Washington, D.C., May 11, 1998—The rapid growth of distance learning in the United States raises concerns about how to assure the quality of such offerings and protect against fraud and abuse, says a report released today in Washington, DC. The report calls for the higher education accreditation community to take additional steps to guarantee that distance learning courses meet high standards, and for federal officials to explore ways to make student aid available to those enrolled in distance learning programs. The study, Assuring Quality in Distance Learning: A Preliminary Review, was issued by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), the coordinating body for self-regulation of the nation's colleges and universities. CHEA's membership includes more than 3,000 accredited institutions, the most of any higher education association. The report was prepared by The Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC.
The number of distance learning courses and providers has exploded in recent years due to advances in communications technology and the spread of the Internet, the report notes, making it difficult to measure the current extent of student participation. However, studies show that as recently as academic year 1994-95, more than three-quarters of a million students were formally enrolled in almost 26,000 distance education courses nationwide. Those figures almost certainly are much higher now. One-third of higher education institutions offered such courses in Fall 1995, and another 25 percent planned to offer them within three years.
In addition to colleges, universities, and other postsecondary institutions, the main sponsors of distance learning are the military services, corporate universities, and unaffiliated providers offering courses bearing no credit and not leading to a degree or certificate. The U.S. Army is investing $840 million over a 13-year period to provide global access to training through distance learning; by 2003 it plans to develop 535 courses and build 745 classrooms.
The major providers of distance learning in higher education are traditional colleges and universities that offer some courses or entire programs of study at a distance; statewide or regional consortia and collaboratives of traditional institutions; contracted or brokered arrangements that bring together institutions, faculty, or other providers solely to deliver distance learning; and virtual institutions that offer most or all of their instruction via technological means.
"The growth and diversity of distance delivery challenges all educators and accreditors to address appropriate quality indicators for this new and exciting environment," said CHEA President Judith S. Eaton. "Voluntary accreditation organizations already are actively engaged in accreditation review strategies to meet this need."
The report identifies four "cultural and technological catalysts" that have accompanied the growth of distance learning in all its forms:
- The emergence of lifelong learning, with people updating their education throughout their working lives and beyond;
- Efforts to make instruction more learner-centered, which shifts the focus from the teacher to the student to achieve greater "learning productivity";
- The desire to provide access irrespective of where a student lives--not just on a college campus; and
- The development of "knowledge media"—the convergence of telecommunications, computing, and the learning or cognitive sciences—which provides the opportunity to change the emphasis from the classroom and teaching to the individual and learning.
Little evidence exists that institutions emphasize student learning outcomes in evaluating their distance learning programs more than they do in their traditional offerings, the report finds. The most striking difference is that quality assurance efforts in distance learning appear to be more focused on "bottom-line" or market-oriented results.
The proliferation of distance learning courses and providers raises challenges of quality assurance for accrediting agencies, states, and the federal government, the report says. The innovative nature of such programs requires accrediting agencies "to adapt standards that are rigorous, to be prepared to re-evaluate traditional processes, to be open to alternatives, and to provide public evidence of measures of performance against the standards."
The report recommends that accreditors:
- Establish reliable and valid performance measurements for distance learning;
- Require evidence of contact between faculty and students;
- Require evidence of effective instructional techniques;
- Promote systematic efforts to select and train faculty;
- Assure that students, faculty, staff, and administrators receive adequate training to use electronic resources; and
- Monitor institutions' technology infrastructure more closely.
The study also identifies a number of barriers in federal law that prevent students in distance learning environments from receiving federal student aid. These include the current legal definition of "sites," "branch campuses," and "locations"; program length requirements; standards for administrative capacity; campus security, drug enforcement, and crime reporting requirements; minimum enrollment requirements; and measurements of financial need. While some of these standards could be rewritten easily to accommodate distance learning students, changes in others could make student aid programs more susceptible to fraud, the study warns.
With Congress moving this year to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the report recommends that lawmakers address student aid eligibility provisions in Title IV for distance learning to accommodate such providers without inviting new opportunities for fraud. CHEA is working with Congress and the Department of Education to build a strong partnership between government and voluntary accreditation so that quality assurance of distance learning and government monitoring of student aid programs go hand in hand, Eaton noted.
"The challenge of distance learning goes to the heart of our commitment to quality higher education and our shared vision of a community of learning that brings students and faculty together in a special place devoted to building intellectual and emotional capacity," she said.