Are More Regulations Coming for Online Education?

After years of double-digit growth and more than 4.5 million students currently learning online, almost everyone agrees that online education has moved from the periphery of higher education to the mainstream. It also has moved into the sight line of the federal government, which has stepped up efforts to better monitor, structure, and regulate online education.

“The reality is that online education is moving into a new phase as it matures and will be dealing with a number of related issues and challenges going forward,” says Fred Lokken, chair of the Instructional Technology Council and associate dean of the WebCollege at Truckee Meadows Community College.

A central component of this reality is the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act which included a few big changes for online education. The most notable change concerns a new student authentication requirement to “ensure that the student enrolled in an online class is the student doing the coursework.”

In most cases, schools meet this mandate by requiring a secure log-in and password. Some institutions also are experimenting with emerging authentication technologies and practices such as biometric-based solutions or challenge-based questions like those used in the banking and financial sectors.

In the recent online seminar Changes in Federal Distance Ed Policy: How You Can Respond, Lokken and Russell Poulin, associate director of the WCET, outlined recent legislative activity that could impact online learning programs, and provided guidance on the appropriate actions institutions should take.

One emerging area of concern that’s caught the U.S. Department of Education’s attention is financial aid fraud. Earlier this year it was discovered that a woman defrauded the federal government of more than $500,000 in student-aid dollars by enrolling fake students into online courses at Rio Salado College.

Poulin encouraged seminar participants to watch for a possible re-introduction of restrictions on federal financial aid for distance education, and to work with their financial aid office to develop strategies for monitoring and early detection of potential fraud.

One of the more welcome legislative initiatives is the Diploma and Accreditation Integrity Protection Act of 2009 (HR 4535), currently in subcommittee. It’s designed to: legally define what it means to be a degree-granting institution and a legitimate accrediting agency, and grant additional authority to the FTC to crack down on diploma mills.