The U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) provided guidance on how to report distance education activities during the pandemic. Whether on an emergency basis or planned for the safety of faculty and students, colleges and universities have adopted a variety of academic modality options. The Department’s explanations are welcomed help for institutional personnel trying to report in the correct categories.

The Definition Conundrum

a dictionary page
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Even in good times, some institutions have struggled with how to report on the varying definitions of distance education. Note that “distance education” is used as it is the official term used by federal, accreditation, and many state regulations. Distance education includes online education, plus other modalities such as satellite, phone, and two-way video.

Institutions are held to different definitions by the organizations to which they report:

IPEDS uses a definition in which a course or program needs to be exclusively at a distance with a few exceptions. From the IPEDS glossary:

Distance education course A course in which the instructional content is delivered exclusively via distance education. Requirements for coming to campus for orientation, testing, or academic support services do not exclude a course from being classified as distance education.
Distance education program A program for which all the required coursework for program completion is able to be completed via distance education courses.

Accreditation agencies have their own threshold for counting distance courses or programs. Several use a “majority” (more than 50%) of the course. From the Higher Learning Commission glossary:

distance-delivered courses – Courses in which at least 75% of the instruction and interaction occurs via electronic communication, correspondence, or equivalent mechanisms, with the faculty and students physically separated from each other.

distance-delivered programs – Certificate or degree programs in which 50% or more of the required courses may be taken as distanced-delivered courses.

States vary widely in their thresholds for reporting. As an example, the Texas Administrative Code, Rule §4.257 provides the following definition:

“Distance Education – The formal educational process that occurs when students and instructors are not in the same physical setting for the majority (more than 50 percent) of instruction.”

Other entities
have their own definitions. Earlier this year, Indiana University updated their report on the various definitions to which they are subject. They list definitions for the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Homeland Security and the following expectations of their state oversight entity:  

Indiana Commission Higher Education (ICHE)

Definitions for distance education courses and programs used by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education are under review by the commission at the time of development of this report. Currently, the commission follows the Sloan consortium definitions for distance education courses and programs:

Distance education course = 80% or more of the content in a course is delivered via distance.
Distance education program = 80% of requirements to meet degree/credential are offered via distance.

Not that we recommend this, but we have heard of frustrated institutional researchers picking one definition and using it for all reports. IPEDS clearly wants you to follow their instructions when completing their surveys.

The IPEDS Surveys that Collect Distance Education Data

For institutions that offer federal (Title IV) financial aid, completing the IPEDS surveys is a requirement. Distance education activities are reported in the following surveys (survey code, survey name, and a brief explanation of what is collected):

  • IC: Institutional Characteristics – does institution offer DE courses or programs?
  • EF: Fall Enrollment – For Fall term, distance education student enrollments, either partially or exclusively at a distance. Includes a geographic breakdown.
  • E12: 12-month Enrollment – For the full year, distance education student enrollments.
  • C: Completions – can programs be completed either partially or entirely at a distance?

IPEDS Reporting of Distance Education in the Pandemic

Reporting on distance education activities is more difficult with the pandemic as courses have changed modality or used mixes of modality. IPEDS provides a helpful page of explanations to help decipher the distance education reporting requirements. To learn more about how to report given the effect of the pandemic, be sure to click the link in red under the title and near the top of the page.

After clicking on the link in red, they define “remote instruction” as instruction that would otherwise have been delivered in-person. The following overall advice is provided:

This advice reads: in general, when reporting data on DE courses in IC, E12, and EF, institutions SHOULD include remote learning implemented in response to the Coronavirus Pandemic. When reporting data on DE programs in IC and C, institutions SHOULD NOT include remote learning implemented in response to the Coronavirus Pandemic unless the program anticipates maintaining this modality permanently. Allowing program completion via DE is not the same as having planned full DE programs.

To help, they have a flowchart that answers the following question:

Should I report online learning implemented in response to the Coronavirus Pandemic as DE in IPEDS?

flow chart reads : yes, if: courses were moved entirely online as a temp OR permanent resp to the pandemic: report DE offerings and enrollments in IC, E12, and EF
Programs were moved entirely online as a permanent resp. to the pandemic - report DE offerings in IC and C

This litmus test is to be applied to each course that you offered. It takes reading the above graphic and the next one a few times to get the meaning. The key words appear to be “entirely” and “normal.”

For courses: IPEDS DOES want you to report a course and its enrollments in the “distance education” category if the entirety of the course was offered online. This is true whether it was offered as a planned distance education course or one that would normally be face-to-face and transitioned online as a remote learning class.

A common example would be a course that would normally would have been offered in a face-to-face format, but was transitioned to remote for the entirety of the Fall term. For that term, IPEDS is declaring it to be an online class for their counting purposes.

That guidance from the Department is understandable, but it will likely create a one-year spike in distance enrollments and courses that will remain an asterisk in data reporting for years to come.

For programs: IPEDS DOES want you to report a program as “distance education” if the program was moved entirely online, but only if this is a PERMANENT move. If the program is planned to return to face-to-face under normal (non-pandemic) circumstances, then it is not counted in the distance education statistics.

flow chart reads, NO: IF:
courses were moved entirely online after start of the term because some of the content was delivered in person, a course is not considered DE even if it ended remotely. 
Programs can be completed entirely online as a temp resp to the pandemic. Do not report DE offerings in IC or C

For courses: IPEDS DOES NOT want you to report a course and its enrollments in the “distance education” category if the course started in-person and moved to online. That course included some face-to-face instruction, so it does not meet the IPEDS definition of “distance education.”

For “hybrid,” “blended,” or “hyflex” courses, there is no federal definition. All of those options use a mixture of face-to-face and distance/online modalities. Therefore, it does not meet the IPEDS “distance education” definition and those courses would be classified in the same category for IPEDS reporting as a face-to-face course.

For programs: IPEDS DOES NOT want you to report a program as “distance education” if the program was moved entirely online only because of the pandemic. If the program is planned to return to face-to-face under normal (non-pandemic) circumstances, then it is not counted in the distance education statistics.

What Should You Do?

There are some steps that you may wish to take in response:

  • Review the guidance and understand how it works in your institutional setting.
  • Work with your institutional research staff to apply the definitions and guidance at your institution. Typically, there may be indicators in your Student Information System that identifies the courses and programs which would normally fit each of the definitions. The institutional research staff may need help in identifying how to classify courses or programs, as some may have moved completely to remote/online learning and others may have used a mixture.
  • Watch for any additional clarifications from the other oversight entities (i.e., accrediting agencies, states) and gauge what effects that guidance may have on your operations or on reporting for institutional research purposes.
  • Let us know if you have unusual circumstances that defy classification.

Please remember that our advice is based upon our best reading of the guidance and is not an official interpretation.

Finally, we thank IPEDS staff for providing some language to help institutions comply with reporting in as consistent a way as possible. If everyone reportedly differently, the data would be worthless.



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