like an opportunity to talk with? Email or leave a comment below.

attendees from 2011 WCETAnnual MeetingWhether this is your 27th Annual Meeting or you will be a first time attendee, you will feel part of an inclusive community.  The meeting is capped at 450 attendees so you will see familiar faces and build your network.  The event includes several valuable opportunities for connecting with people.  On Wednesday afternoon, learn more about WCET and see what we are planning for 2016 during the Reflecting and Looking Forward: WCET 2015-2016 general session.  First time attendees will have an opportunity to connect with a friendly mentor who will help you navigate the program and the event.  A welcome reception will follow, which is a fun social event to reconnect and meet new friends.  Wednesday evening also includes our popular Group Networking Dinners where you sign up in advance for a dinner group to join at a nearby restaurant.  For the first time, you can combine your Friday morning workout with networking with new friends during Reenergize with WCET — which will include yoga and/or an organized walk/jog/run. Those are just a few of fun networking opportunities available.

I invite you to view the preliminary program and hope to see you in Denver!  When we were in Denver in 2013 we did sell out by October, so you do not miss out, register soon.

Cheers from the mile high city,

Megan Raymond HeadshotMegan Raymond

Manager, Events and Programs


Six Common Myths about State Authorization for Distance Education

This week the WCET State Authorization Network is hosting its second State Authorization Compliance Workshop in Denver. In discussing the contents for this event, we started stumbling on some common myths that we keep hearing about state authorization and distance education. We thought we’d share a few of these with you.

Myth 1: State Authorization was Imposed by the U.S. Department of Education

Well, no. The states have had their regulations for decades. The Department’s interest in assuring that colleges issuing federal financial aid brought greater attention to this regulation, which had been routinely ignored by most public and non-profit institutions.

We see websites that inform students that state authorization is a federal requirement, when that is currently not the case (see Myth 6 below).

Myth 2: States See State Authorization as a Way to Make Money and Fix Their Ailing Budgets.

A picture of a sign the depicts a unicorn and the words "Caution, unicorn playing"

Chasing myths about state authorization.

We hear this again and again. It’s simply not true. Well, not in the vast majority of cases. If you do the math, for all but a few states the fees aren’t enough to pay the staff processing the forms. To think that they are filling budget holes with this money just does not add up.

Myth 3: SARA Will Save Us All. Let’s Wait for SARA.

We love the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, commonly called SARA. It’s growing quickly and will probably envelope all but a few states by the end of next year.  While SARA helps with the entire institution being authorized in other member states, there are still some issues, such as:

  • SARA does not cover programs leading to licensure.
  • If I conduct activities beyond the SARA’s “physical presence standard,” then my institution is subject to the normal regulations of that state.
  • What if my state does not join?
  • What if the state where I have lots of students does not join?

If you are not in compliance in a state, waiting could cost you.

Myth 4: This is All Meaningless Bureaucracy

While some of the steps could be smoother and it would be nice if accreditors, states, and the federal government worked together, the purpose is consumer protection. The states are charged with protecting those receiving services within their own borders. We’ve heard countless stories of institutions of all types doing wrong by students. An individual student is relatively powerless against a large institution. The stories of students giving up rather than fight the institution breaks our hearts.

It is about consumer protection and consumer protection is needed.

Myth 5: If a Student is a Resident of My State, then I Don’t Need to Worry about Authorization for that Student

It’s not about official state of residency, such as where the student pays taxes or has a driver’s license. Since it is about consumer protection law, it is about where the student receives the instruction, participates in an internship, or participates in other activities conducted by the institution.

The student’s official state of residency does not figure into the equation.

Myth 6: The Deadline for Compliance with State Authorization is July 1

This is tied to the belief in the first myth that the Department of Education is setting the compliance date. The original Department of Education deadline was July 1, 2011 and that was slipped a year. Due to a court ruling (which was upheld on appeal), there now is NO Department of Education regulation. But there are still deadlines.  Here’s a list of them (based upon a recent blog post on the 5 Types of State Authorization Regulation:

  • State regulations regarding institutional authorization – The states expect you to be in compliance before you serve the first student or conduct the first regulated activity in their state. The deadline is NOW…or yesterday, if you’ve already begun.
  • State regulations regarding licensure programs – As with the first one, the deadline is NOW.
  • U.S. Department of Education regulation for “on ground” programs – Okay, the deadline actually was July 1, 2015 after several years of delays, but this regulation does not deal with distance education.
  • U.S. Department of Education regulation for “distance education” programs None. There is no law. There is no deadline. NOTE: In recent talks, Under Secretary Ted Mitchell has said that there is still no timeline for re-issuing this regulation. If the Department decides to act on this issue later this year or next year, the earliest any new Department of Education regulation could go into effect is July 1, 2017.
  • U.S. Department of Defense MOU – The deadline is NOW. We’ve not seen official word on this, but hear that the Department of Defense expects colleges offering Tuition Assistance to military members have any necessary approvals in the state where the student/soldier is located.

Good luck!

Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat


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

If you like our work, join WCET!


Photo Credit: Kevin Trotman

How a Technical Call Center Added Financial Aid Calls – and Thrived!

After 10 years of providing technical support for e-Learning solutions, the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium’s (CTDLC) Call Center was presented with an interesting opportunity.  The CFO of our parent organization, Charter Oak State College, approached us to ask whether we could help him with a data gathering project.  He wanted us to answer the phones in the Financial Aid Office for a few weeks and record basic information so he could better understand the volume of calls coming through and the nature of the calls.

At the time, the Financial Aid Office was drowning in work and advocating strongly for an additional full time position.  The president of the college was concerned because students were calling other offices, including his, desperate for Financial Aid help.  The information gathered was to be used to support a staffing decision. photo of side of person's head who is on a phone headset

Financial Aid: “How Hard Can it Be?”

Our initial response, “We’re a technical support center and don’t know anything about Financial Aid.” We’re used to answering questions about LMS logins, computers malfunctions, and network down time, not about arcane federal regulations.”  Our concerns were quickly answered with, “But how hard could it be?”  After meeting with the Financial Aid Director for the initial 2 hour training session, we began to comprehend the complexity of the Financial Aid process and started wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.

After another 2 hour training session and read-only access to the Financial Aid system, the Financial Aid office phone was redirected to our call center and we were off and running.  We quickly realized that the Financial Aid process can be quite anxiety producing because the outcome likely determines where a student will go to school and in many cases, whether a student will be able to afford to go to school at all.  We worried that our technical support staff did not have the skill set to serve this category of calls.

We Survived, We Learned, We Got Cookies

The pilot lasted about 6 weeks and the outcomes surprised all of us.  The CFO was humbled by the sheer volume of calls the office was receiving and was able to fully appreciate the challenge that the Financial Aid Staff was facing.  The Financial Aid Staff was so grateful to have the ability to focus their efforts on processing FAFSA applications and packaging awards that they baked us cookies.  The also reported improved processing times and employee morale.

Most importantly, prospective and current students were thrilled and relieved to have their call answered. They loved being able to receive help seven days a week.  The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive, prompting the realization that this was an area where we could add real value.

We also learned that our staff, comprised of student workers, were excellent at this type of work.  As college students themselves, they approached each caller with empathy and patience, able to alleviate the student’s anxiety around the process and explain the next steps in a way that made sense to them.

And so, a new line of business was born.

Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium logoWe Used Data to Improve Our Processes

The report we generated for the CFO contained a wealth of knowledge that could not have been obtained without call center tools and processes.   We were able to take the data we collected and perform root cause analysis.  We determined that there were 3 categories of requests: process questions (How do I?), status questions (What’s my status?), and award-specific questions (Why did I get this amount?).

The call center had the knowledge and system access to answer virtually all the process and status questions.  Any discussions around specific dollar amounts were escalated to the Financial Aid Office.  We found that over 75% of all calls were being resolved on the first call by our staff.  This was such a big number, all of us were somewhat shocked.  We also realized that callers were often asking the same 15-20 questions and that many of these could be eliminated through process changes or clarifying language on the website or outgoing communications.

We Became the Call Center for Five Colleges. Student Satisfaction is High.

The pilot was so successful that the request for a full time position in the SFA office was replaced by a request to have the call center service become a permanent solution.  Five years later, we are still taking those calls and have expanded our service to four additional colleges.  The service has become more sophisticated and our reports include actionable data.

We have recently introduced a student retention element to our data gathering and will partner with institutional retention specialists to identify high risk students and escalate for immediate intervention.

We have shown that our service not only increases productivity within the SFA office (contributing to student retention efforts), but we frequently receive calls from students that start with “I know this question is not about Financial Aid but you guys always answer the phone and I really need help….”  Clearly the other academic offices at Higher Ed institutions are busy too and can find it difficult to answer the phones consistently.  We always do our best to answer these questions and find that we are often able to help.  Cliff Williams, CFO at Charter Oak State College reports that “The CTDLC Call Center has become an integral part of the college’s Financial Aid Office, providing our staff the ability to focus their efforts on processing Aid, ensuring compliance with Federal Regulations and implementing process improvements.  Students are receiving the service and attention they deserve and enrollments are up.  It’s a win-win for all concerned.”

We continue to provide monthly reports and real time feedback when we see a process or communication that could be streamlined or re-worded to reduce confusion.  As a direct result of these efforts, every school we support enjoys a reduction in calls each year.   We have also found that the number of calls we are able to resolve ourselves is now closer to 90%.  CTDLC’s Executive Director, Kevin Corcoran, thinks we are going to put ourselves out of business if we keep this up.

We look forward to the day when the process is so smooth that the phones stop ringing!Photo of Cathy Bergen CTDLC

Cathy Bergren
Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium
Director of Service Delivery


Photo credit for person on headset: MorgueFile

Update on the Five Types of State Authorization Regulations

Hello from Washington, DC and the NACUA (National Association of College and University Attorneys) Annual Conference. As part of my role on a state authorization panel, I was asked to give an overview of the Department of Education’s state authorization regulations. After the U.S. Department of Education’s recent announcement that it expects states and institutions to comply with the “on ground” state authorization rule beginning July 1, I thought this update would be timely for all.

Question:  You are asked to give an update to the Board of Trustees on the Department of Education’s state authorization regulations.  What can you tell them?The words "state authorization surrounded by all the state names.

In response to your question, I’d try to totally baffle and confuse the Board of Trustees by telling them about the five different types of state authorization requirements that an institution could face. While it’s confusing, they need to see the whole picture as a partial answer may lead them to make an incorrect decision.

It’s the proverbial blind men trying to describe the elephant. If you don’t get the whole picture, it’s easy to get it wrong. I’ve heard numerous campus leaders demonstrate their knowledge about one of these sets of requirements while ignoring all the others. If your goal is mitigating risk, you want to inform your Trustees about as many of the regulatory potholes as they are willing to learn about.

  1. State regulations regarding institutional authorization – This is not a federal regulation, but the regulations that each state has constructed. The state authorization regulations in each state have been around for many, many years. If your institution is serving students in another state, the state where that student is located when receiving the bulk of the instruction expects you to follow their state laws and regulations. It’s all about location and not official state of residency. Each state has its own history and politics surrounding the creation and changes to their regulations. Therefore, the criteria regarding if your institution needs to seek approval varies greatly from state to state. All states seem to expect you to be authorized if you are clearly physically located in a state, such as owning or renting a building in their state. Beyond that, the measures of what is termed “physical presence” vary greatly. About a dozen states require you to obtain approval if all you are doing is offering distance education in their state. However, if you are conducting additional activities in that state, you could trigger their “physical presence” definition. Examples of such “physical presence” triggers include holding an internship in a state, direct marketing in a state, requiring students to go to a particular place for a proctored exam, or having an employee in a state. Depending on the state, performing any of those acts may trigger their expectation for you to be approved in their state. You need to check the rules of each state.
  2. State regulations regarding licensure programs – If you have a program that leads to licensure in a profession (such as teaching, nursing, psychology, and a host of medical professions), the boards that oversee each profession may have additional requirements. For some professions they want to approve each and every institution that prepares students who participate in clincals or sit for their licensure exams in the state. Failing to properly notify students about licensure requirements is probably the top risk facing campuses serving students in other states. The U.S. Department of Education added additional notification requirements onto the Gainful Employment regulations and I expect the Department wanting to add these notification requirements to other regulations that may be coming.
  3. U.S. Department of Education regulation for “on ground” programs” (Chapter 34, §600.9 (a) and (b)) After four years of delays, beginning July 1 of this year, the Department will expect you to do two things (see more details in the Federal Student Aid Handbook):
    • Regarding your institution’s “home” state: Be able to identify the state oversight agency that authorizes you to grant postsecondary degrees in your home state. Additionally, you need to identify the complaint process that a student can use to complain to the oversight agency about your institution.  This requirement is for all institutions that grant federal student aid regardless of institution type. Institutions that think they are exempt from state oversight (unless they are authorized by the federal government of an Indian tribe), better look into this one.
    • Regarding face-to-face programs in other states: You should look around your institution to determine if you have any “on ground” programs in another state. Using the financial aid definition of “location,” this is a program in which “at which it offers or will offer 50 percent or more of an educational program if the institution wants to disburse title IV, HEA program funds to students enrolled at that location...” If you have such a program, you will be expected to identify the oversight agency that approved your institution’s ability to offer programs in that state and identify the complaint process for that oversight agency, as well.  This does not apply to programs offered via distance education, unless they have a significant face-to-face component that exceeds the “location” definition. For a more complete discussion of the “on-ground” vs. “distance education” distinction, see the WCET Frontiers blog post by Greg Ferenbach and Matthew Johnson of Cooley, LLP.
  4. U.S. Department of Education regulation for “distance education” programs (Chapter 34, §600.9 (c)) – This one is easy. The regulation was set aside by the federal courts on a technicality. After a failed Negotiated Rulemaking attempt last year (I represented the “distance education” constituency on that Negotiated Rulemaking Committee), the Department has “paused” on reissuing the regulation. To me, it appears increasingly unlikely that they will issue a new regulation this year, but stranger things have happened. To repeat, there is no Department of Education state authorization for distance education regulation currently on the books. UPDATE (06/29/15): At the NACUA meeting on 06/29/15, U.S. Department of Education Under Secretary Ted Mitchell announced that the next steps for their “distance education” regulation is “down the line.” I interpreted that to me not this year and probably past his time in office.
  5. U.S. Department of Defense MOU – Institutions offering Tuition Assistance (that’s a form of collegiate aid to students in the military) had to sign a new Memorandum of Understanding last year. That MOU requires that institutions: “Comply with state authorization requirements consistent with regulations issued by ED, including 34 C.F.R. 600.9. Educational institutions must meet all State laws as they relate to distance education as required.” I attended the Council of College and Military Educators conference earlier this year and colleges attending that meeting were gearing up to be in compliance for fear of losing the ability to offer Tuition Assistance funds.

Remember, regardless of what the federal regulations say, the states still expect you to be in compliance with their laws and regulations.

In talking to your Board of Trustees, you may want to let them know that there are no simple answers to these questions. When I get questions, I always fall back on the truthful (if unsatisfying) phrase “it depends.” The answer to each question lies at the intersection of the following three variables:

  1. What type of institution you are (public, private non-profit, private for-profit)?
  2. What activities does your institution perform the state in question?
  3. Do the regulations for the state in question require you to get approval before you conduct those activities?

Remember that is examining your requirements for just one state.  Once you multiply it times 49 other states, the District of Columbia, other territories, and other countries, it can get a bit complex to understand.

For more information, see WCET’s State Authorization page:

Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat

Ready for baseball and regulatory season.


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

If you like our work, join WCET!

Highlights from #WCETSummit: #AdaptiveLearning in #HigherEd

As has become tradition, June 10th and 11th, a band of WCET’ers gathered to explore an emerging innovation in higher education – adaptive learning.  Following in the footsteps of our summits on big data and alternative credentials, this summit looked to answer what is adaptive learning and how do we apply it in a variety of institutional settings.  Today I bring you, with the help of our tweeps and the rest of the WCET team, some highlights of the summit.

Day 1

Peter Smith, chair of the WCET Executive Council and founding president, Open College @ Kaplan University, kicked us off with a few tidbits of wisdom to set the stage:

  • We’re all in this circle to figure out better ways to help students learn.
  • The companies participating in the Summit are here as partners, not as vendors.
  • Let’s figure out how to harness it, use it & make it productive – that which makes our life difficult contains the solution. There is no silver bullet, each institution has to figure out how this works in their own context.

Opening Plenary: The Science and Promise of Adaptive Learning

Contemporary adaptive learning products and technologies are built upon a growing body of science on student engagement, content mastery, and faculty recommitment to teaching.  Jim Thompson, president of CogBooks,  began by sharing the three main factors he sees as creating the perfect storm for adaptive learning adoption on a greater scale:

  1. Explosion in demand for higher education
  2. Infrastructure in place to allow for high fidelity education at low cost
  3. The adaptive technology itself has matured

Thompson also shared how brains work – that learning occurs through structure driven by time on task with attention & motivation, repetition and sequencing.  He asked us to perform a task that I’ll ask you to do now – try to quickly state the months of the year in alpha order instead of time order.  Harder than you might initially think because of the way our brains store information. The key of adaptive learning is discovering what students already know, how they have structured it and what is the best path forward to them.   The key to adaptive learning is personalization.

we don't know what they know.Judy Komar, Vice President of educational technology, Career Education Corporation, followed on this same vein noting that currently, we don’t know what our students don’t know.  A good way to think of adaptive learning is the swiss cheese effect – the technology allows us to identify gaps in knowledge mastery and fill those gaps that impede forward progress.  If the gap remains unfilled, the challenges remain.  Adaptive learning makes the students the decision makers in their learning and allows faculty to refocus on the art & science of teaching. This in turn allows them to spend less time grading and more time on interventions to move students forward.   For more of the great insights shared by these experts, view the video.

Institutional Case Studies: Using Adaptive Learning to Improve Outcomes

In 2013, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched its Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program (ALMAP) which funded institutional pilots to redesign and/or create new courses in partnership with one or more adaptive learning solution providers.   Rahim Rajan, senior program officer at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who leads the portfolio which includes the ALMAP, kicked off this panel by sharing the goals of the Foundation to improve lives gloabally, focusing in the U.S. on education.    Rajan pointed to the research done by Tyton Partners (1,2), which helped add some clarity to the different ways adaptive product pioneers were creating their adaptive learning experiences.  He also shared the work of John Hattie in Visual Learning that shares research based high impact pedagogical practice.

The institutions then got their opportunity to share some of the work they’ve been doing through ALMAP.  Here are a few highlights from the session, but for more detail be sure to watch the video:

  • Adaptive learning is a catalyst for instructors to re-engage with what they love – teaching.
  • You have to think holistically about adaptive learning – it will help you get the buy-in you need.
  • Students don’t know what to do with adaptive learning – they want the comfortable lecture. The key is communicating to students that you are still there for them.
  • Adaptive learning does not automate the faculty out of the equation; it gives faculty more latitude to focus on the students.
  • It takes a lot of academic courage to move forward with adaptive learning.
  • Adaptive learning is currently a craft – higher education must move it to the industrial level for it to truly make an impact.

For more on the ALMAP program and videos of those working in the field, check out our friend Phil Hill of e-Literate and the e-Literate TV series on personalized learning.

Small Group Conversations A

These small group conversations were not recorded, however, through the diligent work of the WCET team, we can provide you with a few highlights from each session.

lego wall kim phu

Adaptive Learning in Professional Education: Flipping the Lecture, Engage Students & See Results – Robert Hasel, associate dean, simulation, immersion and digital learning, College of Dental Medicine, Western University of Health Sciences.

  • Motivated learners remember more.
  • The “mapping” of the content is extremely important. Visualize a wall of legos. Each lego represents an explicit knowledge/competency.
  • Mapping the content also allows for keeping the content current – you can update what needs to be updated in a timely manner.

Institutional Models for Developing, Supporting, and Evaluating Adaptive Learning – David Pinkus, vp for Innovation, Western Governors University

  • Adaptive learning supports both the need to change previously held knowledge that is wrong and reinforce what was previously learned correctly.
  • Competency-based education + adaptive learning = Optimized Learning
  • Consider doing a pilot or proof of concept using micro-interventions rather than whole class reinventions.

How Adaptive Can (Has the Potential to) Increase Student Intrinsic Motivation to Persist – Kevin Bell, executive director, Curriculum Development and Deployment, College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University &

Ann Garnsey-Harter, executive director, Virtual Campus & Resource Development, Shoreline Community College

  • Adaptive learning is analogous to sports, i.e. basketball – practice, immediate feedback, etc. The key difference that the basketball player WANTS to get better at basketball.  How do we get someone to feel that passionate about algebra?
  • A truly adaptive course can be very time consuming for faculty. But prebuilt adaptive learning courses find some faculty resistance. Either way, some faculty will resist.
  • Intrinsic motivation=clear expectations, appropriate challenge, immediate and corrective feedback, sense of progress.
  • Ultimately it comes down to quality teaching. The tools allow faculty to be inspirational.

The Provost’s Perspective: Why Embark on an Adaptive Strategy?   Why Not? –  Connie Johnson, chief academic officer and provost, Colorado Technical University

  • Look at the data and give yourself permission to adjust and change in the process of implementing adaptive learning.
  • It’s about the academics, not the plan. Faculty are key to implementing adaptive learning.
  • It is more difficult to implement adaptive learning in subjects where students need original creativity.

Adaptive Learning Solutions:  A Town Hall with Some of Industry’s Key Providers

Vendor Town HallThis two-part session began with a moderated discussion among leaders of the major companies in the adaptive learning sector, including questions and comments from summit attendees.   Once the conversation concluded, attendees who had the unique opportunity to meet company CEOs, their team members, and some of their college and university partners to learn more about the products and services that support adaptive learning in higher education.   While those secondary conversations were not captured, you can watch the lively panel recording.  Some highlights include:

  • Adaptive Learning is an individualized personal mastery achievement platform.
  • Keep students in the zone of proximal learning. Not too easy, not too hard.
  • Adaptive courseware empowers and amplifies faculty to move from a one to many relationship towards a one to one relationship
  • The future of education will include open platforms, adaptive learning, and learning analytics.
  • Teaching is like gardening: you can’t will the plant to grow. You create the environment that enables the plant to grow.
  • We are all in a shift from education to learning, in a shift from input to output. Adaptive learning unlocks the creativity of faculty.

Small Group Conversations B

These small group conversations were not recorded, however, through the diligent work of the WCET team, we can provide you with a few highlights from each session.

Explore the Exciting Intersection of Adaptive Learning and Learning Analytics – Al Essa, vice president, Analytics and R&D, McGraw Hill Higher Education

  • Analytics systems (or any learning platform or infrastructure) must provide a “safe zone” for students to practice, to fail, to learn.
  • Know your audience!
  • Steps for institutions: identify the need; identify the partner/vendor; collaborate on more research on adaptive, effective interventions, etc.

Adaptive Courseware Options:  Before Selection, Understand Your Implementation Requirements – Dale Johnson, manager, Adaptive General Education Program, Arizona State University & Nick White, director, Competency Based Learning Solutions, Capella University

  • Content curation and course configuration are big factors in the choice of adaptive learning provider. The hardest part is the ‘black box’ – is their algorithm smarter than mine?
  • Content development is an art. Faculty need to have a clear-headed conversation about content development.
  • Look for existing relationships – don’t be a pioneer.
  • The stories matter. Get your elevator pitch. Build on early wins.

What Do Students and Faculty Say About Experiences With Adaptive Learning Courses? –  Tom Cavanagh, associate vice president, Distributed Learning, University of Central Florida

  • Students feel they are spending their time valuably.
  • Adaptive learning implementation ROI: as students are retained at significant levels the tool pays for itself.
  • Building the adaptive learning map takes time and resources.

What Does Success Look Like?  What are the Key Outcome Measures to Consider when Evaluating the ROI? – Rahim Rajan, senior program officer, Postsecondary Success, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

  • During a time of increased scrutiny and reduced resources, instiutions need to be more nimble and adept.
  • Find efficient solutions to produce better outcomes.
  • Consider student outcomes (equity, completion, persistence, etc)
  • Consider budget factors (cost of product, course redesign, RIO, shelf life of the course material, support costs, faculty development)
  • Measure faculty satisfaction

Day 2

The Devil’s in the Details:  Policies, Structures, Business Models, and More

Lively even during their first cup of coffee, Tom Cavanagh, associate vice president, distributed learning, University of Central Florida led a group of dynamic experts through a guided conversation about the details that surround all aspects of adaptive learning.  Experts on the panel were Diane Auer Jones, president  & CEO,  AJsquared Consulting; Manoj Kulkarni, CEO, RealizeIT by CCKF; David Pinkus, vice president of innovation, Western Governors University; Karen Solomon, vice president for accreditation relations, Higher Learning Commission; Nick White, director, Competency Based Learning Solutions, Capella University.  These brief highlights do not do the energetic conversation justice, so don’t forget the video is available.

  • Is adaptive learning really new or is it just technology-enhanced old methodology? Is it revolutionary or evolutionary?
    • It’s revolutionary in how we define faculty autonomy & puts the student in the forefront of accountability. The technology is evolutionary.
    • It’s revolutionary because of the scale.
  • What are the myths and misconceptions about adaptive learning?
    • While adapting instruction to students’ needs is not new, tech gives faculty much more information and students more agency.
    • Retention is a multivariate problem not a univariate problem. Adaptive learning alone can’t fix that.
    • Elephant in the room is that adaptive learning is that it’s perceived as multiple forms of the same content.
    • Faculty misperception is that adaptive learning is either ‘spoon feeding’ our students or replacing faculty. It’s not human being versus machine learning.
  • How do we get faculty on board?
    • Faculty champions.
    • Good faculty will always jump in with both feet. And hopefully they’ll drag the bad faculty, the naysayers, along with them.
    • adaptivity resonates with teachers vested in student progress.
    • Eliminate faculty ‘friction points’ with adaptive learning.
    • There’s a communication problem because of the discussion of algorithms which seem like ‘black boxes’ and the robotization of life.
  • What’s the ROI?
    • Retention, retention, retention.
    • Data show that adaptive learning improved outcomes for especially women & mintorities so there’s an ethical obligation to provide it as an option for our students.
    • There’s also the external accountability factor adaptive learning can evidence.
    • It’s all about the Delta – the change in the learning. And the accountability for external constituents & for students.
    • In the absense of data, antecdote wins.
    • Constructing meaningful pilots, collecting data, and getting faculty to support these initiatives = administrative support.
  • How much does it cost?
    • We’re in start of the adoption curve & vendors are looking for partners, for ‘wins’ so it’s cheaper now than will be.
    • Start small. Fund it smartly. Build up to it as you see successes. Enterprise implementation will come later.
    • It’s an upfront investment, but you may see returns over the years.
    • Good onboarding is very important. It should be accessible and easily understood – like what game designers do for 1st time players.
  • Final question, what’s your 140 character, pithy tweetable piece of advice?
    • If you want to bring edu into this century it has to be science based diagnostic based edu.
    • How will peer reviewers be able to understand the quality of the work you’re doing with adaptive learning?
    • If you’re committed to strong outcomes, adaptive learning is a good commitment
    • adaptive learning is active learning and the data show active learning works best.
    • adaptive learning makes it possible for faculty to be the best teacher for each student

Summit group 15Small Group Conversations C

These small group conversations were not recorded, however, through the diligent work of the WCET team, we can provide you with a few highlights from each session.

Setting a Data Foundation for Adaptive Learning:  Understanding and Planning for How an Adaptive Initiative will Impact the Overall Data Ecosystem – Mike Sharkey, president, Blue Canary

  • Competencies need to have a consistent set. It’s especially good if you can define competencies by career.
    • How do students get their data out to resumes? LinkedIn?
  • Who owns the data, who has access to the data and are there standards for the data are all outlined in the contracts with your vendors, pay attention to those.
  • Plumbing alone gives you no value. It’s the things you attach to the plumbing that give you value (toilets, sinks, etc.). The same is true for the data pipeline. It’s what you do with the data that matters.
  • Hear it a lot…IT DEPENDS. Need to focus on the pain point for your institution.

Leveraging Adaptive Learning within Existing Competency-Based Initiatives – Kara Van Dam, vice provost, University of Maryland University College and Ryan Hively, senior account executive, VitalSource Technologies Inc.

  • Adaptive learning is a method not an algorithm, not a blackbox. It’s a sequence of learning events.
  • Mind maps help look at content and overlaps, look for patterns to help organically form the adaptive paths rather than a linear trajectory. Competencies need to be looked at at the program level view, not just the course level.
  • It’s important to consider what the tools can and cannot do. The adaptive learning tool is a means of serving up content, not a substitute for teaching. The tools can free good teachers to be great teachers.

Choosing an Adaptive Learning Partner (Criteria, Licenses, Open Content, and More.) – Dale Johnson, manager, Adaptive General Education Program, Arizona State University & David Pinkus, vp for Innovation, Western Governors University

  • When selecting a vendor consider: gating criteria; instructional design & andragogy; instructor & administrative access; the pacing & the polish.
  • Vendors should provide you with access to a sandbox to determine if their solution fits your needs.
  • Create a way for students to curate their own content.
  • Your slowest student is your benchmark for how much content you can include in adaptive learning courses.
  • Assessment is going more & more to interactive elements. If you can solve the puzzle, you’ve mastered the content.
  • Overheard in #wcetsummit session – I don’t understand gaming, but I understand the look on my granddaughter’s face when she plays.

Post WCET Summit:  What Are Your Next Steps?   What More Do You Need to Know? – Judy Komar, vice president of educational technology, Career Education Corporation

  • If you have knowledge gaps, you can use adaptive learning anywhere in academia –> undergrad and beyond.
  • Adaptive learning is not always faster. Acceleration is the glam & glitz of marketing, still have to help students persist.
  • Pilot not just to determine if we use adaptive learning or not. Pilot means calibrate! Calibrate the faculty, system, and curriculum!
  • An integrated model to adaptive learning should identify programs/courses that will improve student success overall.
  • Always go back to looking at YOUR institution, your goals, your students. It will be different depending on your situation.

Adaptive Learning is Ready as an Applied Innovation – Are You Ready?

Mike Abbiatti and Peter Smith led us on a guided discussion for the last session of the day to answer 3 final questions – what are the characteristics of successful adaptive learning? Does adaptive learning work? And what 5 things do you need to have for deployment?  You can see the more candid version in the video but here are the crowdsourced answers from the closing session.

The top 10 characteristics of successful adaptive learning are:

  1. Efficiency of getting to objectives. Still the same ultimate goals, AL is just a method to integrate with the current teaching and learning methodology.
  2. Individualized/personalized.
  3. Scalable.
  4. Clarity– data and elements within the system and sharing of data.
  5. Cost effective.
  6. Responsive design.
  7. Basic ed-critical thinking
  8. Measurable outcomes
  9. Motivating- students and faculty
  10. Promoting student success.

 Does Adaptive Learning Work?

  1. Yes, across the student profile and faculty (medical/dental). “Game changer”
  2. Yes, faculty have more time for higher level thinking and at the student level (gen ed. Freshman)
  3. Yes, i.e. Abe Lincoln
  4. Yes, data informs decision making (corp perspective)
  5. Yes, but important to look at the theory and the implementation.
  6. Yes, analytics help faculty and students.
  7. Yes, statistically it helps marginalized students.
  8. Yes, but…cost of entry and ROI.

What 5 Things Do You Need to Have for Deployment?

  1. Effective Faculty Development.
  2. Senior leadership buy-in.
  3. Leadership that is not afraid of risk.
  4. Faculty champions.
  5. Resources/$$$.

santa fe signWe all left Santa Fe invigorated at the future possibilities that adaptive learning holds for higher education.  Resources from the summit are available on our website and WCET has made a commitment to continuing this conversation at our 27th Annual Meeting in Denver November 11-13, as well as through our blogs, social media, members-only discussion list and research.  We welcome those who were there to add anything we missed and those who weren’t able to make it to Santa Fe to join in the continued conversation.


Cali Morrison

Communications Manager, WCET

Follow us on Twitter: WCET|Personal


Photo Credit: Test: Lego Wall by Kim Phu

Santa Fe Photos by: Cali Morrison

Implementing a CBE Program: Lessons Learned from Community Colleges

“We are introducing a disruptive model into the traditional college campus. Nothing will be the same once you take the time orientation off the table.”  Tom Nielsen (Bellevue College)

Tom shared that wisdom at last week’s CBE4CC event, which brought together hundreds of  community college faculty and administrators from throughout the U.S. They shared their progress and hopes for implementing competency-based education (CBE) programs. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Western Governors University, and several community colleges hosted the session aimed at sharing lessons learned.

There has been tremendous growth and innovation in CBE. This is especially true in programs that map well to specific occupations. While it is hard to summarize all that was shared at this event, below are some of my key takeaways.Photo of students wearing mortar boards at graduation.

Completion Rates for CBE Programs are Quite High
Presenters commonly reported completion rates of 75 to 90% for their CBE programs. Some of the colleges’ rates could have been higher. Some students left early because they were offered jobs based on what they had learned so far. Upon graduation, employment placements often approached 100%.

Effective Recruiting, Advising, and On-boarding Students is Essential
Recruiters and marketing efforts need to acknowledge and celebrate the unique nature of CBE programs. Even though community colleges are typically open enrollment, the CBE programs determine whether an applicant is a good fit for the program. Several colleges use Smarter Measure to evaluate student readiness. To that tool, some colleges add assessments (e.g., math and writing) to help assure student “fit.” Orientations are commonly used to increase student success. CBE courses differ from those that students’ previously experienced and they need to be alerted to those differences.

Coaches / Mentors / Advisers (Whatever You Call Them) Are Key to Success
Colleges use non-faculty personnel who are assigned a students to assist. The Coach (colleges vary in what they call them) identifies possible obstacles, monitors student progress, contacts the student (often weekly), coordinates with the student’s faculty, and helps the student stay on track to meet his or her goals. Ed Sargent of Edmonds Community College said that he would never run an online program without a Coach, whether it is CBE or not. According to Ed: “They are why we have a successful program. Student mentors remove excuses.”

Communicating about “Pace” is Important
One college stripped all reference to “self-paced” from their materials because students thought they could take as long as they wanted. That college switch to “accelerated” to change the student mindset from leisurely to active pursuit of success. “Pacing charts” set benchmarks that students should meet if they want to finish the course more quickly. The same course may have several “pacing charts” (16, 12, 8, 4 weeks) to accommodate the ambitions of different students. The Coaches work with the students on a setting a pace that meets current needs. If a pace is too fast for a student, she or he will fail.

Unbundling Faculty Roles is an Unnatural (but Necessary) Act
CBE allows colleges to “unbundle” all the roles traditionally assigned to faculty, such as: course development, assessment development, facilitation, grading, student performance monitoring. If you were to create a spectrum of that ranged from faculty fulfilling all their traditional roles to a completely unbundled model (such as WGU’s), the colleges at the meeting would land all across that spectrum. If you do unbundle roles, it was recommended that faculty be included early and often in the decision-making process. There also was a mix of engaging senior faculty, adjunct faculty, or hiring completely new faculty for the CBE program. In any case, set clear roles, expectations, and boundaries for everyone.

Decide on Buy, Share, or Build Content Models
While Department of Labor’s TAACCCT grants specifically incentivized the creation of open educational resources, the reuse of such materials appeared to be minimal. Most seemed to have built their own content or purchased content from publishers. As the CBE matures, the opportunities to share or buy content are growing.

Working within Your Systems
Most colleges can’t purchase an SIS or LMS that is dedicated to CBE, so you often have to work with what you have. Annie Myers of Broward College advised us to avoid manual workarounds. If you are thinking about sustainability, build CBE processes into your systems from the start. Sam Greer (Austin Community College) lamented about his system’s ability to handle transcripts only to have a colleague from another college point him to the “athletics module.”  In researching her suggestion, he found that there are often alternatives already built into many systems.

Expect Pushback
CBE is a different way of doing business for faculty, administrators, and students. Any time there is change, expect pushback. Find those from other CBE colleges who are doing the “impossible” and learn from them.

Picture of Sam Greet in front of projection screen with many logos on it.

Sam Greer (Austin CC) with the logos of their many corporate partners.

Collaboration Helps
There were great examples of how colleges were able to overcome some obstacles by working in partnership with others. The Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges leveraged existing support systems and shared development costs. Austin (TX), Broward (FL), and Sinclair (OH) Community Colleges are an unlikely grouping, but they have benefited by learning from the advances made by the other two colleges.

Sustainability is Still An Issue
Some creative means of obtaining corporate involvement in the program were shared, but that was mostly at the program advisory and recruiting functions. Sam Greer (Austin Community College) advised us not to count on corporations paying for any portion of on-going development or operational costs. It was my observation that there several CBE efforts were bolted onto existing structures at the campuses. In my opinion, if you are not rethinking your structures (unbundling faculty, replacing some functions with CBE functions) then your costs will only increase and sustainability will be more difficult. On the positive side, higher completion rates means that money can be saved on retention and recruitment of students.

NOTE: On June 9 (after the CBE4CC event) the U.S. Department of Education released its long-awaited take on how it will regulate CBE programs. More on this to come.

Thank you to Nancy Thibeault (Sinclair Community College) and Sally Johnstone (WGU) for asking me to help out at the event. I believe that CBE4CC will share additional information on outcomes from the meeting and any future events on its website.

Great job in sharing by all involved. Congratulations to the Foundation, WGU, and the community colleges who lead this effort.

Good luck in implementing CBE!


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

If you like our work, join WCET!

Credit for graduate photo: Morgue File

Four Recommendations for the Higher Ed Act Reauthorization

Some new federal regulations may be coming your way and we need to make our voice heard. We need your help in addressing concerns in four areas: ensuring equity for financial aid, student identity, accessibility, and state authorization of distance education.

The Higher Education Act

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965. It’s long title declares it to be: “An Act to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in post-secondary and higher education.”

The 1965 version of the Act was 58 pages.

The Act was the beginning of Congress’s attempt to codify the relationships that the federal government has with higher education. Over the years, the rules for institutions to remain eligible to offer federal financial aid have grown. Congress uses it as a hammer to impose additional requirements on colleges. Although the Act is supposed to be “reauthorized” every five years, the last time such action was taken was 2008.

US-Capital-by-Stephen-MelkisethianThe 2008 version weighed in at 432 pages. Seven years later, the Department has yet to implement all of the provisions growing out of the last Act. Life is more complicated, I guess.

We Need Your Help

Congress is finally moving forward on the next reauthorization. Hearings are being held and we think that they may actually have some success in taking real action.

We’ve identified four issues (regarding distance education and technology-mediated learning) on which we would like to see (or not see) action. There are more, but these items rose to the top in several recent discussions with Steering Committee representatives, advisors, and WCET members.

Below is a brief outline of the issues. We need your feedback and invite you to let us know if there are others that should be added to the list.

The Four Issues

1) Ensuring Equity

Think of a college student. Did you think of a young person between 18 and 22 who lives on campus? Increasingly, that is not the norm. Unfortunately, policymakers are often unable to overcome the fixation on the “traditional” student.


Thank you to Christina Sedney of the Adult College Completion Network for unearthing the following statistics from the CLASP brief “Yesterday’s Non-Traditional Student is Today’s Traditional Student” (Updated January 14, 2015):OneinEight

  • Four in 10 undergraduate students are 25 years or older, a 4 percentage point increase from 2008[i].
  • From 2012 to 2022, the non-traditionally aged student enrollment in college is projected to grow more than twice as fast as for traditional age students (8.7% and 21.7%, respectively)[ii].
  • 51% of undergraduate students are classified as independent (meaning: 24 years or older, married, responsible for legal dependents other than a spouse, orphans or wards of the court [or were wards of the court until age 18],  veterans of the U.S. armed services, or homeless or at risk of homelessness)[iii].


What we would like to see:

1.1 Financial aid rules should treat learners equally as much as possible, regardless of mode of instruction, full-time/part-time status, month of the year, or other irrelevant characteristics that disadvantage the non-traditional learner. Specifically, don’t limit aid just because a student is taking distance courses.

1.2  Return to the year-round Pell Grant.

1.3 Develop reasonable accommodations for educational innovations, such as competency-based education, adaptive learning, prior learning assessment, alternative providers, and innovations of which we’ve not yet dreamed.

2) Student Identity / Fraud / Academic Integrity

We’re all against fraud, which is the act of criminals using false identities to steal financial aid funds. This is a criminal activity and robs honest students of funds that could be available to them.

We’re all for academic integrity, which is keeping students from cheating on tests, papers, and  assessments. While not a criminal activity, it devalues the work of honest students.


In February 2014, the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General  (OIG) released a scathing report regarding the Department’s and colleges’ lack of efforts in curtailing financial aid fraud. While the report makes some excellent recommendations, there are places in which they confuse fraud and academic integrity. Solutions for one may not work or may be too onerous for the other. The Department was supposed to issue a response by the end of Spring of 2014, but it has yet to be published.


What we would like to see (based on the recommendations from the OIG report). Some of these recommendations might best be handled outside of HEA, but are added for completeness sake.  See my earlier blog post for a more complete discussion:

2.1 Institutions should verify student identify at enrollment.  This should apply to all students, not just distance education students.

2.2  Reject the OIG’s recommendation to have independent auditors review student identify verification systems.

2.3  Require more frequent disbursements of aid. This should apply to all student, not just distance education students.

2.4 Better define first and last day of attendance for students who withdraw without officially notifying the institution. Simplify current, poorly defined rules, that greatly disadvantage and burden colleges offering distance education.

2.5 “Cost of attendance” calculations for students should reflect true costs. We reject earlier attempts to arbitrarily strip distance education students of the ability to count living expenses or computing costs as part of their “cost of attendance.”

2.6 The OIGs report does not address what may be the best deterrent to problems regarding student identity, that is education of front-line employees, such as faculty and student services staff. If they know what behaviors to monitor, they will catch unwanted activities much quicker than most of the other recommendations combined.

3) Accessibility of Educational Technologies

We’re all for equal access to educational technologies for those with disabilities.


Jarret Cummings from EDUCAUSE updated us on the TEACH ACT earlier this year:

“The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) worked with members of Congress last year to introduce the Technology, Equality and Accessibility in College and Higher Education Act (TEACH Act). The bill proposed to foster the development of voluntary guidelines for ‘electronic instructional materials and related technologies.’ Many higher education associations support this goal, believing that voluntary guidelines could help colleges and universities continue to improve in meeting the learning needs of students with disabilities. However, they have concerns that the bill as written would unintentionally hamper the use of technology to advance learning by all students, including those with disabilities.”

I met with Jarret recently. He continues to work with the NFB and others to develop new language that would be more universally acceptable.


What we would like to see:

3.1 Support for the agreement that is currently being forged by EDUCAUSE, NFB, and others. We’ll receive final judgment until we see the final language, but we have great trust in Jarret’s leadership in finding an equitable solution.The words "state authorization surrounded by all the state names.

4) State Authorization of Distance Education

We’re all for the protection of students as consumers of distance education. In creating regulations, weigh the competing interests of state oversight, federal oversight for financial purposes, and both the responsibility and burden placed on institutions. On the latter point, institutions often highlight the burden while forgetting their responsibilities.


Yes, I’m very much invested in this one. I was on the Department of Education’s Negotiated Rulemaking team last year, which failed to come to consensus on new language for state authorization for distance education.  The Department’s negotiators insisted on keeping a provision that would have disallowed states from issuing exemptions to any institution. We continue to object to that provision as it provided no real protection for students, but would have added considerably more work and confusion to the authorization process.

The ball is currently in the Department of Education’s court to issue regulations for public comment. They say that they are still on “pause” with no timeline for issuing the regulation. If it is not issued in the next few weeks, it is unlikely that we will see a new federal regulation this year.


What we would like to see (much of this is taken from the recommendations made jointly by OLC, UPCEA, and WCET last year. While there are more recommendations, I’m highlighting these three in this blog post):

4.1 Return to the 2010 Language. We recognize the affirmation by the U.S. Court of Appeals that the Department can use state authorization as a criterion for offering federal financial aid. As a basis for any future regulation, the Department should return to the state authorization language released in October 2010 that required an institution to “meet any State requirements for it to be legally offering postsecondary distance or correspondence education in that State.  An institution must be able to document to the Secretary the State’s approval upon request.”

4.2  Recognize Reciprocity. We recommend that the Department continue to recognize reciprocity as a means to authorization. Through reciprocity, one state recognizes the authorization actions of another state participating in a reciprocal agreement. SARA’s progress to 24 states (as of this post) in less than 18 months indicates the success of this approach.

4.3 Exempt Military, Military Families, and the Veterans Administration Facilities. The Department should retain the proposed provision that exempts active military and their families. They should also work with states to update their state regulations to reflect this exemption.

You Turn – We’d Like Your Feedback

This is obviously an outline of a set of proposals. How would you improve them? What would you add? What other issues should be addressed?  Would love hearing from you.

Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat


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

If you like our work, join WCET!

Photo credit: Stephen Melkisethian

[i] Source: Author’s calculations using NCES PowerStats, Source: “2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:12),” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, calculated 12/09/2014.

[ii] Source:, Author’s calculations using Table 21. Actual and projected numbers for total enrollment in all postsecondary degree-granting institutions, by age group, sex, and attendance status: Fall 1997 through fall 2022, Projections of Education Statistics to 2022, February 2014.

[iii] Source: Author’s calculations using NCES PowerStats, Source: “2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS: 12),” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, calculated 12/09/2014.


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