Ensuring Quality in Alternative Higher Education: Quality Matters’ Perspectives

Today we learn with Deb Adair, Managing Director and Chief Planning Officer, Quality Matters and Julie Porosky Hamlin, Executive Director, MarylandOnline; Member, Quality Matters Board of Directors their perspective on quality assurance for alternative higher education.  Thank you Deb and Julie for lending your many years of experience in assuring the quality online education to the continuing discussion of alternative higher education.

In the fall of 2013, the Presidents’ Forum (operating out of Excelsior College) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) created a Commission on Quality Assurance and Alternative Higher Education.  They invited 26 individuals to discuss, over a three-month period, the idea of a quality review for the growing number of non-institutional providers of (largely online) courses.  In August of 2014, they published a paper, Quality Assurance and Alternative Higher Education: A Policy Perspective.

The group identified six questions for further inquiry.   Quality Matters (QM) did not participate in the discussion and we would like to contribute perspectives from our 10+ years in the field of quality assurance for online education.  Up to now, the QM rubrics and peer review process for certification of online quality have focused on the course level, but a program-level certification will be launched this year.

It’s a priority for us to be sure QM meets the needs of alternative providers; fits our tools and processes to their teaching and learning formats; and includes the voices of their representatives in our QA—quality assurance—community.

We’ve organized our thoughts around the six questions.

Would a Review of Alternative Providers Provide a Viable Public Service?

Q: Would a quality review process for alternative providers of postsecondary education offer effective documentation of quality and credibility to the public, including students, policy makers, and employers, providing a useful and viable public service?

A: Effective documentation must be a goal, perhaps the most important goal, of a quality review process that would serve the needs of alternative providers and provide QA for the consumers of their educational products.  Consider how useful it would be if we had a set of format-agnostic quality benchmarks that enable all stakeholders to compare courses offered by non-institutional providers with those offered by academic institutions. For that matter, comparisons within these sectors would be enabled as well. Using comparative data, students would be able to make informed choices, and policy makers would be provided with a common understanding of what constitutes a threshold of quality.

A common definition of online course quality would also enhance the transcript review process used now by academic institutions to accept and assign credit for courses from other providers.  It would offer academic institutions an efficient way to move beyond a review of course content and instructor credentials and to include other factors known to be important to student success.

We at QM have seen the benefits of creating such a threshold for quality and a process for benchmarking across institutions. Very often, the QM course review process and certification have been instrumental in intra-institutional direction setting and collaboration across units.

Many inter-institutional academic collaborations also rely on the QM standards and course reviews to support course-sharing initiatives.  In fact, the fastest-growing segment of QM subscribers are those participating as systems of institutions.  Currently, more than 60% of all subscribers do so as part of a consortium or system of institutions. We expect that the large number of QM subscribers who have invested significant time and effort to ensure the quality of their own courses will advocate for similar standards to be required of “credit-intended” courses offered by competing non-traditional providers.

What About a Cost-Benefit Analysis of a Quality Review Process?

Q: Would a preliminary cost-benefit analysis of a model quality review be informative? If so, how might this be done?

A: Once agreement is reached on the factors to be included in such a review, we can compare different review models already in existence to better understand the tradeoffs to be considered in understanding costs and benefits.  There is the traditional model of higher education accreditation, with significant expense in both time and money for on-site review.  The affordances offered by online education, the format utilized by a majority of alternative education providers, support a more cost-effective process of online, rather than on-site, review.  We offer Quality Matters’ approach as one model used to ensure the quality of online course (and soon program) design.

A QM higher education Peer Review team is composed of three trained and certified online instructors, at least one of whom is a subject matter expert and at least one of whom is external to the institution hosting the review.  The team, chaired by a Master Reviewer who has additional training and experience, is charged with taking the student perspective, applying the 43 QM standards with guidance from the annotations for each, and writing recommendations for improvement.

Recruiting, screening, and training the “talent” for conducting quality reviews is a challenge in itself.  QM has had more than a decade to figure it out, and we’re still fine-tuning and continuously seeking improvements.  Our online database contains more than 4,000 Peer Reviewers and Master Reviewers from across the country, and now internationally. A review typically takes three to six weeks for the first assessment and report; however, faculty/course developers have a total of 20 weeks to get through the review, including, if needed, time to make the recommended course improvements.  QM can and does manage these reviews for a fee; however, institutions may self-manage these reviews with proper training and certified reviewers.

As a result of a QM review, which is open and collegial, the faculty/course developer receives a report with improvement recommendations as well as certification of the course.  Using the Rubric and experience from benchmarking reviews, many institutions are now routinely training faculty and designing their online courses to fit the standards, an approach that prepares the courses for a successful review.  In these ways, institutions have been able to manage the time and dollar expense of course-level quality assurance.

Are You Planning to Pilot the Proposed Quality Review Process?

Q: Would development of an experimental model provide a means to demonstrate and test a workable quality review process? What might that model look like?

As obvious as it may sound, an effective quality review process must be anchored by assumptions about what constitute quality and those assumptions must be codified or captured in what we most often call “standards.”  Perhaps somewhat less obvious is that the standards themselves must have a clearcut focus or target to support consistent application.

The QM Standards, as an example, are focused on supporting student success.  QM has identified factors that are “important,” “very important,” and “essential” to student success.  The QM certification mark is intended to ensure:

  • a course is coherent and aligned with the course and module learning objectives:
  • that the purpose of the course, course components, and their relationships is made clear to students;
  • that the course is easy to use–in navigation, technology, and setting and communicating expectations– ensuring intra-course mechanics and extra-course requirements are not a barrier to learning;
  • that the course is built to engage learners and promote active learning;
  • that the content and assessment support the appropriate levels of learning;
  • that the learner is guided to technological, academic, and student support; and
  • that the course is accessible to all learners.

How did we come up with this particular set of standards?  Our flagship Rubric for Higher Education is now in its fifth edition, a clue that the standards have evolved.  Through a widely participative and in some ways messy process, QM standards are developed and regularly updated from a ongoing review of the research literature on student learning (see QM Research Library); from evidence-based practices; from analyses of review outcomes for the last 10 years; and from a large and growing community of practitioners actively engaged in using the standards.

QM’s mantra is continuous improvement, and our review process aligns with the quality assurances practices adopted in industry and other sectors with which education interacts. QM’s core elements are clear standards of quality for course and program design, training on the standards for faculty serving as course reviewers, and a review process focused on continuous improvement.

QM’s emphasis on continuous improvement is suggested in Figure 1, a back-of-napkin graphic that dates to QM’s earliest days as a grant project funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Figure 1: QM Course Review Process

QM peer review process

What About Competencies and Student Outcomes?

Q: Inasmuch as the offerings of many alternative providers are designed to enable the student to master or demonstrate specific knowledge or skills, would a quality focus that measured competence (student outcomes) be a productive approach?

A: The ability to determine quality in a competency-based approach to education is as important for traditional academic institutions developing competency models as it is for alternative providers.

QM has been actively following the activities and research surrounding the competency-based education (CBE) movement. Our initial response is demonstrated in the Fifth Edition of the QM Higher Education Rubric, which includes guidance for evaluating competency-based learning. Much more work is needed to understand and guide approaches to CBE quality. QM looks forward to participating in the QA effort through collaborative initiatives to survey the field of CBE and identify the issues that need to be addressed through policy and practice.

Would It Lead to Alternative Providers Qualifying for Federal Student Financial Aid?

Q: Would an external quality review process for alternative providers offer a potential pathway for these organizations to qualify to participate in federal student financial aid programs, if such an opportunity were available?

A: Postsecondary education now includes more teaching-learning formats (MOOCs, CBE, adaptive learning, gamification) than it did just a few years ago, formats that are being embraced and experimented with by even the most traditional institutions, and credentials themselves are undergoing a rapid evolution.  External quality review, with its assurance of objectivity, could be an important component in a trend already begun.  The recent granting of financial aid for students earning degrees in CBE programs at collegiate institutions suggests the federal government in the near future may consider supporting other alternative formats from alternative providers.

How Would QM’s Work Lead to Greater Acceptance by Traditional Higher Ed?

Q: How would greater cooperation or adoption of some form of third-party verification or certification of standards of practice shared among organizations that review courses or student learning for credit improve wider understanding, acceptance, and utilization of the work of these organizations by colleges and universities?

A: This question asks, in part, how to broker a deal between external organizations that have developed principles addressing educational quality (QM, ACE, OLC are examples) and the colleges and universities that must be convinced these principles and the processes for applying them are sound: sound enough to warrant entering into a college transcript a “course” or other package of learning from an alternative provider. For quality assurance of alternative education to be effective, all parties must agree on standards and buy in to an evaluation process.

QM was developed as an answer to the need for inter-institutional quality assurance in online learning for a consortium of higher education institutions. Participating institutions had worked out how to run a seat-sharing program to allow students to enroll in one another’s courses, but the problem remained to convince stakeholders that students would be receiving an equivalent quality learning experience regardless of where they took their course. A common metric, one that is valid, consistently and rigorously applied, and collaboratively developed, was the answer that worked for the consortium, and later for other consortia around the country.

In Conclusion

We at QM are excited about the new educational options brought by alternative providers and excited to participate in a broadened and inclusive conversation about quality.


Deb Adair headshotDeb Adair,
Managing Director and Chief Planning Officer,
Quality Matters






Julie-Porosky-HamlinJulie Porosky Hamlin,
Executive Director, MarylandOnline
Member, Quality Matters Board of Directors


CCCOnline Finds Success in Six-week Intensive Courses

As of summer 2014 CCCOnline has been offering 6-week intensive courses.  These have shown great promise in terms of student interest, student success/retention, and instructor satisfaction.  Before I embark on this journey we’ve been on, first a little background on CCCOnline:  CCCOnline is part of the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) and is composed of 13 Colorado Community Colleges and CCCOnline.

CCCOnline LogoCCCOnline is not its own college, but rather we are a service organization for the 13 CCCS colleges; we provide online courses on behalf of the colleges in our system.  It’s a relatively unique set-up and a good story for another day.  An interesting note here is that many of the colleges also have their own online offerings delivered through their respective colleges.  Now, let’s get back to our experiences with offering shorter intensive term courses.

During the spring semester of 2014, CCCOnline decided to begin a quest to offer 6-week short courses.  Previously, our terms were 10- and 15-week terms.  We wanted to know:

  • Were students interested in these intensive online courses?
  • Which courses would be best to offer in a shortened timeframe?
  • How would the retention/success rates compare with our 10- and 15-week terms?
  • If successful, what would be our plans going forward?

And last, our Executive Director wanted a summer 2014 pilot, so an urgent question was

  • How would we get them developed in time for a summer 2014 pilot?

Were students interested in intensive online courses?

Anecdotally, students often asked if they could finish online courses earlier than the class schedule indicated.  Nationally, we were aware of other online schools offering alternatives for students to finish their degrees more quickly.  So, the time seemed right to give this a try.  After one pilot run (summer 2014) and one full semester run (the spring 2015 semester consisted of a 15 week, 10 week and two 6 weeks parts of term), we found students are definitely interested in these intensive 6 week terms.  Compared to the enrollments at our system colleges, due to our 6 week courses, our enrollments for the summer and spring terms were up when most of the CCCS colleges’ enrollments went down.  Our 6 week online courses accounted for much of our growth.

Which courses would be best to offer in a shortened timeframe?

Our Associate Deans and Program Chairs were engaged in a conversation on which courses they felt could be responsibly offered in this timeframe.  After receiving suggestions from this group, we looked at enrollment numbers for these courses as well as reviewing CCCS’ Associate of Arts and Associate of Science degrees.  Courses selected from the suggestions provided by the Associate Deans were those with healthy enrollments (so we were assured of student interest in these courses) as well as courses that could be taken in order to help completion with a 2-year degree.  Most of the courses were in our Liberal Arts/Humanities areas and included English, History, Communications, Sociology, and Psychology courses.  We also selected a couple of 1-2 credit health care courses as health care programs are in high demand.

How did we get 13 courses developed in time for a summer, 2014 pilot?

During the spring 2014 semester, our Executive Director wanted to go with a 6-week part-of-term pilot for summer 2014.  Since there’s no time like the present to jump in with both feet, we decided to go for it.

We had about 3 months to revamp 13 of our courses to a 6-week format.  To this end, we contracted with an external vendor to take our 13 pilot courses, redo the schedule and course alignment to fit a 6 week term and fit our courses into our existing Master Course Template.  In short, it was a mad scramble but we got it done and out the door.  The courses weren’t perfect, but they were good enough to run a successful pilot.

Here are some lessons learned:  if you can sufficiently plan ahead and not do a mad dash to the finish line this will significantly lengthen the life of your employees.  Also, in hindsight, we probably could have done a quicker, less expensive, and better job if we had kept the work in house and used our internal subject matter experts and instructional designers.  Since our timeline was so short, much time was spent communicating back and forth on expectations with the external vendor.  If we had kept the work in-house, the work would have been more efficient.

On a side note, we chose instructors who were among our best to teach these intensive courses.  As much as possible, we wanted to make sure that for these courses we had instructors who were highly skilled with online teaching and thus would be highly engaging and responsive for the students.

How did the retention/success rates compare with our 10 and 15 week terms?

6 week pass rates were comparable to 10 or 15 week coursesFor the 6-week pilot, we were expecting lower retention/success rates.  This happened in some courses but the success rate also happened to be higher in some areas.  The average pass rate for these courses was 67.25% and the average DFW rate was 32.77% (the average drop rate was 19.33%).  These percentages are more or less in line with our 10- and 15-week terms – we were happily surprised.

Anecdotally, we received comments from student and instructors alike that these courses were indeed very “intense” but the fast nature made both students and instructors very focused on the courses.  Many students felt like they learned more due to their higher levels of engagement and instructors were grateful for finishing their teaching duties early and having some time to enjoy the summer.

Some students felt the courses were too fast. Many were able to figure this out soon enough to drop the course without any financial penalty.

What are our plans going forward?

Before the summer 2014 pilot started, CCCOnline committed to not offering any 6-week courses in fall 2014 so that we could assess if: 1) the pilot was successful (it was) and 2) if the pilot was successful, to survey student and instructors on how to improve the courses and then to do so before offering the courses again in spring 2015.

For spring 2015, we were able to add three additional 6-week courses, so currently we have a total of 16 courses (two more being developed).  For the summer 2015 semester, we will offer a 10-week term and a 6-week “Fast Track” term.  For fall 2015 we will offer a 15, 10 and two 6-week terms.  After the fall 2015 semester, we will look at the enrollment, retention and success data for these intensive courses and determine which parts of term to best offer certain courses.

Future plans also include:

  • Marketing these courses with degree plans so students can plan to complete their degree requirements in a shorter time frame;
  • Marketing these courses to 4-year students who need a summer course for transfer;
  • Putting more of a strategic framework around these course by showcasing Liberal Arts/Humanities offerings, CTE offerings, and Healthcare offerings;
  • Partnering with our system colleges to offer these courses in conjunction with their degree and certificate offerings.

With questions or comments in regards to this topic, please feel free to contact Terry Reeves at terry.reeves@cccs.edu or call at 720 858 2215.
Photo of Terry Reeves.

Terry Reeves
Dean of Academic Instruction
Colorado Community Colleges Online

State Authorization “On Ground” Rule: No More Delays, More Confusion to Come

The final state authorization deadline for “on ground” programs approaches quickly

A U.S. Department of Education regulation that outlines steps states must take in overseeing institutions within their own boundaries will take effect on July 1 of this year. It originally was slated to take effect in 2011, but has been delayed by a year for each of the last four years.

At the NASASPS (state regulator) meeting last week, Sophia McArdle informed participants that there will be no more extensions. Beginning in July, institutions that are undergoing financial aid reviews (which we lovingly call “audits”) will be asked to demonstrate that they are in compliance.

Can We Expect Confusion?

Photo of a crosswalk light that has both the don't walk and walk symbols illuminated.

Confused about whether to stay or go on state authorization?

Oh yes.

First, the “on ground” regulations should NOT BE CONFUSED WITH THE FEDERAL DISTANCE EDUCATION regulations that were vacated by the federal courts. The distance education regulation is Chapter 34, §600.9(c). That regulation is not being enforced by court order. While the Department of Education is interested in bringing back the distance education regulation, they currently have not announced a timeline for doing so.  Dr. McArdle confirmed that this regulation is still on “pause.”  Since many in our sphere associate state authorization with distance education, there will be some panic about this. Please help in allaying their fears.

Second, regarding distance education, state regulations are still very much in place and states expect you to follow their laws. Some people are still in denial about this.

Third, while there are only a few provisions to the “on ground” regulation (see Chapter 34, §600.9(a) and (b)), guidance from the Department has sometimes been confusing. While many states were in compliance from the start, a few states that needed to make changes were slow to respond.

 What is Expected of Institutions (and Therefore States)?

The Department of Education can’t force states to adopt regulations or practices. To obtain federal financial aid, the Department can place many demands on institutions. They can “entice” states to want to follow a prescribed course of action.

To get the states to change their ways, the requirements are placed on the institutions. The loss of federal aid is a good enticement. I have a mental image of a driver waving a police officer over and requesting the officer search the car. It’s just not normal.

In brief, the state must authorize EVERY institution that seeks federal aid and must have a “process to review and appropriately act on complaints concerning the institution including enforcing applicable State laws .” For a more complete explanation, see a great post from Greg Ferenbach and Matthew Johnson of Cooley, LLP.

Who is at Risk?

Mostly institutions that don’t think they report to the state, at all. Most public and for-profit institutions are probably safe. Publics have a clear line of authority and states are interested in the actions of for-profit institutions.

At greatest risk are community colleges (that are not funded by the state) and non-profits institutions. At a recent meeting, a representative of a religious college assured us that the state has no say over what they do. Well, that’s fine if you don’t want federal student aid. I also will refer you to a great book by Alan Contreras (former state regulator, but now of SARA) in which he details the legal basis behind the state determining who can or cannot issue degrees.

The others at risk will be those in states in which they have not created complaint processes for institutions within the state. I’m not sure every state had done this.

What Should You Do?

Pretend that your institution is completing the financial aid review forms. Can you identify the state entity that oversees you? Can you identify the state entity that would act on complaints from a student who is not satisfied with the outcome of your internal complaint process?

  • If you can answer “yes” to those two questions, you should be good to go.
  • If you answer “no” to either question, it’s time to figure out how to rectify that situation. There will probably be a process for the state to issue you a letter to explain why they are not yet in compliance.

Next, you should make sure that you are properly notifying ALL students (on-campus and online, “enrolled or prospective”) students about external complaint processes. In place since July 2011, Chapter 34, §668.43(b) requires an institution to provide “contact information for filing complaints with its accreditor and with its State approval or licensing entity and any other relevant State official or agency that would appropriately handle a student’s complaint.” Be sure that you have this information in a place on your website that is reasonably discoverable by someone looking for it. Pairing this contact information with a description of your college’s internal complaint process is a good practice. In previous posts, we clarified misconceptions on this regulation and answered questions as a result of that first posting.

Finally, get ready for those calls when people think they will lose aid if your institution is not approved in other states. I’m sure you have all the approvals you need anyway. After all, it’s the law.


Russell PoulinPhoto of Russ Poulin with a bat.
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
Twitter:  wcet_info and RussPoulin

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenyee/278775281/

Defining a New Model of Education: What Do Coding Bootcamps Mean for Higher Ed?

David Clinefelter, Chief Academic Officer at the Learning House,  joins us on the Frontiers blog today to share a partnership that is bringing college credit to coding bootcamps, helping students gain real world skills and credit towards a college credential at the same time. Thanks, David!

Innovation is the name of the game in higher education recently, and the federal government is getting in on the act. The Obama administration has made improving access to education, increasing the number of high school and college graduates, and promoting skills for a 21st century workforce a priority. While not the only factor, this commitment has helped to drive the growth of a new form of learning called coding bootcamps. Taking their nomenclature from the intensive training new recruits into the armed forces go through, coding bootcamps are intended to provide short term (eight to 14 weeks), immersive (all day, every day) programs that train people to be software developers (coders).

A National Commitment to Change

Coding bootcamp in actionIn early March, President Obama announced his Tech Hire initiative, which aims to help people acquire the practical skills they need for employment in “well-paying” technology jobs, such as software developers and coders. The initiative is encouraging both traditional colleges and universities as well as non-traditional providers to consider how they can better serve their population by enabling them to acquire relevant job skills for an evolving economy.

According to the White House, there are 500,000 open tech jobs, and not enough workers to fill this demand. These jobs are not concentrated only in tech hubs like San Francisco, but rather, are in cities across the country. Every city and region needs more coders.  To help meet this need, the Tech Hire initiative is trying to bring together public and private investment dollars, as well as encourage new, faster models of skill acquisition, such as coding bootcamps.

As part of the Tech Hire initiative, the federal government is investing $100 million to train and connect workers to good jobs in technology and related fields. Private companies, such as LinkedIn and Capitol One, are committing to aid the program.

Of those non-traditional models of education, coding bootcamps appear to be one of the most promising.

Technology Goes Local

code Louisville logoNot only is there a national commitment to increasing tech skills, but also local initiatives as well. Code Louisville, for example, is a coalition of government agencies and private enterprise developed to train people in Louisville, Kentucky, for the jobs of tomorrow.

“It’s kind of this vicious cycle,” said Rider Rodriguez, one of the co-founders of Code Louisville, in an interview with WFPL. “We don’t have a lot of software developers here because we don’t have a lot of software developers growing up. You don’t run into a lot of people who have those skills and do those jobs.”

Defining A New Model of Vocational Education

The appeal of bootcamps is simple: in some short, defined period of time (typically eight to 14 weeks), students will gain relevant skills that will enable them to find a well-paying job. Although currently bootcamps are focused on teaching programming languages, it is possible that in the future, they will be offered in disciplines such as marketing or finance.

Many bootcamps boast exceptional job placement rates for graduates; the Software Craftsmanship Guild (SWCG), for example, has a 96 percent placement rate.

“Bootcamps offer a unique opportunity to serve a distinct population,” said Eric Wise, founder and Chief Academic Officer of the Software Craftsmanship Guild. “Because they are so short, intensive, and skills-based, they appeal to highly motivated, talented people who don’t want or need to commit to a four-year degree, but who do want to make a change in their career and their life.”

How Do Bootcamps Work?: A Case Study

Learning House, a provider of online education solutions, was intrigued by the potential of coding bootcamps, but also realized the academic potential this model had. When Learning House began to consider offering bootcamps, most of the providers in the space were small, for-profit companies that were focused primarily on job placement as an outcome. Learning House imagined more.

“Bootcamps provide a terrific introduction to coding, giving students a solid foundation in core principles of software development,” said Dr. David Clinefelter, Chief Academic Officer of Learning House. “But we also know the value of the four-year degree. We felt that by partnering with an accredited, not-for-profit institution, we could expand the potential of bootcamps.”

Learning House turned to one of its partner institutions, Concordia University, St. Paul, for help in launching this innovative program. Using curriculum and expertise developed by SWCG, Learning House and Concordia were able to develop a coding bootcamp in the St. Paul area. Not only did the course teach the fundamentals of .NET to students, but it also offered college credit to students who graduated from the program.  The credits count toward the University’s BS in Computer Science, and students are eligible for financial aid if they commit to continuing in the computer science degree program after completing the bootcamp.

“Working with Learning House and the Software Craftsmanship Guild allowed us to offer students in Minnesota an immersive experience that prepares them not only for the jobs of today, but also for the industries of tomorrow,” said Eric LaMott, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Concordia University, St. Paul. “The development of this program supports our goal of being responsive to the needs of today’s students and relevant to the skills employers seek.”

Getting Started

Developing a bootcamp program is, in some ways, both easier and more difficult than launching a new traditional program.

“We were able to rely on the experience SWCG brought to the table, which was an immense help,” said Todd Zipper, President and Chief Executive Officer of Learning House. “But there were a lot of operational logistics that also needed to be figured out, and figured out quickly.”

Concordia University provided the classroom for the coding bootcamp, administrative services such as financial aid, and most importantly, academic oversight.  The Learning House provided marketing, enrollment management, and recruited companies for an employer network.

Once the physical space was identified and set up, students were needed. The appeal of bootcamps, however, was evident from the marketing campaign. With minimal marketing – a mention on a local morning television show, some radio advertisements, and word of mouth – the inaugural bootcamp class was quickly filled.

“Students want a program that they know will lead to a positive result,” said Zipper. “Our Coding Bootcamp so clearly offered relevant, real-world skills, leading towards jobs with high salaries. And because we were partnered with a college that students recognized, they knew they could trust the quality of the education they were receiving. It was a win-win.”

Bootcamp Operation

CSP coding bootcamp logoThe Coding Bootcamp at Concordia is a 12-week, full-time, immersive program. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., students attend class in person and, through a mixture of lectures and practice, learn the fundamentals of either .NET or Java software languages.  The students are also expected to put in an additional 20 to 30 hours of work outside of the classroom per week.

Learning House has partnered with approximately a dozen local employers to help graduates find software development jobs. That employer network continues to grow, as demand from employers and IT recruiters increases.

For those students who wish to pursue their education, they are admitted into Concordia’s BS in Computer Science program, and will be given 12 college credits for completion of the bootcamp.

The Results

Even though the University and the Learning House were confident there was a need, the rapid success of the program still came as a surprise. Each session of coding bootcamp at Concordia has space for 12 to 16 students; before the first session launched, there was already a waiting list for the next session.

Such interest was not misplaced. Although the bootcamp demands a lot of time and energy, there was a 100% retention rate for the inaugural class.

“We asked a lot of our students,” said LaMott. “But we also worked to make sure everyone we admitted had the drive to succeed, and knew the expectations of both time and effort the bootcamp would require.”

Coding bootcamp gradsBefore admission into the bootcamp, students are required to complete an aptitude test and conduct an interview with an admissions counselor. They also completed approximately 60 hours of prework (online tutorials about coding basics.)  This helped ensure that all who were admitted had enough interest and ability in coding to stick with the intensive program. These admissions requirements not only helped the retention rates of the program, but also helped ensure a better classroom experience, since almost all students had the same level of expertise and passion for the subject.

Job placement rates are calculated after 90 days, so the final numbers are not in yet for the first bootcamp class. But within the first two weeks after completing the bootcamp, almost 70 percent of students have jobs as software developers. Several have chosen to continue into the BS in Computer Science program at Concordia.

The next bootcamp session also is filled, and the same retention and job placement rates are expected.

What the Future Holds

The success of the Concordia coding bootcamp confirmed Learning House’s commitment to bootcamps as a model of education for the future.  To that end, Learning House acquired SWCG and intends to offer coding bootcamps across the country. By the end of 2015, Learning House will be offering bootcamps in Akron, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; and St. Paul, Minneapolis. Learning House partnered with Code Louisville to help launch its Louisville bootcamp.

“Bootcamps are an extension of the core philosophy of Learning House that education should empower you to live the life you want. We could not be more pleased to be bringing the expertise of SWCG into the Learning House family, and we look forward to being on the forefront of this new education model.”

As more bootcamps are offered and more employers experience the value graduates can bring to needed, and hard to fill, roles, Learning House anticipates even more partnerships with major employers and universities in cities where bootcamps are offered. This new model of education – one where education and industry work together to provide students with relevant skills that prepare them to become drivers of the economy – offers immense possibility. Learning how to successfully become a part of this new approach to education will be critical to the success of institutions in the coming decades.


Dave Clinefelter headshotDavid Clinefelter
Chief Academic Officer
The Learning House

Breaking Bad: Improving College and University Teaching

Tony Bates has had a distinguished career promoting distance learning and open learning and content initiatives around the world.  Today Tony shares with us his latest book – an online, open textbook – as a resource for those teaching in our current digital age.  Thanks, Tony!

or: why I wrote an open online textbook for faculty.

I’ve just published an online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, aimed at faculty, instructors and teachers. As the title suggests, it’s a guide to teaching in an age when our students are immersed in technology. My aim is to give teachers, instructors  and faculty a foundational base of  theory and knowledge for their teaching, no matter what changes or pressures they face.

Why this book?

The main reason I wrote the book is because I couldn’t find anything similar for college and university faculty that provides in one place all that they need to know to teach well in today’s challenging environment. In particular, I wanted to provide some guidance on the following issues faced by all instructors today:

  • is the nature of knowledge changing, and how do different views on the nature of knowledge result in different approaches to teaching?
  • what is the science and research that can best help me in my teaching?
  • how do I decide whether my courses should be face-to-face, blended or fully online?
  • what methods of teaching are most effective for blended and online classes?
  • how do I make choices among all the available media, whether text, audio, video, computer, or social media, in order to benefit my students and my subject?
  • how do I maintain high quality in my teaching in a rapidly changing learning environment while managing my workload?
  • what are the real possibilities for teaching and learning using MOOCs, open educational resources and open textbooks?

What’s in the book?

Teaching in a Digital Age ImageThere are really six parts to the book.

The first chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book. It looks at the key changes that are forcing teachers and instructors to reconsider their goals and methods of teaching. In particular it identifies the key knowledge and skills that students need in a digital age.

Chapters 2 through 5 on epistemology and teaching methods address the more theoretical and methodological aspects of teaching and learning in a digital age. Chapter 2 covers different views on the nature of knowledge and how these understandings of knowledge influence theories of learning and methods of teaching. Chapters 3 and 4 analyze the strengths and weaknesses of different methods of teaching ranging from solely campus-based through blended to fully online. Chapter 5 looks at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. These chapters form a theoretical foundation for what follows.

The focus of Chapters 6 through 8 is on how to choose and use different media and technologies in teaching, with a particular focus on the unique pedagogical characteristics of different media. Chapter 8 ends with a set of criteria and a model for making decisions about different media and technologies for teaching.

Chapter 9 addresses the question of how to determine what mode of delivery should be used: campus-based, blended or fully online. Chapter 10 examines the potentially disruptive implications of recent developments in open content, open publishing, open data and open research. This chapter above all is a messenger of the radical changes to come to education.

Chapter 11 and Appendix 1 take two different but complementary approaches to the issue of ensuring high quality teaching in a digital age. Chapter 11 suggests nine pragmatic steps for designing and delivering quality teaching in a highly digital teaching context. Appendix 1 looks at all the necessary components of a high quality learning environment.

The last chapter very briefly examines the policy and operational support needed from schools, colleges and universities to ensure relevant and high quality teaching in a digital age.

There are also ten ‘what if’ scenarios scattered throughout the book. The purpose of the scenarios is to stimulate imagination and thinking about both our current ‘blocks’ or barriers to change, and the real and exciting possibilities of teaching in the future.

Why a free, open textbook?

Many faculty are fiercely independent and many, indeed a majority, never go to formal faculty development sessions, so I wanted something really accessible, available at a click: no credit card payments, no workshop enrolment, just a resource available at any time, as and when instructors need it.

The book in fact can be used in many different ways:

  • as a resource for individual instructors
  • as a resource/prior reading for faculty development workshops
  • as a foundational reading for formal courses as part of a graduate program aimed at teachers and instructors
  • parts or sections can be used as resources for those wanting to take a different approach to faculty development.

It can be easily and continually updated, and indeed I’m hoping to build communities of practice around the book so that it remains current over time.

Lastly, I’m at the end of my career. I’ve already published eleven other books through commercial publishers, and I’ve had a wonderful career in educational technology over the last 40 years, so this is somewhat of a legacy project, pulling together all my experience into one place, and making it easily available to anyone who’s interested.

My main goal though is to make college and university teaching more effective, and move it from a broken, amateurish model to a more professional one. So please spread the word, and I hope you will find the book useful, too.

Tony Bates headshotDr. Tony Bates
President and CEO,
Tony Bates Associates Ltd

DEAC Announces Peer Review Process for Non-traditional Distance Ed Providers

How do students judge the quality of distance education courses?  The Distance Education Accrediting Commission’s (DEAC) new quality review process helps students to make that evaluation.

Traditional colleges have accreditation. Accrediting agencies traditionally provide peer-review evaluations to (according to the U.S. Department of Education) “ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” However, there are a growing number of entities offering distance education courses that are not “institutions of higher education.”

Last Friday, DEAC announced its new Approved Quality Curriculum (AQC). This new service uses a standard rubric to peer-review non-institutional “providers” of distance education. StraighterLine and Sophia are the first “providers” to be recognized as achieving AQC status for their online courses.Logo for DEAC's Approved Quality Curriculum.

This is a major step in erasing one of the major delineators between traditional credit-bearing institutions and their non-credit counterparts.

What it is the Approved Quality Curriculum?

The Distance Education Accrediting Commission (formerly the Distance Education and Training Council) is a federally-recognized accrediting agency. Even though they are approved by the Department of Education and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), the “national” accrediting agencies are viewed by some as a distant relative to the regional accrediting agencies. Despite that perception, DEAC’s rigorous review methods are the equal of its regional cousins.

“In AQC, we are applying the hallmarks of our accreditation process and expertise in distance education in a constructive and meaningful way for all offerings of online learning, whether institutionally based or not,” said Leah Matthews, DEAC’s Executive Director. “When DEAC conducts an accreditation process, it reviews education quality all the way to the course level.  We are implementing the aspects of our course review process, and we call it AQC reviewed curriculum. Earning an AQC status means that StraighterLine and Sophia have met the same quality expectations for their courses that DEAC implements when it reviews courses as part of an accreditation review.”

Photo of Leah Matthews

Leah Matthews, Executive Director, Distance Education Accrediting Commission

Matthews credits the leadership of her board in seeking innovative quality assurance processes. Creating the AQC rubric took nearly a year of long and hard work according to Matthews. The process included input from institutions accredited by other accrediting agencies and from providers who might wish to participate in AQC.

According to Matthews, DEAC is careful to separate AQC from full-fledged accreditation since this process is not approved by the Department of Education or CHEA. Consumers were mostly left to their own devices to evaluate course quality. AQC’s helps fill that void.

Perceptions on AQC from a “Provider”

WCET member StraighterLine provides low cost, online courses offered individually or on a subscription basis.  It is one of the two providers to achieve the initial AQC recognition. CEO Burck Smith is a former member of WCET’s Executive Council, so I reached out to him to get his input on AQC.

“DEAC is to be congratulated for taking a leadership role in reviewing curricula and courses from providers outside of traditional higher education,” said Smith. “StraighterLine is honored to have had its courses validated and vetted by acknowledged leaders in quality online education provision.”

Smith said that StraighterLine has sought third-party reviews from other sources and adds: “We have close to 90 colleges who have conducted their own individual evaluations of our courses and entered into articulation agreements with us.”

On his thoughts about accreditation, Smith said “At the highest level, accreditation provides three things 1) access to substantial taxpayer subsidies, 2) third party validation of quality for prospective students and other colleges, and 3) some degree of credit transferability. In exchange, you must offer entire degree programs and be subject to their review standards (which may make sense for a program, but don’t for stand-alone courses). For us, we believed that our price point was low enough that we could forego taxpayer subsidies, that articulation agreements with colleges would create credit transferability and that, eventually, enough 3rd party ‘Good Housekeeping Seals of Approval’ would equal or exceed accreditation as a stamp of quality.”

The Clamor Around Non-Credit Providers

You can probably blame it on the MOOC phenomenon, but there has been increased interest by policy-makers in the question of how non-credit educational opportunities fit into the educational puzzle.  It also helped that the emergence of “providers” such as StraighterLine and Sophia have also raised serious questions about alternative paths of learning.

Some policy examples:

  • ACE was quick to get on the bandwagon of reviewing MOOCs for credit-worthiness, which is not accreditation but does provide course-level review that is used by many colleges in recognizing externally-offered learning for credit purposes.
  • Senator Lee (R-UT) recently reintroduced his proposed legislation (S649), which would allow each state to “establish an alternative accreditation system for the purpose of establishing institutions that provide postsecondary education and postsecondary education courses or programs as eligible for funding under title IV…” Oy! If you thought state authorization was bad, this could be a real headache.
  • The Council on Higher Education Accreditation has been trying to figure out a path to quality assurance for alternative providers and announced a Quality Platform Pilot. In partnerships with the Presidents’ Forum, they published the paper “Quality Assurance and Alternative Higher Education: A Policy Perspective” last year.
  • Inside Higher Ed recently published a nice summary of many of the issues around the review of alternative providers and competency-based education.

The reason that this issue is bubbling to the top is the expected reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which covers the many regulations regarding higher education and federal financial aid.  The big question is whether these alternative providers will be allowed into Title IV or other federal pots of funding. If so, what constraints will be place on them and do they really want to enter the world of regulatory oversight?

” We’re thrilled to be working with DEAC, it’s reflective of the semi-feverish activity going on to ‘own’ alternative credit review. CHEA announced a process,” said Burck Smith. “ACE has its Gates funded Alt-Credit project. Lamar Alexander issued a paper about it. David Bergeron and the New York billionaire are talking about it. The Department of Education is certainly interested. So, there’s a lot of activity which reflects the increasing inability to ignore the price differential of accredited v. unaccredited providers offering substantially similar offerings online.”

Leah Matthews says, “I see an increasing level of interest among higher education research groups and federal policy makers in alternative ways of assuring the quality of online learning that is offered outside of the domain of traditional institutions. I think it is incredibly important to continually visualize the future of online learning and think about how higher education is steadily transitioning to a more ‘learner-driven’ model.”  Besides the nascent “direct assessment” models for federal financial aid, she feels there has been little innovation in federal financial aid since the Higher Education Act of 1965.  We are still tied to the credit hour.

What does this mean for the future?

“Unaccredited providers are challenging a whole host of assumptions about higher education,” according to Smith. Chief among those is that “anyone can offer a college course. There’s nothing special about a course offered by a college or by some other provider — so long as the content, rigor and assessments are consistent (which they aren’t across all of higher ed). Therefore, online, accreditation is an arbitrary distinction that confers competitive advantages on one group of providers — usually much higher priced – than on the other equivalent set. As more students opt for lower priced offerings, colleges will have to acknowledge the validity of non-college courses.”

In looking to the future, Matthews she envisions a financial aid model that benchmarks on student achievement. As for the new “providers,” she sees the regulatory curiosity about them continue to grow. If they start receiving any federal money, they will face a new level of scrutiny that they have not previously encountered.

In my opinion, we are facing an evolving landscape that will no longer look like the traditional higher education structure that we experienced. For institutional leadership, those who do not recognize that the Earth is shifting beneath our feet do so at their own long-term peril.  For the regulatory landscape, there needs to be a balance between consumer protection and innovation. Unfortunately, finding that Goldilocks “just right” point is tricky business.

Congratulations to DEAC and we look forward to following the progress of AQC and other effort regarding non-institutional “providers.”


Photo of Russ Poulin with baseball bat

Ready for baseball and regulatory season.


Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
Twitter:  wcet_info and RussPoulin

NANSLO Web-based Labs: Real Equipment, Real Data, Real People!

Many pressures on higher education make the services of the North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO) essential.  These include growing enrollments in online courses while campus enrollments decline, the need to provide flexibility for nontraditional students, a growing demand for digital literacy, and a national emphasis on growing the number of STEM students, among others.

What is NANSLO?
The North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO) is an alliance of cutting-edge science laboratories based at higher education institutions that provide students enrolled in science courses with opportunities to conduct their lab experiments on state-of-the-art science equipment using robotics, software, and video over the Internet. From any computer, students can log into one of the labs’ web interfaces and manipulate the controls on a microscope or other scientific equipment, participate in conversation with lab partners, ask for assistance from a knowledgeable lab technician in real time, and collect data and images for their science assignments. Through NANSLO, institutions can expand student access to STEM pathways, as they make it possible for students who cannot come to campus to complete lab activities online.

How Does it Work?
Through the NANSLO control panel, students:

  1. CONNECT by computer to control the movement of high quality scientific equipment used to perform the assigned lab activities.“Very convenient and easy to use” Great Falls College Montana State University
    Student, MT
  2. DISCOVER AND EXPLORE. Students have the opportunity to think like a scientist – observing, interpreting, predicting, classifying, modeling, communicating, and drawing conclusions based on the data collected.  Students watch their progress in real time on a webcam that displays what they are doing, and they gather real data to analyze and make predictions and draw conclusions.“It is much easier using an online microscope than even one by hand … You can
    zoom/capture images, and do things you cannot otherwise do unless the
    microscope is hooked up to a computer . . . ” Community College of Aurora Student, CO
  3. COLLABORATE with lab partners nearby or around the world as each takes turns using the equipment. And, students get immediate help from the NANSLO lab techs when needed.“Great! makes me feel like I’m in an actual lab! Lamar Community College, CO
  4. ENGAGE in active learning. As they work through the activities, students are actively performing their experiment, using their settings, experiencing their own observations, and collecting their own data.“This type of unique ‘hands on’ experience taps into parts of the brain that even
    person-person labs miss.” Kenai Peninsula College University of Alaska Anchorage, AK

Photographic rendering of a student accessing real lab equipment via the internet using her own computer and talking to the tech via telephone.

What is NANSLO’s Discipline Focus?
NANSLO has developed 27 lab activities in biology, chemistry, physics, and allied health that are openly licensed with Creative Commons BY attribution.  These labs are easily integrated into course curriculum and include background information, pre-lab questions, and lab activities that can be performed online.  Or, these labs can easily be customized to meet individual course requirements.  A list of all NANSLO lab activities with access to the Word version is available for easy download.  Over time, NANSLO expects to expand its collection within these initial disciplines and add others.

Photo of sheets of papers with instructions on conducting a lab experiment.

Who Participates in NANSLO?
The NANSLO network’s hub is based at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) in Boulder, CO. WICHE serves as the public’s primary resource for information about NANSLO, coordinates communication among the network’s lab partners, provides the centralized scheduling system, and oversees selected contracting and financial transaction services for the partners.  Currently, the network includes three laboratories: the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) laboratory is located at Red Rocks Community College in Arvada in Colorado; the Great Falls College Montana State University (GFCMSU) is located in Great Falls, Montana; and North Island College (NIC) is located in Courtenay, British Columbia.

Three photos of different lab locations and the equipment at each location.

The CCCS laboratory began serving CCConline students in 2012 and continues to do so along with serving students from three Consortium for Healthcare Education Online (CHEO) community colleges in Colorado through a U.S. Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant that established that initiative and provided funding for expanding NANSLO’s work.  The NIC laboratory is primarily NANSLO’s development site but delivers lab activities to one CHEO community college in Alaska.  NANSLO’s GFCMSU laboratory, established with funds from the TAACCCT grant, opened in late fall 2014 and serves four CHEO community colleges in Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Photo of screen used to schedule time on the lab equipment.

How Do Students Access an Assigned Lab?
First, an institution or its faculty uses the centralized scheduling system to reserve a block of time for students to perform assigned NANSLO lab activities.  When a reservation is made, a unique URL and PIN is generated.  Faculty give their students this information, and students use it to access the scheduling system and select a day and time within the reserved block to complete the lab activity.  Students also use that link or the student dashboard customized with information unique to them to access their NANSLO lab activities.

Once connected to the NANSLO lab, students have access to real scientific lab equipment that lets them:

  1. Collect real time data and capture it electronically;
  2. Experiment with different settings to see the impact on that data;
  3. Capture high-resolution images to include in lab reports;
  4. Engage in authentic instrumental experimentation;
  5. Collaborate with classmates and lab personnel through teleconferencing; and
  6. Gain skills that can be used in the future whether in science or other careers that require data collection, analysis and decision making, while gaining digital experience in remote web-based control.Faculty view of the progress reports for students accessing and using the lab equipment.

Faculty can find out how their students are performing by logging into a dashboard customized for their use and selecting the lab activity of interest.  The report generated assists them in determining student participation in the assigned lab activity.

Over the past year, students have been surveyed about their experience with NANSLO.  Here are some comments:

“It was amazing to be able to sit in comfort of my own home and be able to work with this equipment.  I believe this is the way of the future just because it is so fitting for people to be able to do this.  Everyone in this world has busy lives and this makes it that much easier on people.”  Kodiak College University of Alaska Anchorage Student, AK

“What a great resource, it was way easier to use and much cheaper than buying the microscope
for my class”  Flathead Valley Community College Student, MT

“This was great and I can see enormous potential for online students.  Thank you for the opportunity!  Community College of Aurora, CO

“I think this was a great experience.  I think it comes pretty close to the real thing, which is
great.  :)” Arapahoe Community College, CO

In sum, NANSLO can provide real value to institutions by:

  1. Delivering high-quality lab activities to students online in science courses requiring a lab component;
  2. Providing students with access to real lab equipment allowing them to collect real data and think like real scientists;
  3. Reducing the need to expend limited dollars on expanding labs on campus;
  4. Providing students with an experience that can be applied to many professions; and
  5. Addressing the need for flexibility in accessing and performing lab activities.

NANSLO’s future plans call for implementing a fee-for-service model so that other institutions can purchase NANSLO services for their students. It is also looking at cloud computing as a possible approach to expand capacity exponentially while further enhancing efficiencies.

If you would like more information about NANSLO go to www.wiche.edu/nanslo or contact Sue Schmidt at sschmidt@wiche.edu or 303-541-0220.Photo of Sue Schmidt

Sue Schmidt
NANSLO/CHEO Project Coordinator


Pat SheaPhoto of Pat Shea
Director, Academic Leadership Initiatives

This product was funded by a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.  The product was created by the grantee and does not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Labor.  The Department of Labor makes no guarantees, warranties, or assurances of any kind, express or implied, with respect to such information, including any information on linked sites and including, but not limited to, accuracy of the information or its completeness, timeliness, usefulness, adequacy, continued availability, or ownership.

Opening the Doors to Education: Ensuring Accessibility in Open Textbooks

Accessibility is a concern across all of technology-enhanced education.  At BCcampus, they wanted to help content creators incorporate accessible practices into their open materials. Amanda Coolidge, Open Education manager at BCcampus, shares with us how they crafted the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit and how you can take advantage of this great resource.

The BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit is a collaboration between BCcampus and the Centre for Accessible Post-secondary Education Resources BC (CAPER-BC). BCcampus is a publicly funded organization that uses information technology to connect the expertise, programs, and resources of all B.C. post-secondary institutions under a collaborative service delivery framework. BCcampus is the lead organization for the BC Open Textbook project. CAPER-BC provides accessible learning and teaching materials to students and instructors who cannot use conventional print because of disabilities.

BC Campus Open Textbook Accessibility ToolkitAt the end of 2014, BCcampus and (CAPER-BC) contacted the Disability Services Coordinators at partner institutions to find student participants with print disabilities to evaluate British Columbia (B.C.) open textbooks. The participants were asked to evaluate five chapters from the open textbook library and provide their evaluation on each chapter. They were asked to access the materials in their preferred layout, such as web format, ePub, or PDF, and then provide written feedback about their experience. This model worked well, but we decided to take this further and invited the participants to join us for a half-day focus group, where we had the opportunity to understand why they responded to the questions – or didn’t respond – to see how they were reading and accessing the materials on their different devices. Based on student feedback, we were able to create a series of tasks to make our own textbooks more accessible.

Working with Tara Robertson from CAPER-BC, and Sue Doner, an instructional designer from Camosun College who has been working with universal design and creating accessibility guides for instructors, we have developed an accessibility toolkit.  The goal of the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit is to provide the needed resources needed to each content creator, instructional designer, educational technologist, librarian, administrator, and teaching assistant to create a truly open and accessible textbook — one that is free and accessible for all students.

We developed the toolkit in Pressbooks, and as a result it is available in a variety of downloadable formats (PDF, EPUB, MOBI, XHTML, and WordPress XML). Within the toolkit you will find information on how to make content accessible, with specifics on:

  • Images/Charts/Graphs/Maps
  • Weblinks
  • Tables
  • Multimedia
  • Formulas (math and scientific)
  • Font size
  • Colour contrast

BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit Team workingAs you work through the content of the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit, you will find that the suggestions provided are intended for the non-technical user. If you are looking for more technical descriptions of how to make your work accessible, we suggest you review the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines).

Based on some of the accessibility testing we conducted, our technical team at BCcampus is creating a new accessibility plug in for Pressbooks. The plug-in will give users the option to modify the user interface and the exports’ interface, font size, and line spacing for accessibility purposes.

If you have comments, suggestions, or questions about the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit we would love to hear from you. Please contact us at opentext@bccampus.ca
Photo of Amanda CoolidgeAmanda Coolidge

Manager, Open Education


Twitter: @acoolidge

What Can Happen If I Don’t Follow State Authorization Regulations?

Those of us in WCET’s State Authorization Network (SAN) and in the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (NC-SARA) leadership often get asked the questions:

  • “Does anyone really enforce ‘state authorization’ in the U.S.?”
  • “Why don’t I read in the higher education news about colleges being fined for ‘state authorization’ violations?”

States are watching, regulating, and taking action.  Before delving into that, let’s start with an example.

University Required to Issue Refund in “Unauthorized” State

Photo of a rat trap loaded for action with a piece of cheese on the trigger.

There could be consequences for violating state laws.

This recent action is told in the colorful verbiage of Alan Contreras.  In a previous life Alan was the state regulator for Oregon.  He now works for WCET SAN and NC-SARA.

A public university in the Midwest recently discovered what can happen in a relatively straightforward situation in which the institution failed to get authorization. 

 Institution X enrolled an online student in a state in which state authorization is required, but did not get that authorization.  The student paid only a small part of the tuition due for a course and withdrew late in the term, past the standard withdrawal date. The student therefore owed the institution some money, and the institution requested payment.  The student did not pay and the debt was assigned to a collection agency, as is the institution’s standard practice. When the student heard from the collection agency, the student wrote to the institution and said “this debt is uncollectable because you were operating illegally in my state.” 

At this point the institution’s new compliance officer was served this rat sandwich by the affected department with a request for advice, and called WCET-SAN staff to discuss the issue. In our view, the institution was on shaky ground, so we advised the compliance officer to bring in the institution’s legal staff. 

When the institution contacted the appropriate agency in the student’s state of residence, state officials there indicated that not only was the debt uncollectable, but all of the student’s tuition that had been collected had to be refunded in order to avoid formal action against the provider, which could have included a ban on operating in that state, as the institution had no authority to charge tuition to a resident of that state.

Yes, states really do take action, it just rarely appears in the headlines.  Would you prefer mayonnaise or mustard with that sandwich?

All I can say is “Ouch”!

Photo of a line-up of  motorcycle police and their motorcycles.

There are not state authorization motorcycle brigades, but there are those enforcing the laws.

What Usually Happens When an Institution is Found to be Out-of-Compliance?

Many states will contact the institution to inquire about an alleged infraction.  They usually don’t start with a “cease and desist” letter, but I have heard of some colleges suddenly being surprised with such a notification.  It’s a doubly unhappy day if the letter goes directly to your college’s president, as the president and public relations folks at your institution understand the damage of bad publicity…even if there is no official action, but word leaks out about not following laws.

The goal of the state regulatory agency is to protect students in the state by getting the institution into compliance.  Often one of two paths is followed:

  • The institution decides to come into compliance and a process for doing so is negotiated between the institution and the state.
  • The institution decides to leave the state and an exit process is negotiated between the institution and the state.

Either way, at the end of the day the institution is following state law by either obtaining the correct approval(s) or leaving the state.  Fines are a threat, but are rarely part of the final equation as both sides seek an amicable solution.

What About Student Actions?

Ah yes.  Students can take matters into their own hands and sue the institution.  This seems to happen most often in cases involving professional licensure.  As you can imagine, a student will be quite upset after spending several years studying with you only to learn that their degree will be worthless in the state in which they are residing.  A few years ago, I wrote about two such students who suddenly found that their program was unrecognized by the Board of Nursing in their home state.  In one case, the institution sought authorization and made things right.  In the other case, it was only under the threat of lawsuit from the student that the institution took action.

I heard a sad case last year in which a student moved to another state to attend face-to-face courses after being told that she could perform all of her practical fieldwork back in her home state.  She quit her job and moved to the institution’s state. Once there, the non-profit institution told her that a new federal law had been passed and that she could not conduct her fieldwork in her home state.  This was completely untrue.  She quit the program before starting it, received a minor refund, and moved back to her home state.  She did not wish to go after the institution and asked me not to reveal the identity of the institution.  That college dodged a bullet.  I was mad at the blatant disrespect and dishonesty demonstrated by this college.

Why Don’t I Read About These Actions?

Since everyone is seeking the best possible outcome, there is no reason for the regulator to embarrass the institution.  The two parties often reach an understanding not to publicize the details of agreements resulting from findings of non-compliance.

This is all very boring to the press.  No conflict.  No story.

In Conclusion…

It often takes more time and effort to fix an unpleasant situation than to just do it right the first time.

The bigger compliance hammer will come if the Department of Education decides to bring back the state authorization regulation for distance education.  The signs point to their planning to do so later this year.   We will keep you updated on that process.

Meanwhile, states still expect you to be in compliance now.

Finally, life is easier if you treat students properly.

Thank you,


P.S.  WCET’s State Authorization Network membership is now open. To keep updated on state authorization issues, come join us!

Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies)
Twitter:  @russpoulin

If you like our work, join WCET!


Photo credits:
Rat trap:  Morgue File.
Police:  Morgue File.

eCampusAlberta Quality Rubric for Online Courses

A long time supporter of WCET, we are delighted to hear from Tricia Donovan, executive Director of eCampusAblerta today.  Thank you, Tricia, for sharing with us eCA’s work in developing the quality eToolkit. 

eCampus Alberta LogoeCampusAlberta is a consortium of 26 publicly funded post-secondary institutions in Alberta.

From its inception, the consortium was established to increase access to high quality online learning offerings across the province of Alberta. Set in a backdrop of strong institutional autonomy, the advent of a senior executive-led initiative required unprecedented institutional collaboration. Participating institutions sought ways to inform their efforts to collaborate, and the development of eCA Quality Standards became a mechanism to facilitate trust and inspire shared practices across member institutions.

Creating the Original ‘Quality Suite’

Work on quality began shortly after the consortium was formed. In 2005, members developed a position paper on Quality Standards which was primarily adapted from the widely heralded Quality on the Line: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-Based Distance Education, published by The Institute for Higher Education Policy and Blackboard, May 2000.

The Quality Standards were used as a requirement for access to funding for online curricula and eventually became adopted or adapted for design at many of the member institutions. In 2007, further development of the standards resulted in a suite of resources to support the development of online curricula through what was known as the eCampusAlberta Quality Suite. The suite included a set of  Essential Quality Standards, a Quality eRubric, a Curricula Assessment Scorecard and a Course Review and Report Process.

In 2012, It Was Time to Refurbish our ‘Quality Suite’ or Move On

In 2012, eCampusAlberta evaluated the eCA Quality Suite in terms of effectiveness, usage, and alignment with current academic literature on quality of online courses. Emphasis was placed on determining if revisions of our Quality Suite were needed or if we would benefit from adopting an existing external set of quality standards.

An intensive review of more than 40 online course quality standards was conducted, as well as a literature review of quality standards, quality assurance principles, processes in higher education and online learning in many jurisdictions. We also surveyed our eCA Quality Suite users and eCA course reviewers and consulted with experts in online course development.

We found that there was a strong correlation between other established quality standards and the eCampusAlberta Quality Suite and high levels of awareness/usage of and satisfaction with the Quality Suite. And we also identified areas in which additions and improvements were needed.

We determined that our standards were robust and held up well against others in the field and we worked on process revisions and updates to support the use and application of the standards.

The links below provide access to our Quality Suite of materials, all of which is licensed under Creative Commons and we encourage WCET members to use our work. The OERu has adopted our Quality Standards globally and they are currently being reviewed for applicability with open educational resources.

eCampusAlberta Quality 2.0

In July 2014, we launched the eCampusAlberta Quality Suite 2.0.  The suite is comprised of the Essential Quality Standards, the eLearning Rubric, the Quality eToolkit, an online review and database system, and many quality-related professional development resources and opportunities. We also introduced three levels of achievement on the quality standards – expanding beyond those standards deemed Essential to include those identified as Excellent and Exemplary. This initiative was viewed as a means of recognizing the work of those faculty, designers and institutions that were exceeding the minimum or essential standards to more robust design standards. It is interesting to note that where we had experienced challenges in meeting the Essential Standards across the consortium for year, many institutions are inspired to showcase their work in all three levels of the standards.

Essential Quality Standards and Course Review Process

The Essential Quality Standards include a new rubric approach which offers criteria for Essential (the required level for courses to meet), Excellent, and Exemplary levels for each standard. It also includes examples of effective practice and academic references. These are licensed under a Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

The Course Review Process guides the provision of review services to members. eCampusAlberta reviewers use the new online course review system to evaluate member courses prior to these being added to the eCA Course Catalogue for delivery. Review reports are provided to the institutions. The review process defines expectations of timelines and deliverables for all participants. As reviews are conducted, the Quality Team identifies examples of quality course design that institutions are asked to share as examples of effective practice. Some institutions have decided to create templates based on the Essential Quality Standards for their online courses, and these are reviewed upon request.

Quality eLearning Rubric

The eCampusAlberta eLearning Rubric supports the creation of quality online curriculum. Developers may use the free online rubric to self-assess their courses using the Essential Quality Standards. Their reviews can be saved and reports can be downloaded. All works are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

ECA Quality Toolkit buttonsQuality eToolkit

The Quality eToolkit hosts all of our quality resources and supports our quality services. Components include the Essential Quality Standards and their accompanying resources, the online Quality eLearning Rubric, Frequently Asked Questions, background information, information on the Course Review Process, an annually updated literature review, examples of effective course design provided by member institutions, and more.

Quality Professional Development

Quality-related professional development is an ongoing activity that includes webinars, orientation sessions, articles, conference sessions, workshops, etc. The Quality Manager provides consultation with institutions as requested and customized sessions are also delivered as needed. Reviewer training is also ongoing. Webinars are also available at no cost to participating institutions and a new “Quality Corner” has been recently added to our eZine to promote dialogue and awareness of quality standards and approaches.

After one year of implementing, and hearing mixed reviews anecdotally, we initiated an evaluation process in fall, 2014. We held a workshop with a group of instructional designers, directors, faculty, and staff involved in producing quality online courses at our member institutions.  Keen to learn how we could enhance our processes and the experience for members, we openly solicited feedback on the standards, the rubric and our course review process. We learned that there was overall acceptance and adoption of our standards and that many of our members had created templates to support their curricula development. We also heard about challenges arising from implementation, primarily around a lack of consistency in our reviews, tone, and approach. Collectively, we then adapted our course review approach to be more open and constructive and to provide opportunity for designers to meet with our Quality Manager to discuss a course review. An online survey will complete our evaluation of the Quality 2.0 and will publish the results in Spring, 2015.

Please contact me if you have any questions or would like to discuss our standards with our Quality Team: Tricia.donovan@ecampusalberta.ca

Tricia DonovanTricia Donovan
Executive Director


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