Engagement and Leadership

Transforming Your Practice as a Pathway to Fulfillment and Student Success in State Authorization Careers

Please join us in welcoming Jason Piatt, Director, Online Compliance and Communication, Kent State Online Kent State University to the Frontiers blog as he shares an important leadership message with us today.  Thank you Jason for sharing your insight with us.

Like all of us, when travelling or attending business and social functions, I am often asked about my career. Normally, I simply answer that I do compliance work in higher education related to online programs. When pressed for more details, I often provide an elevator pitch on consumer protection and state authorization. However, after reflecting on these conversations, I’ve come to the realization that the work we do in state authorization is really about relationship building; the heart of which involves complex and intense collaboration with a wide variety of professionals in compliance and regulatory fields, as well as internal and external stakeholders.

And although we can argue that our work serves to mitigate risk for our respective institutions, at its core, compliance work serves a nobler purpose – to participate in the process of providing fellow citizens with a quality educational experience so they can achieve personal and professional success. By proxy, this success contributes to the greater good of our world.

It is within the spirit of these ideas that I offer suggestions on how we can balance the need for career fulfillment via engagement and leadership while simultaneously serving our students and actively contributing to our profession.

Fearless engagement
jumping in the mountains at sunsetOver the last few years, I’ve had positively wonderful experiences within the world of state authorization – experiences that have changed me as a professional and as an individual. I have had the distinct honor and privilege to work alongside some of the most dedicated, smart, tenacious, and fearless professionals I’ve ever known. I attribute my growth and willingness to step outside my comfort zones to my incredible friends and colleagues.

These individuals showed me that fearless engagement is a key component of growth. But, what do I mean by fearless engagement? Fearless engagement is simply the process of being willing to put yourself out there, of becoming a knowledgeable and confident resource, of being comfortable with ambiguity, and being willing to think outside the box to find solutions. It involves asking questions, learning how to really listen, and contributing fully to an extensive and powerful support system.

There are a variety of ways to fearlessly engage. Some include contributing to digital and in-person discussions with colleagues, while others involve commitment to collaboration, curating knowledge and information, and even taking on leadership or volunteer roles. Organizations such as WCET and the State Authorization Network (SAN) provide platforms for such contributions and a variety of opportunities for professional growth.

By forging connections with friends and colleagues, you build and contribute to an incredible network of experts in areas as diverse as business, professional licensure, finance, law, curriculum, technology, and other related fields. The act of participating in this knowledge collective undergirds fearless engagement and challenges us to fully embrace our responsibilities as 21st century compliance professionals.

Leaving your ego at the door
arch rock, climber and starsState authorization can be some of the most frustrating, nuanced, complex, exciting, and layered work one can do in his or her professional career. It demands a vast array of skills and competencies, challenges our expectations, and pushes us to solve problems in creative ways. Our long-running joke about “it depends” succinctly describes the overt ambiguity we deal with on a daily basis and underscores the need for patience and constant diligence.

Like all professionals, knowing when to ask for help is a key component of success and is acutely true for state authorization. While engaged in compliance work, we must possess a healthy dose of humility. When it comes to state authorization, you can never make too many phone calls, get too many opinions, or seek too much counsel.

However, this willingness to approach your work in a humble manner goes beyond asking for help. We often have to check our ego at the door and be comfortable taking a backseat to another expert or admitting we cannot be all things to all people. Only by embracing our limitations can we give ourselves room to grow and the impetus to become full contributors to our knowledge collective.

Cultivating leadership
Although the word “leadership” is casually bandied about in the workplace, it plays a central role in the success of state authorization professionals. The kind of leadership I reference is not predicated by title, position, or status but rather, by action. The very act of representing your institution, interacting with program coordinators, deans, directors and external regulators makes you a leader. Providing consultative services to internal and external stakeholders makes you a leader. Participation in and contribution to professional organizations and the knowledge collective makes you a leader.

handdrawn light bulb with blue paper in middle depicting leadershipLeaders function to drive ideas and provide information so others can make informed decisions. And although you may believe you are not in a clear leadership role, you are in essence providing leadership and performing a valuable service for your institution. At the end of the day, adopting a leadership mindset can help overcome obstacles and provide opportunities to benefit your institution and students.

If you have not already, I would encourage you take advantage of any institutional training and development in leadership as it will no doubt enhance your ability to make connections, recognize opportunities, overcome obstacles, and grow professionally and personally. I would also highly recommend participation in the aforementioned State Authorization Network (SAN) and its related professional development opportunities. I have found participating in SAN to be critical to my professional and personal growth; the contributions I can make and the opportunities for connections to other SAN colleagues are exceptional.

Anaïs Nin wrote that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage. So, let’s make a commitment to push those boundaries. Let’s deeply engage and step far out of our comfort zones. Let’s collaborate and contribute, and help keep our knowledge collective a strong and robust resource for years to come.

Piatt Jason headshotJason Piatt
Director, Online Compliance and Communication,
Kent State Online
Kent State University

Call to Action: EVERYONE Should Respond to Teacher Prep Distance Ed Regs

If you have not paid attention to the proposed “Teacher Prep” regulations, it’s time to do so. Once again “distance education” is being treated differently by the U.S. Department of Education.

Certainly, institutions with distance education programs that prepare students to become certified K-12 teachers should respond. In talks with Deborah Koolbeck (Director, Government Relations) for the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE), she is encouraging all her member colleges to reply, even if they do not have distance education programs. I make a similar recommendation to all colleges offering distance education, whether you have Teacher Prep or not. You should reply.

I’ll tell you why you should comment and I’ll give you some suggestions on how to reply. First some background…

An Extremely Short History of the Teacher Prep Regulations
The Department of Education was not happy with how states were grading colleges and alternative programs that prepared people to be K-12 teachers. One of the criteria for institutional eligibility to award TEACH grants to students is receiving a passing grade from the state. Using the existing measures, States rarely failed an institution and few States were paying any attention to students learning via distance education.Picture of a hand with a watch and a pen. The words "The Time to Comment is Now" appears on a letter presumably being written by the person in the photo.

The “Original NPRM” on Teacher Prep
In December of 2014, the Department of Education released for comment a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) seeking to add more teeth to teacher education oversight. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll call that document the “Original NPRM.” Some highlights of the regulations proposed at that time were:

  • The new unit of measure for institutions would be by “program” and not the institution. For example, a college might have bachelor’s degrees in elementary education, secondary education, and special education that all lead to teacher licensure. Each of those would be considered a “program.”
  • The state would be expected to review distance education programs from other states serving students within the state.
  • The state would be expected to report on each program on four indicators:
    1. Student Learning Outcomes. Measure growth for students in classes taught by new teachers.
    2. Employment Outcomes. Measures of teacher placement rate (with a breakout for those in high-need schools) and teacher retention (with at breakout for those in high-need schools).
    3. Survey Outcomes. Survey new teachers and their employers to see if the program prepared the new teacher to succeed.
    4. Accreditation or Alternative State Approval. Is the program accredited or meets other criteria for alternative programs?
  • Based on those criteria, the state will give each program one of the following four ratings: “low-performing,” “at-risk,” “effective,” or “exceptional.”
  • The methods for measuring each indicator and how those measures map to the ratings are left to each state to devise. Sound familiar? This could be as confusing as state authorization.

Shortly after the Orignial NPRMwas released, I provided a summary of what was being proposed. In partnership with the Online Learning Consortium and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, WCET submitted written comments focused on the distance education shortcomings of what was proposed and provided  some alternative recommendations.

The “Supplemental NPRM” on Teacher Prep and Distance Education
In response to the comments received to the “Original NPRM,” the Department did something it has never done before by creating a “Supplemental NPRM” with new regulations and questions.  Issued on April 1 (yes, I know), the new NPRM focuses on just one issue:  Distance Education.  The deadline for comments is May 2.

Our previous comment had some impact. Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it.

Why Should You Comment?
In my opinion, the Supplemental NPRM falls short in some significant ways:

  • It discriminates against distance education. Even if you don’t have a Teacher Prep program, you should object to another case of distance education being treated differently. I am NOT suggesting that we dodge accountability, it just should be conducted in the proper context. Even if you comment only on this one point, volume counts! Let’s stop this precedence.
  • It imposes an unfair penalty. States may each use their own measures and different cohort methods to assess programs. If a program rates as “low-performing” or “at-risk” in as few as ONE state, it loses the right to offer TEACH grants in ANY state.
  • The estimates of burden on states and institutions are ridiculously low. To comply, it is estimated that states would incur less than $5,000 in additional annual costs and institutions would incur NO (yes, zero) additional costs.

Who Should Reply?
It would be great to have institutions and/or colleges of education reply. You would need to navigate the proper government relations channels at your institution to do so. This may be difficult given the May 2 deadline. This is why I gave you a heads-up in my blog post that came out the same day the Supplemental NPRM was issues.

You may reply as an individual. You can’t use your institution or organization letterhead, but you can give your name, title, and employer. It might be good to reiterate that you are not responding in your official capacity for the institution.

How Do I Reply?
Directions on how to reply appear in the “Addresses” section of the Supplemental NPRM. You may: “Submit your comments through the Federal eRulemaking Portal or via postal mail, commercial delivery, or hand delivery.” If you plan to use the Portal, give yourself some time to figure it out or get help from whomever usually does this on your campus.

What Should I Say?
Deborah Koolbeck from AACTE created a great template for a letter addressed to the Secretary of the Department of Education. You should:

  • Personalize it as form letters get less attention. As Deborah suggests, briefly tell your story.
  • Add your own comments. I’ll give you some observations of my own below. Deborah included AACTE’s observations in her letter. Focus on what would have the greatest impact on you and your students. Say why what is proposed would help or hurt you. Discard the rest.
  • Be respectful. We can be better than the presidential candidates.
  • Make positive or helpful suggestions. Personally, I hate the responses which object to everything without supplying, at least some, helpful alternatives. This helps to address the sense that we are merely objecting to any type of oversight or anything that inconveniences us. I’m for regulations that serve a purpose and for which the cure is not worse than the disease.

Another example is the letter that we submitted for the Original NPRM. As you look at this blog post and the letter, I’m all about bullets, highlighting, and bolding. They help to drive home the main points as some people merely scan the letter. You want to make sure that your main points or perceived as your main points.

What Points Should I Make?
Here are some of my observations about the Supplemental NPRM. There are more ideas than you should put in a letter. Pick those that you like. Put them in your own words. Add your own observations.

Do Not Discriminate By Mode of Instruction
Do not discriminate against distance education or any mode of instruction by creating separate criteria or measures.

There should not be a distinction between distance education, face-to-face instruction, blended learning, or any other mode of learning. The college of education or other entity (e.g., Troops to Teachers, Teach for America, Boettcher Teacher Residency Program or other alternative certification path) is presenting to the State that their graduates are teacher candidates with the requisite skills to be an effective teacher. The State’s interest is not in how that candidate acquired those skills, but if the candidate possesses those skills and is able to apply them effectively in the classroom.

The “Distance Education” Definition Creates More Problems than It Solves
From the Supplemental NPRM, the Department plans to use the “distance education” definition found in Chapter 34, 600.2. That definition focuses on “instruction to students who are separated from the instructor.” The definition has been applied by the Department as meaning for entirely (or nearly entirely) the course of instruction is taught at a distance. This creates a large loophole for students enrolled in programs that are neither fully “distance” nor fully “brick and mortar.” They would not be covered by the requirements of the Supplemental NPRM, as written. Examples include:

  • “Blended” teacher prep programs with part of the instruction at a “distance” and part of the instruction is back at the home campus.
  • “Blended” teacher prep programs with part of the instruction at a “distance” and part of the instruction is at alternative sites, such as local K-12 schools or rented locations.
  • Competency-based education teacher prep programs that use a variety of online and face-to-face activities and courses for students to obtain their skills.

If the Department requests that States begin to develop different measures for how a teacher candidate obtains teaching skills, then those alternative measures should not be limited to “distance education.”  It would logically follow that alternative measures be developed for other alternative certification pathways, such as Troops for Teachers or Teach for America.

The need for multiple measures can be simplified by treating all teacher education candidates the same regardless of how they obtained their skills. This would avoid the confusion of creating additional measures for distance education or other modes that are difficult to distinguish from each other.

Support for removing the distinction among modes of instruction can be found in the actions of some accrediting agencies. The Higher Learning Commission and AACSB (accrediting agency for business schools) have removed distinctions for distance education. Those agencies expect institutions to provide the same level of academic and student support quality regardless of mode of instruction. Likewise, States should hold all teacher candidates to the same standard.

The Proposed Change to Certification Should be Expanded
The question vexing the Department is one of geography, not mode of instruction. The Original NPRM was clearly written with the traditional model of instruction in mind. Students who moved out-of-state were lost to goals of “reporting and determining the teacher preparation program’s level of overall performance.” The Supplemental NPRM solved the problem by asking the State to review all distance education teaching candidates in the state in which they are certified. The focus on place of certification is a much-needed improvement provided by the Supplemental NPRM. States reporting on newly-certified teachers within their borders are reinforced in their right to review these teachers regardless of mode of instruction used to prepare them.

Allowing a Single State “Veto” for TEACH Grants is Unfair.
The current proposal in the Supplemental NPRM is that if a teacher preparation program is found to be “low-performing” or “at-risk” in a single State for two years or by two different states over a two-year period, then “no student in any State enrolled in that distance education program would be able to receive a Teach Grant” in the subsequent year.

As envisioned, penalizing students in all states for a failure in one state is grossly unfair. Here are the reasons why:

  • Under the Supplemental NPRM, every State is allowed to create its own measures to determine if a program is “low-performing” or “at-risk.” The Department acknowledges the right of every State to set its own standards. The proposal would allow a review outcome in one state to overrule the TEACH eligibility in all other states. Given the vast differences across the country in populations and geography, criteria that are appropriate in one State might not make sense in other States. Therefore, a criterion that has no impact in one State may inadvertently be applied in that State.
  • Given WCET’s extensive experience with State authorization there are (unfortunately) a few States that value protectionism over quality. This Supplemental NPRM would give those states power beyond their own borders. This would embolden them to remain protectionist. If the goal is to assess the quality of teacher prep programs, then all programs should use the same measures.
  • Distance education programs might have few students in a State and might become victims of an unusually unrepresentative sample in a particular
  • The Original NPRM allows for options in aggregation methods if there are fewer than 25 students in a program in a State. This could lead to variations in how the measures are applied. For example, using a multi-year sample in a state could result in an unusually low-performing class of teachers negatively affecting a program.’ Beyond these suggested aggregation methods, there is also a hint that state could use as few students as they wish in a cohort as long as they are not individually identifiable. Decisions could be made on a low sample. Distance programs would probably have very low participation in most states.

Differing Measures will Confuse, Not Inform, the Consumer
The following statement appeared in our letter responding to the Original NPRM regarding consumers. In this context, we define “consumers” as students shopping for Teacher Prep programs or policymakers assessing such programs:

Confusion for the consumer. It appears that the Department plans to post the results on its website using the specified grading categories for each program. It is likely that the consumer will assume that the measures used in each State will be comparable when they will likely vary greatly.

Presumably, a program’s scores would be published for each state in which it had students certified. Wildly varying scores will be confusing and an aggregate score is not possible since different methods of scoring were used by each State.

Since that letter was submitted the Department released the “College Scorecard” to inform students about colleges. The Scorecard’s use of “graduation rate” measures penalizes colleges that serve few first-time, full-time students. It also publishes “average annual cost” data that based on net cost after financial aid is applied and counts only students receiving aid. These measures confuse students and underlines how even standardized data can be deceptive if used improperly. If one of the purposes of these regulations is to better inform consumers and leaders about the quality of these programs, then comparable measures are needed across states without differentiation by mode of instruction.

Addressing Inconsistencies Among States
As for inconsistencies in measures for modes of instruction, States should use the same standards for all modes of instruction.

As for inconsistencies in measures among States, we repeat a recommendation from our letter responding to the Original NPRM. The Department has powers of persuasion beyond regulations. A joint solution would have greater buy-in and power:

Encourage and Incentivize States to Work Cooperatively on Measures. Given the burden of implementing this regulation, the States would very much benefit from working in collaboration to develop the measures. The processes would not be mandated on the States, but those choosing to participate could develop a more robust and defensible system in a fraction of the time that it would take to do it alone. If federal funds are not available, there may be grant support to assure that quality measures are developed. The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) is an excellent example of states working collaboratively to resolve issues of quality assurance, consumer protection, and oversight of colleges.

The Cost Estimate for Institutions is Not Supportable
In the first paragraph of “Number of Distance Education Programs” section of the Supplemental NPRM reads: “it is clear that at least some States have been reporting on distance education programs…” Focusing on the “at least some” statement, that means that not all were reporting on distance education programs. In fact in our letter responding to the Original NPRM we noted that we had great difficulty finding ANY state reporting on a distance education program.

The Supplemental NPRM later states that: “The cost estimate claims that there is no increased burden on institutions because they are already reporting.” This is logically inconsistent. The same document claims that only “some” states were reporting on these programs and then claims all institutions are already reporting. This is especially true when the entire purpose of the Supplemental NPRM is to propose a whole new structure for reviewing programs with additional indicators.

The Department might argue that it is the State’s responsibility to gather data from these measures. This is an unfunded mandate on the states. The Supplemental NPRM estimates that it will probably cost states on average less than $5,000 each per year to implement the new distance education requirements. It is easy to imagine that States will require institutions to collect the data and report it, thus transferring even more costs to the institution. This is especially true for out-of-state institutions as there is no real benefit to the State to assist those programs.

Is this Regulation Meeting Its Stated Purpose?
Is there a better way that you can recommend to meet the Department’s goal of identifying low-performing producers of K-12 teachers?

“Raise the Barn”
WCET is a cooperative. In the most traditional, historical sense, cooperative organizations band together to make what needs to happen, happen.  When a community member needs a barn, a barn is raised.  Right now, the distance education community needs you to help raise the barn to have our collective voice heard by the Department.  All of our voices are stronger than one of our voices.


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

Investigating IPEDS Distance Education Data Reporting: Progress Has Been Made

WCET conducted analysis on the Department of Education’s IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data since the initial release of distance education data for the Fall, 2012. Most recently, we produced a comprehensive report, WCET Distance Education Enrollment Report 2016, that analyzes trends in the distance education data reported between 2012 and 2014.

In the past, we’ve alerted to you to problems that some institutions had in reporting distance education enrollments to IPEDS. We’re glad to report that many have addressed those problems. A few institutions still maintain their own practices or are a complete mystery. Here’s what we found in revisiting the same problem children from the original IPEDS distance education enrollment reports.

Computer keyboard with the key under the "tab" key labeled as "confused."

Institutional personnel seem less confused about IPEDS distance education enrollment definitions and procedures.

Examining Possible Distance Ed Undercounts Since 2012 – Many Students Missing

In September, 2014 we wrote a blog post that explored discrepancies in distance education enrollments reported in the Fall 2012 IPEDS data. After being tipped-off by some WCET members as to problems they had in submitting data, we reviewed enrollments reports and identified 21 institutions with enrollment responses that seemed unusually low. We contacted representatives of those institutions to seek answers regarding whether the colleges reported all of their for-credit distance education enrollments for Fall 2012. If they did not, we asked about the size of the undercount and the reasons why enrollments were not reported.

The reasons for the undercounts fell into a two main categories.

  1. Distance Education Definition. Confusion about the “Distance Education” definition provided by IPEDS and institutions who shared that they use their own definition of distance education not IPEDS’ definition. The definitional issues were explored in detail in the September 2014 blog post. Institutions are expected to use different definitions for accrediting, state, IPEDS, and other purposes. Some of them said that they just report using the state definition for all purposes.
  2. Not Counting Students in Self-Support Programs. Challenges with the systems that count enrollment, some self-support programs operate with a separate registration system. This issue is characterized in the words of an administrator who asked not to be named, “The enrollments that do not pass through our ERP system are blind to us.” As a result we found two large public university systems who had never reported a single student distance education enrolled in for-credit programs on any IPEDS survey, ever. The problem was larger than just the distance education enrollments as these students were not counted in any other IPEDS report. This issue encompassed many thousands of students each year.

As a result, we learned that the IPEDS numbers undercounted both distance education and overall higher education enrollments by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students.

Has Reporting Improved Over the Last Three Years?

With three years of IPEDS data now available for distance education, it seemed like a good time to revisit the challenges of early distance education data reporting. We wanted to see if the challenges of accurately reporting distance education enrollments for the colleges we investigated in 2014 persisted.

Improved Their Reporting
There has been improvement for some institutions. A large, public institutions in the southwest that offers multiple start dates and reported that it was not possible to accurately report fall enrollment to IPEDS with their current data management systems reported over a 70% increase in “Exclusively” Distance Education (DE) enrollments between Fall 2012 and Fall 2014. This at the same time the overall enrollment growth on the campus increased by 20%. This suggests that the staff at the school responsible for IPEDS reporting has found a way to collect and report data for the multiple start dates each fall.

A state university in the south that reported no “Exclusively” DE enrollments in 2012 reported 758 enrollments in Fall 2014, this at a time when total enrollments increased 2% for the institution. When asked about the lack of reporting in 2012, a representative indicated that they did not have the systems in place to accurately report DE enrollments, but that they were reporting accurate DE data beginning in 2013. The recent data indicates that they have put a system in place to report distance education enrollments.

A public system in the west reported a 25% increase in “Exclusively” DE enrollments while reporting a 3% decline in overall enrollments between Fall 2012 and Fall 2014.

While we refrained from naming most institutions in the 2014 blog, we did name the California State University system since it was their admitted issues with the IPEDS definition of “distance education” that triggered our interest in digging deeper into the data to understand the anomalies in reporting. In 2014, Cal State University system representatives freely admitted that they were only counting “state support enrollments” not the 50,000 students that were taking for-credit courses offered by their self-support, continuing education units.

Analysis of the changes in the Cal State system’s IPEDS reporting suggests that they have probably aligned their reporting with the Department of Education requirements. Total enrollments increased 2% between Fall 2012 and Fall 2014, while the “Exclusively” DE enrollments reported increased 60% in the same period.

A similar trend is evident when reviewing another multi-campus state university system in the west that is known to have invested heavily in national advertising in this timeframe. This institution reported a 13% increase in total enrollments and an 85% increase in “Exclusively” DE enrollments between Fall 2012 and Fall 2014. It is not clear how much of the enrollment growth in online is true increases and how much is attributable to changes in reporting.

Reporting Has Not Changed
Another large institution in the southwest, told us in 2014 that they used their own definition of distance education, not the IPEDS definition. A follow up with the contact revealed that they still use their own definition of distance education to report DE data to IPEDS.  This institution reported a 22% increase in overall enrollments and a 35% increase in “Exclusively” DE enrollments between Fall 2012 and Fall 2014. So this enrollment growth is due to increased enrollments. The contact also warned that the DE enrollments are a small proportion of their total enrollments, so the percentage change can be misleading.

It’s a Mystery
A large private institution in the west strongly declined to talk to us in 2014. That institution reported a loss in total enrollment at their main campus of 11% between Fall 2012 and Fall 2014. Even though they have extensive distance education offerings, they continued to report almost no distance education enrollments. Meanwhile, a sister campus of that institution reported a 57% increase in total enrollment and a 227% increase in DE enrollment in the same period. Could they be reporting all of the main campus distance education enrollments through the sister campus? It’s possible, but that would be odd. The sister campus advertises extensive offerings of its own in academic programs that differ from the main campus. The reporting at this institution remains a mystery.

Reporting is Improving, but the 2012 Data is Still a Shaky Base

The IPEDS distance education data allows us to compare institutions using a consistent set of expectations provided by the IPEDS survey. Observing institutions’ IPEDS data reporting since 2012 suggests that they are gaining the experience and improving their systems and reporting processes to ensure that the data is an accurate reflection of distance education at their institutions. This data continues to inform the industry and the students it serves.

Shows the "Exclusively Distance Education Percent Change in Enrollments from 2012 to 2014: Public +12%, Non-profit +33%, For-profit -9%, and Total +9%.

We reported these changes on an admittedly shaky base of 2012 enrollment data. But, it’s the best we have.



In 2014, Phil Hill and Russ Poulin wrote an opinion piece that stated that, with these uncertainties, the 2012 data served as a shaky baseline. We hold by that statement, but are encouraged by the progress in improved reporting.

This also means that some of the increases for distance education enrollments that we reported earlier this year may be due to addressing the procedural undercounts and not due to additional enrollments. Without having numbers for the undercounts, it is impossible to gauge the exact impact of students going unreported.

Keep the IPEDS Distance Education Questions in the Surveys

The U.S. Department of Education is considering massive cuts to its IPEDS reporting requirements. We can understand the interest in stopping the collection of data that is not used. We encourage the Department to keep the distance education questions in future versions of the IPEDS Fall Enrollment reports.

Even with the problems cited, this is still the best data available.Photo of Terri Straut


Terri Taylor Straut
Ascension Consulting


With help from….Photo of Russ Poulin with a bat.

Russ Poulin
Director, Policy and Analysis


Photo credit: “Confused” key from Morgue File.

What I Learned About Adapting Content – Working with Vendors & Publishers

content The Blue Diamond Gallery 400pxSo you have decided you want to adapt a course and you are just beginning to learn more about the process and work involved.  In this blog post, I will share my personal experience of working through the adaptive process, focusing in on the content issues of working with vendors (adaptive learning platform providers) and publishers.  It is important to realize right away that no course can be adapted without a substantial amount of content.  Content is key.  

To begin, let’s briefly break down the key steps you must work through in preparation for adapting a course before we address content.  The first step in the process is to write out the overall goal for the course, that is, what one or two skills learners should know and be able to do at the end of the course or semester.  Next, you must write the 3-5 objectives learners need to accomplish in order to reach the overarching goal of the course.  The third step is to think through each objective individually and determine the skills or subskills learners must develop in order to achieve each objective so they can ultimately demonstrate proficiency of the overall goal for the course.  Now, you are ready to begin breaking down your entire course into small 10-15 minute chunks, or learning segments, that will become your learning map and eventually become individualized so learners can have their own pathway through the course.  

At this point in the design process, you are ready to begin scouring through the content for each 10-15 minute learning segment you have listed on your course map.  Before you dive into this time-consuming process, you must consider a couple of things with regards to content.  First, do you have your own content that you have developed or do you plan on using publisher content?  If you have your own content and are contracting a platform provider to do the heavy lifting of building out the course for you, you will simply provide the platform vendor the content and then get out of the way.  You are well on your way to moving right through the adaptive process.  If, however, you do not have your own content, you will need written permission from the publisher to access their content you need for the course, regardless of who authors, or builds out, the course – you or the platform vendor.

Publishers, at least the ones I have worked with, have not been willing to provide the amount of content needed to develop an adapted course.  For example, the course I am currently working to adapt, needs content from nearly 16 of the 30 chapters in the book (although not the entire chapter) – so close to half of their content.  Contrary to popular belief, professors do not have unlimited access and use of copyrighted material, or content, such as a textbook, regardless if you have adopted the text.  The 2002 Teach Act addresses this issue and guides professors in the legal use of copyrighted material.  Essentially, access to a high quantity of publisher content is not acceptable.  Written permission is required.  This is a big deal and one in which platform vendors are working hard to address by working with university professors to develop their own content and allowing them to own the IP or receive royalties.

I am a proponent of working with platform vendors and building out your own content for two main reasons.  First, from a pedagogical/andragogical perspective, textbooks are and should be supplements for your course and not the core of your course.  Far too long, educators have relied on the publisher’s textbooks as the core of their course and allowed the use of such to cripple the quality of their courses for their students.  Instead of working to develop current and relevant strategies to meet the needs of their learners, educators fall victim to the ease of use of textbooks and allow that use to dictate their instructional decisions.  For example, I could easily assign students to read a chapter, or chapters, of their required text and assign them to answer the questions located at the end of the chapter or a set of questions I have drafted myself.  That’s the lazy way of teaching and a very disconnected, unmeaningful way to learn.  Or, maybe I could assign students to read only a small section of the text (or better yet, a block of text freely found on the Internet), watch an appropriate video clip of a current event related to the topic (one that maybe I, through the use of free adaptive technologies, insert guiding questions or other interactions to ensure students actively engage with the content), and then further engage them in a debate or discussion on the topic in class where I ask them how they might apply this to a particular situation and why.  Obviously, the second option is more engaging and provides a better learning experience for my students.  But, this option also requires me to do more work on the front end to plan and prepare my lessons, whereas the first option is much easier and, quite frankly, ineffective.

My second reason for moving away from the use of publisher content is to reduce costs for students.  Honestly, how much of the textbook do you really use in your course?  If a student pays over $100 for a textbook and you use only half of it, and usually it is much less than that, can you really justify it?  It’s time to break the status quo of expecting students to purchase very expensive textbooks when there is so many free resources available for us to use.  According to The College Board, the average full time undergraduate student spends $1,200 on books and supplies each year.  Really??  If used as it should be used, as a supplement to a course, does it make sense to require students to spend so much money for a textbook that will be obsolete very likely by the end of the semester and when most, if not all, of the information can be found using online resources?  We no longer live in the Industrial Age of behavioralism and passive learning yet surprisingly we still use Industrial Age-practices and expect our students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills to compete and perform in an Information Age world that requires learners to use technology in meaningful ways to solve problems.

Eventually, the Industrial Age will die off and educators at every level will use Information Age strategies and practices, such as adapted learning, to create meaningful learning experiences for their students.  We will do so willingingly or, eventually, we will be forced to change.  If you are contemplating joining those of us who are already using instructional strategies and practices for the Information Age, I urge you to begin thinking about the importance of content and make the needed changes now to free yourself from the content permissions and costs of working with textbook publishers.  Do not get me wrong, I think textbooks are great – as supplements to a course, not as the core.

Want to learn more about adaptive learning? Be sure to check out the resources on our WCET adaptive learning issue page and follow along on our weekly adaptive learning twitter chats Thursday at 2pm MST (4pm EST/ 3pm CST/ 1pm PST) using #WCETAdaptive. 

photo of niki bray

Niki Bray

WCET Fellow, Adaptive Learning
Instructor|Instructional Designer
School of Health Studies
University of Memphis


Content Photo Credit: Blue Diamond Gallery

Stepping-up Now: Researching Social Media

In an era when undergraduate students emerge digitally engaged, the progressive graduate educator is one who is open to adapt and adjust the delivery of their teaching, assignments, and interactions to incorporate innovative technology. Faculty face both implicit and explicit expectations in order to engage and enhance the learning process for today’s student. Embracing this posture and pursuit needs to be approached collectively rather than by individual faculty alone.

Graphic reading "Social Media in Education" written over the icons for several social media apps.

Current Challenges
With over 100 social media tools now available it can seem overwhelming to know where to start with determining what to choose, why, and how to use it well. Some faculty have already begun to use social media tools in their classes on campus and in online, blended, or flipped classes. However, significant challenges remain. Beyond technical issues and inadequate support to resolve them, institutional policies and guidelines are either unclear or non-existent, as is training in etiquette when using of social media in an educational context.

While some faculty may wish to explore educational benefits in using social media in their class, others don’t consider themselves “tech savvy” and feel they have inadequate training about how to integrate social media into their courses, and some remain unconvinced that this is a worthwhile educational endeavor. Valid questions arise!

  • Will using social media create unnecessary “busyness” and be an additional distraction?
  • How can we use these tools without violating privacy and FERPA regulations?
  • What empirical evidence do we have to indicate social media may be an asset to educators and student learning processes?

Various Affordances of Social Media
There is a diversity of digital resources and rich multi-media components that can indeed be incorporated into student learning tasks to produce creative, alternative formats and accelerated learning modalities. Social media tools provide stimulating opportunity for students to access diverse views and perspectives from a broad audience, including subject-area specialists (collective intelligence).

They facilitate processing of ideas and concepts through collaborative analyzing, ranking, rating, discussing, and annotating resources. Together students can evaluate and critique materials and concepts to produce metacognition.[1] This process is definitely a desirable educational outcome.

Additionally, student self-directed study and higher-order knowledge retention can be fostered and developed through the utilization of active learning principles with social media tools. A well-designed and facilitated learning community can assist students to learn through negotiated meaning as they study and process together.

Research Conducted Thus Far
Qualitative research has been undertaken assessing student engagement as a result of using social media. Findings suggest there is positive engagement resulting in “presence, social presence, social interaction, and sense of community” (Walker, 2007, Preamble).

However, a study of 29 of the most recent dissertations on the use of social media in education reveals a scarcity of empirical research of the assessment of educational outcomes for student learning, knowledge retention, and skills development (Piotrowski, 2015). Most papers seem to conclude that using social media increased student engagement, and therefore, outcomes were achieved in regard to student interaction. These findings provide a good platform from which to move forward.

The Need for Empirical Research
Further research on the educational effectiveness of social media tools is required to fully evaluate what, if any, specific student learning outcomes are achieved when using the various tools. Ideally this research will assess specific social media tools that provide differing educational affordances such as:

  • Content curation and aggregation using tools such as Learninst and Storify, and bookmarking tools like Diigo.
  • Collaboration tools such as Trello and Padlet.
  • Creation and remix using tools, using tools like Smore, Thinglink, and Animoto.
  • Social networking using tools such as Instagram, LinkedIn, and Google+.

From the categories mentioned above, I would propose data be collected from two sample group populations, one group using social media tools and the other not using them. An evaluation instrument for learning outcome assessment of students’ knowledge retention, skills, and content mastery would be administered to both sample groups. This research, conducted across each educational affordance area, would begin to provide a solid basis for moving forward with the integration and appropriate use of various social media tools within classes. We would have the answers to the questions regarding what to use, and why. Then we can more effectively address the “how”!

Now is the Time
Our experience of the somewhat “haphazard” evolution of online education begs that we approach the integration of social media with collective wisdom, foresight, and planning. If we find that research provides data that empirically validates the educational benefits of various social media tools, then institutions, educators, and administrators will need to collaborate and strategize to produce appropriate guidelines and policies to implement their use. Technological advances and student digital engagement now require us to step-up to the plate collectively in order to move forward in a manner that enhances the learning process for our students.Ron Hannaford

Ronald G. Hannaford

Director of Digital Learning and Program Development
Biola University



  • Bransford, John D., Brown Ann L., and Cocking Rodney R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
  • Chick, Nancy. “Metacognition”, Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/metacognition/ accessed March 10, 2016
  • Piotrowski, C. 2015. “Emerging Research on Social Media Use in Education: A Study of Dissertations.” Research in Higher Education Journal, 27
  • Walker, Brian K. 2007. “Bridging the Distance: How Social Interaction, Presence, Social Presence, and Sense of Community Influence Student Learning Experiences in an Online Virtual Environment.” Dissertation, Greensboro, NC: University of North Carolina.

[1] “Metacognition is, put simply, thinking about one’s thinking” (Chick).  Metacognitive practices help students become aware of their strengths and weaknesses as learners, writers, readers, test-takers, group members, etc.  A key element is recognizing the limit of one’s knowledge or ability and then figuring out how to expand that knowledge or extend the ability (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, p. 67).

Breaking News on “Teacher Prep” Regulations for Distance Education

Today, the U.S. Department of Education released a new set of proposed regulations for those educating our future teachers at a distance. The long-delayed “Teacher Prep” regulations could cause more complications for colleges of education using distance education to serve students who are learning to become teachers in other states.

Even though today’s date is April 1, this is no joke.

If you are teaching an Education program at a distance, you should plan to comment. And you will need to hurry – this comment period is only open for 30 days.

Teacher US Dept of EdA Very, Very Brief History
You may recall that the Department of Education was not happy with how states were grading colleges and alternative programs that prepared people to be K-12 teachers. One of the criteria for institutional eligibility to award TEACH grants to students is receiving a passing grade from the state. States rarely failed an institution and few states were paying any attention to students learning via distance education.

In December of 2014, the Department of Education released for comment a set of proposed regulations to remedy this situation. A couple major tenets of the proposed “Teacher Prep” regulations were: 1) the new unit of measure for institutions would be by “program” and not institution; and 2) the state would be expected to review distance education programs from other states serving students within the state.

Shortly after those proposed regulations were released, I provided a summary of what was being proposed. In partnership with the Online Learning Consortium and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, WCET submitted written comments focused on the distance education shortcomings of what was proposed and raised questions about what was intended.

The Current Proposed “Teacher Prep” Regulations on Distance Education
As a result of the December 2014 call for comments on the proposed regulations, the Department  received about 4,800 responses. Out of all those comments, the Department is adding additional regulations and opening a new comment period on just one issue:  Distance Education. Our joint comment had some impact.

The document for comment is 60 pages long, but most of the issues that will have an impact on colleges are in the first 18 pages. In a quick review by Cali Morrison and me, the most troubling passages were on page 15  in “Section 686.2 – High-Quality Teacher Preparation Program Provided Through Distance Education, where it is proposed that a college’s program could fall short in ONE state and lose the right to offer TEACH grants to distance students in ANY state. That might work if every state used the same criteria, but that’s not required. The “Discussion of Costs, Benefits, and Transfers” is a baffling attempt at measuring activity for which there is no good data.  [NOTE: This paragraph was updated on April 4, 2016 as I linked to the final version of the rules that did not have page numbers.]

What to Do Next?
There are only 30 days to comment.

If you are offering distance education “teacher prep” programs, you should review the language with the leadership of that program and your institution’s government relations personnel. You should seriously consider submitting a comment.

In the next few weeks, we will be developing our own comments. I would LOVE to have your insights and suggestions. Please send them to me. I hope to develop a set of comments that I can share with you, as you may wish to use what we write as the basis for your response.

If I read this right, the regulations (as proposed) could have a chilling effect on serving budding teachers in other states. I’d like to hear your opinions. I’d like you to comment.

Thank you,


Photo of Russ Poulin with a bat.


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


Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Education

Bringing Joy to Technology Design

We welcome Alexis Hope, MIT Media Lab, as today’s guest blogger, as she gives us a peek at a new publishing platform that incorporates many types of multimedia into your text copy. Alexis and a panel of MIT Media Lab students will be speaking at the WCET Annual Meeting, Oct. 12-14 in Minneapolis. Join us to hear more about innovation, cultivating entrepreneurial spirit, and design. — Megan Raymond and Russ Poulin, WCET

For the past year, I’ve been developing an open-source multimedia publishing platform called FOLD. FOLD grew out of my thesis work at the MIT Media Lab, where I worked in the Center for Civic Media led by Ethan Zuckerman. The platform was originally created to help journalists supplement news with context to support novice news readers, but we opened it up to the public when we launched. Now, alongside use by journalists and independent writers, FOLD has begun to see wide use in the classroom by teachers looking to help students build media literacy and learn how to write for public audiences.

Options on the FOLD home page include: What is FoLD?, Creative photography guide, Learning from one another-my time at the MIT Media Lab, What's a Zine?

FOLD homepage (fold.cm)

Being “Playful” with Design

In our research, we’re investigating how being playful with design can give students the space and freedom to find their unique voice and writing style. We’ve found that students of all ages are motivated by being able to incorporate the kinds of media they interact with on a daily basis into an assignment, and older students in particular are proud of a polished and professional final product that helps elevate their work.

On FOLD, stories are composed of text and media cards. Text cards form the backbone of the story, and media cards branch out to the side of each text card. Writers can annotate their text with these media cards to create an interactive story. Media cards can be created by searching through user-generated content sites like YouTube, Flickr, Soundcloud, and more from inside the text editor. Blending research tools with a writing environment, FOLD allows writers to easily find source material and references to support their words.

It’s been a joy to see the creativity and expressiveness of student writers; FOLD has been used to create how-to’s, science explainers, photo essays, project portfolios, and history reports, but outside of formal assignments, students are creating fiction and poetry, game tutorials, movie reviews, and more experimental pieces. Giving students opportunities to connect learning goals with outside interests can be incredibly rewarding and gives them the chance to create a portfolio piece of which they can be proud.

Demonstrates how when you scroll through the text in the "backbone" part of the page on the left hand side of the screen, that additional resources appear on the right part of the screen.

A FOLD story has a text backbone with branching media cards that can be linked to the text. A “minimap” of the story is generated in the bottom right corner. The minimap was inspired by our team’s love of video games—minimaps help players orient themselves within a game world.

Demonstrates that in edit mode links from "backbone" text can be made to several types of "media cards" using various applications.

Editing mode allows writers to build their story by combining their original writing with photos, videos, animated gifs, maps, tweets, links to web articles, and more.

Prior to joining the MIT Media Lab, I worked to re-design extremely complicated medical device interfaces. I’m motivated by design challenges that center on making complex systems understandable and accessible to wide audiences. I’m also inspired by playfulness, and believe that when possible, our interfaces should add some fun to our day. In an educational context, infusing technology with joy is especially important when so many other technologies are competing for students’ attention.

I love creating moments of joy for the people who interact with what could otherwise be just another boring tool. FOLD’s moments of joy are created by bright colors, playful language, bold iconography, and support for a wide variety of multimedia. We’ve also incorporated the ability to find and “follow” other authors on the platform, an aspect of social networking platforms with which many students are familiar.

FOLD Helps Connect the Fragments of Information Across Media

Visual design is important, but thoughtful design goes beyond the surface. I’m fascinated by the way that the Web has transformed how people think, write, and learn. There are many writing tools available to students, but few that speak to the changing nature of how we learn and how we interact with information. Increasingly, we experience content in discrete fragments—a YouTube tutorial, a photo of a protest, a humorous Tweet, or a link to the viral article everyone in our Facebook circle is talking about. But sometimes it feels like all of this information doesn’t really amount to much. On FOLD, students are able to bring together the fragments of the Web into a cohesive whole, so they can turn that one YouTube video into something much more substantial.

As technology users we have come to expect beautiful and thoughtful design in many of the products we use every day, and educational technology should be no different. I’m inspired by many other technologies I see being developed with joy and play in mind, such as:

  • LittleBits, whose electronics kits are so engaging you can’t help but invent something;
  • the Amino, which has crafted a beautiful experience around teaching complex bioengineering concepts; and
  • Codecademy, a website that helps people learn programming with a fun, interactive editor.

When design and engineering sit side-by-side and are attentive to the needs of the people at the center of complex systems, our technologies can be beautiful, fun, and useful in equal measures.

If you’d like to try FOLD with your students, or just want to chat about design and technology, feel free to e-mail me at alexis@fold.cm. You can also find me on Twitter— I’m @alexishope.Alexis Hope (with Slinky)

Alexis Hope
Creative Director at FOLD

In Response to Opposition of the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements

This post originally appeared as an opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed. Thanks to Phil Hill, e-Literate, and Russ Poulin, WCET, for debumking the myths being spread about SARA in New York.

A coalition of consumer groups, legal aid organizations and unions object to the state of New York joining an agreement that would change how colleges offering distance education courses in the state would be regulated. As coalition members asserted in an Inside Higher Ed article, the state would be ceding its authority to other states. Students would be left with no protection from predatory colleges and it would make it easier for “bad actors to take advantage of students and harder for states to crack down on them.”

That all sounds ominous. It would be, if it were true.

Map of US with Approved States Map from the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements filled in.

Approved States Map from the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements

Even in the digital era, the regulation of educational institutions is left to each state. The resulting array of requirements confuses both students and institutional faculty and staff. The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) was created to apply consistent review standards across the states. An institution approved in its home state is eligible to enroll students (within limits) in any other SARA member state. As of this writing, 36 states have joined in a little over two years. That number may approach 45 by the end of 2016.

SARA means now there is a consistently-applied set of regulations over distance education when students from one state take courses from an institution in another SARA state. Chief critic Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former official at the U.S. Department of Education, cites Iowa as proof that “some states have discovered they can’t add more qualifications,” as if that were a surprise. Reciprocity agreements depend upon consistency. If Iowa wishes to change a policy, there is a process for regulators in the state to suggest a change. States enter into the agreement openly knowing that consistency is a requirement.

To be fair, New York has been aggressive in pursuing bad actors in the for-profit education sector, as evidenced by its $10.25 million settlement with Career Education Corporation. It is worth noting, however, that the lawsuit was largely based on brick-and-mortar schools that have nothing to do with SARA. In addition, this action was brought by the New York attorney general’s office and was not the result of education-based regulation. There is a relevant section in the SARA policy stating that nothing precludes “a state from using its laws of general application to pursue action against an institution that violates those laws” and another stating that “nothing precludes the state in which the complaining person is located from also working to resolve the complaint”.

The reality of SARA hardly qualifies as “ceding the ability to guard its citizens against abusive practices” as a Century Foundation letter objecting to New York signing the SARA agreement claims.

What would be lost if New York were not to sign the SARA agreement? There is certainly a downside for institutions offering distance education courses and programs for out-of-state students. It might surprise readers of the letter, but fully 70 percent of students who take all of their courses at a distance do so from public and non-profit institutions. Institutions like Empire State College, a long-time leader in distance education that is part of the SUNY system. Furthermore, the large for-profit institutions referenced in the article have the budget and history of obtaining state-by-state approval already. It is the smaller profile non-profits that have the most difficulty in obtaining authorization to serve students in different states.

A reciprocity agreement between Massachusetts and Connecticut is cited as an alternative. As best we can tell, it allows each state to continue using its own current regulations. This is not reciprocity and does not improve the consumer protection landscape for students or institutions.

Were New York to avoid signing the agreement, students who live in the state would end up with fewer choices, primarily from fewer non-profit institutions that can operate there. Under SARA, New York students actually would have more consumer protection than currently exists as well as regulatory support for any complaint process, including from in-state agencies. Additionally, states systematically working in concert through SARA will more quickly find and deal with institutions that treat students poorly. This is far better than hypothetical, unfunded regulatory oversight by New York trying to operate independently from any other state.

New York has the opportunity to sign an agreement that would expand the regulatory oversight of distance education programs, would leave the state with the same ability to go after bad actors as they have done in the past and would increase choices for resident students — particularly working adults — seeking to get a valuable degree that is only enabled by distance education. It would be a mistake to let a complaint based on hypotheticals and misrepresentations of reality derail this progress.



Photo of Phil HillPhil Hill
MindWires Consulting
e-Literate blog




Photo of Russ Poulin with a bat.Russ Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies

Instructional Designers: Instead of Saying “No” to Faculty, Let’s Say “Yes”

Instructional design has a problem.  I noticed it last summer when I was doing the conference circuit. We have run out of things to say.  Keynotes, which are supposed to rally the troops and get us fired up for the day, offer only platitudes.  Sessions are dull, lifeless. Birds of a Feather sessions never take flight.

Instructional design has stagnated.

How Did We Get Here?
It took me a while to understand why.  After all, we are living through the middle of an upheaval in online and hybrid education in higher ed.  After years of second-class status, online courses have finally become part of most college students’ experience for at least one class.  Even traditional, face-to-face courses use online content regularly.  We made it, or at least we are making it.

Obviously there is good work happening in instructional design.  We are working in the most innovative sector of higher education today.  Yet the problems we each face in our own ID shops across the country point to the underlying problems facing the field.  First, many faculty still do not trust online education. Second, students tend to choose online classes because of their schedules, not because these are “great classes.”

I think these two problems are related, and I think instructional design is causing them.

Instructional Design Starts with “No”Warning sign that reads: "Red Signal Ahead When Flashing"
Today’s instructional design models are hamstrung because they make the mistake of starting with “no.”  To the faculty we say “no, you can’t run the class the way you always have.” “No, your objectives aren’t measurable.”  “No, you can’t change things on the fly.”  And we say these things for good reason.

Online and hybrid classes feel like special cases.  The delivery is different, so the courses must be different too.  Measurable objectives can be very important because they are tied to accreditation and funding.  Having a course fully built before students arrive can be critically important, especially if there is a question about whether they will ever get finished at all.

But when we walk in to a faculty member’s office and start with “no,” we lose too much.  We lose the opportunity to learn who that person is as a teacher.  When we focus on our list of “no’s,” we don’t give them an opportunity to show us what they are good at and how we can translate that skill and passion to a new medium.

I’ve been working in instructional design a long time.  I know the biases that many designers have.  I’ve heard more than one of my peers posit that even face-to-face classes would be better if we could get our hands on them.  If faculty sometimes feel insulted by a designer’s suggestions, they probably have a good reason.  A healthy sub-group of designers assume that most faculty are not good teachers, and are not interested in teaching well or improving.

Think about that. If I started this blog with “you probably don’t want to be a better instructional designer” would you listen to anything I have to say? Not likely.  Whether you want to improve or not, I’m not going to get your attention and buy-in if I assume that you don’t.

And doesn’t that make sense?  When we start with “no,” we never learn the best our faculty have to offer.  When we design around “no” we get what we ask for.  We get something less. Then we give that lesser product to the students.  Is there any wonder why students don’t choose online classes because of their inherent worth?

Warning sign reading: "Stop on Red Signal"How Do We Fix This? Green Light Design
I propose a change in attitude.  My coworker, John Jones, and I have worked together to begin designing a new model for instructional design we are calling “Green Light Design.”  We propose turning today’s red lights to green.  We propose starting with “yes” and not “no.”

We have been using the Green Light philosophy at Wichita State for over a year now, and it seems to be working.  When we start an instructional design project, we never begin with talk of rubrics, measurable outcomes, or specific tools.  All of those conversations lead to early no’s. Instead, we sit down and ask “what do you love about teaching?”  “What do you want your students to learn?”  “Tell me, if I could give you everything you are wishing for, what would that look like?”

We start with “yes.”

By starting out this way, we make our faculty the experts, and we communicate that we respect what they do.  In turn, they quickly come to respect our design experience, our technical expertise, and our willingness to listen.  We give them our attention, and they give us theirs. And the courses we design together are better for it.

If you would like to try to adopt a Green Light philosophy, let me suggest you think through our LEARN model.  LEARN got its name because the word “learn” has gotten such a bad rap as not being measurable.  Believe me, an outcome or objective that uses the verb “learn” is not going to make it through many rubric processes.  But I like the idea that it’s our job to help people learn, so we used it to remind us how we like to design courses:Warning sign that reads: "New Signal Ahead"

  • Listen:  Always start any instructional design project by listening to your faculty.
  • Envision: Blue sky your design.  Don’t limit yourself to what your tools can do, to what your rubrics insist upon, or to what you have done before.
  • Adjust:  Choose what you can do now, and start there.
  • Revise:  Working with your faculty member, fine-tune what you have, add what you can, and do the hard job of getting things working.
  • Negotiate:  Good design is a long-term project, and both you and  the faculty member are on the same team. What do they want next? What can you do?  Don’t assume that you know what should come next, but don’t assume your faculty member necessarily knows that either.  Both of you need to be in on making the course better over time.

Starting with “yes” has been working for us.  Our boutique designs are leading to excellent courses, and people are getting happier.  It’s possible to get measurable outcomes and well-organized courses this way, I promise.  And along the way, I think you’ll find that if you start with yes, you and your faculty are going to have much more fun.Carolyn Schmidt

Carolyn Speer Schmidt
Manager, Instructional Design and Technology
Wichita State University


Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Traffic_signal_signs


Attracting Returning Adults: The Right Messaging Helps You Do the Right Thing

If you talk to an academic advisor about degree completion for any period of time, you will hear heartbreaking stories of the students who “got away” (students who got close to the goal of graduation but had to stop for a variety of reasons). More than likely, the advisor has reached out to these near completers on numerous occasions to try to assist them in returning to finish their degree requirements, but life continues to get in the way.

Perhaps it is the rising cost of attendance that prevents the return or perhaps the student has relocated to another state making in-class attendance impossible. In some cases, the students eventually return to finish. However, the true heartbreak is that many students don’t return and give up on the dream of becoming a college graduate.

We Learned from Failed Initiatives
In 2011, the University of Memphis launched a recruitment campaign called Back on Track which targeted this population of near completers. While we experienced moderate success at getting students interested in returning to the institution, there were not significant jumps in enrollment or graduation in the following semesters.  In the spring of 2013, another campaign called Experience Counts highlighting our Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) opportunities again garnered interest but failed to result in a substantial rise in enrollment numbers.

Obviously, we needed to re-calibrate and ultimately discovered that our main flaw was bringing the students back to tell them the same message that they already knew. They knew what they needed to complete and all of the challenges associated with that completion; that’s likely why they left or have stayed away. It also began to weigh on us that, as an institution, we were co-conspirators in the fact that a student almost gets to graduate but then stops, often times saddled with debt without a credential to show for it. We resolved to change the message and design a program that would allow students to explore how their completion could be achieved differently.

A New Approach: The Finish Line Program
In the fall of 2013, we piloted a degree completion initiative with one advisor in one department that flipped the “come back” message to students which would explore ALL possible degree completion pathways, evaluate all PLA strategies, and determine eligibility for a one time scholarship. It was ultimately an opportunity for the student to re-imagine what degree completion could be without all of the previously experienced challenges.Table reading: Average number of credit hours needed for graduation: 10 hours; Average cost of completion: $1,800.

Within a few months, 50 students had re-enrolled and 17 students had graduated. Administrators were pleased with the early results of the pilot, and the Finish Line Program was launched at the institution level with a staff of two full time academic advisors and a program director.

Thus far, almost 500 students have been re-recruited back to the institution generating over 2,000 credit hours for the institution. More importantly, 172 students have graduated and fulfilled their goal of earning a bachelor’s degree.

Lessons Learned
First and foremost, we have learned to be ready for almost anything. It’s been surprising to discover students who just aren’t “interested” in completing their degree even when there are flexible, low-cost, efficient completion plans available. In some cases, students are embarrassed to admit that they have not finished their degree, particularly if family and friends thought otherwise. Other students thought their departure would remain “anonymous” especially in an institution of our size with over 20,000 students.

Regardless of the situation or perceived situation from the student’s perspective, it is important to try to understand where they are before you try to sell them on the message that they should return. The comfort of not having to face the challenges again can discolor even the best of news from the best of sources.

Logo for University of Memphis Finish Line ProgramSome other lessons that we have learned:

  • Conduct a thorough evaluation of the academic record before contacting the student and identify any PLA opportunities, curriculum changes since they last attended, and any other degree completion options. Remember you have to tell them something that they didn’t already know to get them interested in returning.
  • Empower the academic advisors to question everything that could benefit the student. Has all of the transfer coursework been evaluated? Is it possible to ask the department chair for a course substitution in certain categories? Could a graduation requirement be waived under certain circumstances?
  • Centralize and customize support services around this population especially since they have already left the institution at least once; don’t give them another excuse to leave before finishing. Our academic advisors are really more like completion concierges; they stay with a student from the point of re-entry all the way through graduation.
  • Measure progress as you go and encourage students even in the small victories like completing their first class or even scheduling a tutoring appointment. Life will continue to get in the way for many of these students, but make sure that you provide as much constant reassurance as possible that the end goal of graduation is still in sight.
  • Realize that it will take time. The process of re-recruiting students is not easy, and the effort required to keep them engaged and progressing to graduation is time consuming. Our advisors serve several roles from re-enrollment counselor to academic coach so be sure to caution administrators against the “low hanging fruit” mentality – the belief that there will be large gains from this group with low investments of time and resources.

Perhaps the most important lesson is to not give up on these students or your efforts to re-engage them in the important work of completing their degree. If we had dismissed our efforts in those early campaigns, we would never have discovered the importance of changing our re-recruitment messaging. Also, we would have lost the opportunity to change the lives of our 172 graduates and their families, as well as the community, state, nation and world in which they live.Tracy Robinson


Tracy P. Robinson
Director, Innovative Academic Initiatives
University of Memphis


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