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U.S. Department of Ed Revisits Distance Learning Guidelines

The department has proposed changing guidelines and definitions around distance education programs in order to collect more consistent and useful data on how students are faring in remote learning programs.

Closeup of a white keyboard with one blue key about to be pressed that says "distance learning."
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) last month proposed new guidelines to strengthen its oversight and data-gathering practices for distance education.

According to a January proposal outlining suggested changes to the Higher Education Act of 1965, the department wants to establish a virtual location for institutions and their distance-learning, or remote, students so it can more easily gather data on those programs and compare their outcomes. The department did not specify whether it intended to create such a virtual location or ask universities to create their own, and it declined to answer questions on the record or grant requests for an interview. The department’s proposal also suggested changing the rules so that colleges and universities can no longer provide “clock-hour programs,” or timed one-hour classes, asynchronously. In other words, in order to qualify for federal aid, any clock-hour programs would have to allow students to interact with the instructor and keep students learning and attending on the same schedule.

The department also proposed changing its definitions of what constitutes an “additional location” for instruction, which currently includes physically separate facilities and correctional institutions that host educational programs, to include virtual locations where 100 percent of a program is taught.

The proposed changes were the subject of a negotiated rulemaking session from Jan. 8-11, which focused on program integrity and accreditation for distance education programming and allowed department officials to answer questions and discuss changes with educators, education advocacy groups, accreditation organizations and other stakeholders. The department released transcripts from this session on Jan. 31.

Additional sessions to discuss and refine proposed rule changes on distance learning issues will take place later this month, with the final sessions scheduled for March 4-7, according to a department news release.

“The department will take back what we’ve heard [during public comments], along with all the various recommendations and proposals people on the committee have made to us, and come back in February with some revised language and some more ideas,” Greg Martin, director of the ED’s policy development group within the Office of Postsecondary Education, said during the recent rulemaking session.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.