How Our Understanding of Academic Rigor Impacts Online Learning

We live in a drastically different world than we did just a few years ago. In particular, the higher education part of the world has seen some challenges – and has changed in response. Today’s higher education environment has shifted, as you well know, to either partially or fully online.

But we have not lost the need for for quality learning, no matter the modality.

Today we’re excited to welcome Amy Smith to discuss rigor in online courses and what elements of quality teaching and learning programs ensure a rigorous course. Thank you Amy for this excellent discussion!

Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

Higher education is being disrupted more than ever.

How we deliver education has been forever changed by the pandemic-driven rush to online learning. Prior to March 2020, only about half of students took at least one class online, but then online learning became a necessity for all, practically overnight. Now, learners have new expectations and desires around how higher education is delivered and accessed, with six in ten people saying they prefer fully online or hybrid education, even if the pandemic was not a factor.

However, there is also a risk amid this innovation that the quality of higher education could be diluted if we don’t establish standards to ensure that the delivery of virtual learning—both by traditional institutions and new providers—can meet learners’ needs. So, how do we begin to define what makes a course rigorous?

Defining Rigor: Student Success & Learning    

Academic rigor is widely considered to be an essential component of the quality of higher education, but research shows that faculty and students define rigor quite differently:

  • For faculty, it’s all about brain work. They tend to see rigor as the interaction between critical thinking, active learning, high expectations, and meaningful content (Graham & Essex, 2001; Draeger et al., 2013).
  • For students, it’s all about the syllabus and the support. They tend to focus on “how much” they are asked to do and the help they get in doing it—citing things like workload, grading difficulty, clarity of instruction, and level of support (Schnee, 2008; Draeger et al. 2014; Wyse and Soneral, 2018).

Non-traditional students, who are often taking classes online, balancing life and education, and entering college with diverse backgrounds, may have a different understanding of rigor altogether (Schnee, 2008; Campbell 2018).

The key for higher education is to marry these various perspectives and focus on what elements are most critical for setting up students for long-term success. In that way, we can begin to define what makes an online course rigorous for the modern learner.

In my years as an associate provost and dean and now in my role of leading the research arm of StraighterLine, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about academic rigor and how it is defined by various stakeholders. As a faculty member, I felt I knew what rigor was when I saw it. As a student, I knew what rigor was when I experienced it. So why talk about rigor? Because talking about rigor keeps us grounded in quality—the one thing every provider of education should offer their students.

Bringing It Together for Today’s Learners      

To help bridge the gap between the faculty and student perspectives, I reviewed the existing research and formulated a definition of academic rigor that can serve as a baseline for discussions in higher education.

For today’s learners, it’s clear that rigor is reflected in a combination of course challenge, learning support, and design. The variables within each area can be turned up or down, but each must be present, and they need to move in relation to one another. This means providing high levels of support and good course design for a course that is particularly challenging or reducing the workload of a course if its design is lower quality and forces learners to invest more time to understand the material.

green bubble and plus sign
copyright 2021 StraighterLine

An online course environment adds a layer of complexity for students and demands more thoughtful learning design to arrive at an appropriate level of rigor: the distinction between being rigorous versus merely difficult becomes even more important. Students can often be “challenged” by unclear expectations and a burdensome workload without experiencing all the aspects of a truly rigorous learning experience. In fact, research has found that non-traditional and online students generally perceive a higher level of challenge in postsecondary courses than do their in-person counterparts (Barrett, 2015).

This makes the design of online courses particularly critical. “Course clarity and organization” are prerequisites for an appropriately rigorous online course (Duncan et al., 2013).

Learning support, which is critical in all courses, also needs to be more intentionally designed in online programs. There are far fewer opportunities for casual observation of a students’ work and whether they are struggling with a concept. Therefore, regular check-ins, low-stakes assessments, and easy access or quick referral to tutoring, academic counseling, and other support systems need to be built into online courses.

In the issue brief Rigor and College Credit, I make the research-based case for why online courses must maintain a balance among course challenge, learning support, and design. It’s ideal to put the research into practice. For example, courses at StraighterLine are intentionally designed to maintain the balance among these three elements, while paying particular attention to the student experience. This brief is intended to provide a framework for a larger discussion:

  • How do we define academic rigor and why is this conversation urgently needed?
  • What is the role of rigor in learning, and ultimately, career and life outcomes?
  • How do we develop a more informed understanding of academic rigor and its connection to outcomes, especially as we look to build new models that focus on what today’s learners really know and can do, rather than the time they spend on their education?
  • How do we ensure rigor in online learning?
  • What is the role of student support in rigor?

Path Forward

As higher education explores ways to provide more flexible, responsive pathways to learners, we must increasingly move away from time-based measures of learning. To do so, we will need a more informed way of understanding academic rigor and its connection to outcomes. It’s clear that course challenge must be married with both design and learning support — but within that, there’s ample room for experimentation and discussion.


Considering Your “Why”- How Developing a Microcredential Strategy Will Help Your Students (and Your University) Thrive

The WCET Steering Committee work group focused on Credentials is kicking of a blog series sharing good practices and lessons learned with microcredential initiatives. The blogs will explore various topics related to microcredential adoption, implementation, and evaluation. The blogs feature WCET members who have generously shared their stories.

We hope you enjoy the first post authored by WCET Steering Committee Members, Gloria Niles and Krysia Lazarewicz.

Megan Raymond, WCET

When considering whether a microcredential strategy is right for your university, it’s important to begin with the end in mind. When your strategy is a wild success, what will be different for your learners and for your university? What will you measure, observe, or be able to report that highlights the ways that microcredentials have added to your overall impact as an institution? And perhaps most importantly, what will students say when asked how they have been impacted?

We were able to interview a variety of leaders who are in various stages of implementing a microcredential strategy, and there are a few key themes that we identified as critical to laying a strong foundation. Regardless of purpose, scale, or audience, here are three priorities that you may want to consider as you plan.

Define the Metrics that Will Be Impacted by Implementing Microcredentials

group of graduates throwing hats at dawn

There are many noble reasons to experiment with microcredentials, but how will you know if your work is delivering on the promise? The answer is to think with the end in mind and to create detailed metrics that will enable you to see how your progress is impacting your priorities. Almost ubiquitously, there are two driving reasons for institutions to implement  microcredentials: to improve student recruitment and retention metrics and to align learning with shorter-term outcomes that can more immediately align with career progression. 

From a student recruitment perspective, microcredentials are seen as a way to lower the barriers to entry for learners who may be hesitant to commit financially to a full degree, or who may not yet have the confidence to believe that they can successfully complete an entire degree. Creating shorter-term pathways that serve as on-ramps may be a solution, and some of our interviewees cited this as the primary driver for the strategy. If this aligns with your goals, some helpful metrics to consider could include surveying your non-completers to see if they would engage with a microcredential, measuring how many learners you can save from the dreaded melt period, and increasing the number of returning adults with some college, no degree who view microcredentials as a means of career advancement or retooling for a career change.

Institutions also hypothesize that microcredentials can ‘gamify’ the degree path, rewarding and encouraging learners for leveling-up or making it through a particularly challenging sequence. By adding shorter-term badges, learners can celebrate progress more consistently and maintain a higher motivation to continue. If this is your goal, then consider how you measure retention metrics and how you will determine the specific intervention that made an impact. Some examples may include term-to-term continuing registration counts, course completion rates, and total number of credential completers.

Interestingly, microcredentials may also offer another way to improve completion rate metrics. Some institutions are hopeful that, by bundling courses together into a microcredential or by breaking learning outcomes into logical bundles, they will be able to encourage completion at a higher rate than measuring purely on degree completion alone. Learners who cannot commit to a full degree may find confidence in completing smaller units, intentionally starting and stopping at more comfortable intervals. If these are planned, then each can be considered a completion, rather than a failure to earn the full degree. This is especially important if your credentials are credit-worthy and apply toward these degree pathways.

Lastly, there is a desire to connect employment pathways and career advancement with specific learning pathways. For this strategy to be successful, it’s imperative that an institution identifies how they will measure the outcomes of these efforts, both for tracking learner career advancement as well as employer adoption of a credential. These are very complex to achieve, and none of our interviewees said that they had this figured out completely at scale. The recommendations focused on starting local–find an employer who has well-defined needs from a skills perspective, and then use that framework to extend to others in the region.

Define Your Terminology, Taxonomy, and Assessment Standards

Another point that our interviewees agreed upon was that planning and aligning are critical components of a microcredential strategy. Through this work, the why becomes more clear. What type of alternative credentialling are you implementing (credit bearing, non-credit, stackable, etc.), how will they work, and how will you know that learners have successfully completed the pathway? Without these key definitions, your measurements will be inconsistent and challenging to interpret. Start by developing resources to share with learners, faculty, administration, and community partners that clarify key definitions, how different concepts stack together, and what is earned upon completion.  Ideally you can also show how these concepts will impact the outcomes you are looking to achieve and give clarity to the measurements that will be used to determine success. 

What Is Student Success?

It seems ubiquitous that one of the primary ‘why’s’ for microcredentials is some thesis on what new innovation might help learners to experience more success in both the short and long term. It’s worth noting that the way different institutions define that success is anything but consistent; examples range across a myriad of pillars such as confidence, skills development, lifelong learning as a mindset, career advancement, differentiation in the workplace, credit toward a degree, affordability, inclusion, and access. One especially clear example of this is reflected in a quote from the Dean’s Message at Post University:

“Our mission in the School of Continuing Education is to support you during a time of transition so you may attain your goals. Whether your goals are to reskill your talents to stay relevant in your field, to upskill your qualifications for advancement or to change careers, to earn college credits while in high school, to enhance your English skills, or to learn for personal development, let us help you achieve your dream.” As you can see, there are a myriad of very worthwhile ways to define the idea of student success.

At the root of your why should be definitions and metrics that are authentic to the overall strategy and mission of your institution. There may be some very practical measurements that have to be obtained in order to practically keep your initiative moving, so considering things like enrollments, revenue, and growth rates over time will likely be one component of your why. Additionally, though, there must be a focus on showing the outcomes driven by that growth–how is your institution preparing for a future where microcredentials shape a new collaboration between learning and working.


Evolving Evaluation: The Future of Faculty Development in the Digital Age

Don’t you just love performance evaluations? I do!

Just kidding, is there anyone who truly loves being evaluated on their job or teaching performance?

I do, however, appreciate the opportunity to learn and improve my work or teaching (etc.). So, perhaps I can say I appreciate when an evaluation provides me with such an opportunity?

Today’s post from Jenny Reichart, Faculty Development Specialist with the University of North Dakota, echoes this appreciation. Jenny discusses the rhetorical feedback triangle and its relevance considering faculty evaluations and development. I so appreciate Jenny’s exploration of the impact of learning analytics on faculty evaluations.

Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

I remember my very first teaching evaluation in graduate school. I taught a lesson of my choice from The World is a Text (remember that one!?). As an emerging queer theorist and televisual studies scholar, I chose Katherine Gantz’s text “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That” analyzing the Seinfeld episode “The Outing” (I’m really dating myself here, aren’t I?). I presented my polished lesson to a group of my peers, many of whom I’d been friends with for years. I received some JIT formative feedback from them and our enthusiastic instructor in this mentored teaching program for English master’s students. I benefited from what many novice college teachers do not get to experience: a low-stakes evaluation in a simulated teaching environment with people I knew and was comfortable with. This is about as emotionally safe as one can get for formative feedback.

And–I still remember that feedback–from the instructor: “Try using more guided questions than general questions to elicit student responses; from a peer: “Don’t state that your subject matter isn’t as extreme as something and then name that extreme something because you’ll derail your students with the more extreme topic.” Good advice for any nascent teacher.

I distinctly remember specific details about that feedback from that one half hour even though it took place over 13 years ago. I remember the feedback, the text, the author, myself, my peers, and my instructor. What I don’t remember in that lesson and that room was a computer (which seems so bizarre now).

Fast forward to my first long-term teaching appointment where there were computers in the classrooms and “real” students. I remember many of the comments on my teaching evaluations from students: “Ms. Reichart was the only one teacher to check in on us after a campus evacuation” and “She was nice, but she had her favorites.” I had plenty of students say things about how I had helped them to improve their writing and critical thinking skills, but I don’t remember those comments as being truly formative for me. The comments that signaled that I had inadvertently made a student feel excluded or overlooked were the ones that kept me awake at night and haunt me still. Those are the comments that I took to heart and the ones that made me strive to become a better teacher and a champion for inclusion and belonging, because without those, learning doesn’t stand much of a fighting chance.

Using the Rhetorical Triangle for Feedback

handwritten notes of rhetorical triangle and feedback from students

As a developmental English teacher, I frequently deployed the use of the rhetorical triangle in teaching students how comments or feedback are also up for analysis. When students read a work using this method, they can come up with something that looks like the following notes:

When students gave me an essay, that essay was the text, they were the writer, and as the evaluator, I was the surrogate representative of their audience. This all took place within the context of an English class in higher education. While the context stays constant like a spoke, the rest of the triangle turns like a laboring wheel. As I left feedback for my students on their essays, my comments became the text, myself the writer, and the students my audience. Especially in an online environment, this wheel turns and turns as our students respond back to us with questions and comments of their own. This is basic feedback cycle of the rhetorical triangle.

In the cases of direct feedback, such as when an instructor comments on student papers, an evaluator comments on teaching observations, and students evaluate for a teacher’s effectiveness, the model of the rhetorical triangle gives us an accessible framework (i.e., a simplification of reality). The model makes sense to most of us. It works for formative and summative feedback and formal and informal evaluations. Likewise, there has been much research into the area of high stakes assessment and its comparative value to low stakes assessments, or alterative assessments, in higher education; this has resulted from the proliferation of technology tools for formative assessment which have then in turn resulted in the proliferation methods and models for evaluating education technology. However, this critical focus is most often directed toward the effects on students and their learning, not faculty and their teaching. There has been some research that supports the benefit for faculty as well, such as this Harvard study on the benefits of low-stakes teacher evaluation in the form of peer evaluations. Similarly, the small group instructional diagnosis (SGID) method of having a trained third party solicit feedback from a faculty member’s student and report back works on this same premise with just another rotation of the feedback wheel to protect student anonymity and decrease anxiety to produce more formative feedback for the instructor. These types of evaluation have obvious benefits to the faculty member.

The Data Loop as a Barrier

But in the Age of Big Data, the feedback loop is being replaced by the much more cumbersome model of the data loop. The joke of data paralysis as opposed to data analysis is a stark reality and a recognized barrier, and faculty who have been teaching outside of an LMS for most of their lives often struggle with the concept of learning analytics, and with good reason. They can feel even more lost, confused, and helpless when learning analytics are deployed to evaluate their teaching without clear communication on how the data is being collected, analyzed, and disseminated across leadership units.

Further compounding the issue is that many clinical courses employ lead instructors with a team of teachers working in the same course section in the LMS, and many colleges and universities hire faculty or subject matter experts to develop a course while other faculty members teach it. Most often, the course designer is responsible for the course content and organization and the course facilitator is responsible for the course instruction and grading. These are very different teaching tasks, and yet, students almost exclusively fill out end-of-semester surveys with the course facilitator in mind whether they were responsible for course content and/or organization or not.

Utilization of the rhetorical triangle framework falls apart with learning analytics. This is predominantly because we are now analyzing the context along with multiple contributing factors. Each assignment submission, time spent on a quiz, webpage visited and more are constantly tracked in the system. It is difficult to even articulate a direct correlation as you would in a physical classroom. There is a wealth of past research that correlates regular attendance with higher grades and learning outcomes, but even if we track a student’s time spent in a course, it is difficult to tell if students are actively learning or watching TikTok on their phones.

A Call for Action

Simple rhetorical analysis requires us to ask these questions: who is the author, who is the audience, and what is the message? Running one simple report on student time spent in course does not necessarily answer these questions. We need to be highly intentional with this new wave of faculty evaluation, which is what learning analytics will undoubtedly become. Time spent in a course applies to instructors as well as students, and when administrators have access to these learning analytics and can compare one faculty member with another in the same program, we enter a new world of quantitative assessment that stands in stark contrast to the qualitative assessment of solo teacher observations of the past.

Faculty motivation, compassion, and engagement can be scrutinized in entirely new ways via learning analytics, so we need to be proactive in thinking about how to leverage these reports to improve faculty teaching, course development, and student outcomes. While the implementation of learning analytics in higher education has clear benefits for students, instructors, administrators, and researchers, there are immediate concerns about the effect “Big Data” has on student privacy, autonomy, and informed consent and long-term concerns about faculty simulating data to boost their overall analytics scorecard, especially where performance-based funding or priority course assignments might be factors. History has taught us what teachers desperate to help their schools and students can resort to concerning PBF as seen in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. While the weaponization of learning analytics in faculty evaluation is a bleak prospect, we need to pave the way now for how we can use this evolving form of evaluation so that it becomes a sustainable practice for improving teaching and learning rather than an emergent mechanism for further blaming teachers in an increasingly data-driven world.


Accreditation, Quality, and Changes in Digital Learning

The changing nature of digital learning and postsecondary education in the post-COVID era has brought new opportunities and challenges for the quality assurance provided by the accreditation process. In a preview of a plenary session to be held at the WCET Annual Meeting (October 19-21 in Denver), this post features the thoughts of the leaders from three accrediting agencies.

In assuring quality in digital learning in all its forms (online, blended, hybrid, hyflex, or whatever you call it), we provide members with this important opportunity to stay in touch with those accreditation leaders. Accreditation’s traditional roots as a peer-reviewed path to improve institutions still remains strong, but recent years have also seen more Federal expectations for them to act in a more regulatory manner.

Today’s guests (and they will be with us in Denver) include:

Many of you may remember Karen from serving on the WCET Steering Committee and Executive Council. Leah has also served on the Steering Committee and currently serves on the Executive Council. We cherish our relationship with accrediting professionals.

First Question

student typing on laptop

Question 1: For colleges and universities offering digital and distance learning, what one or two pieces of advice that you would give to institutional personnel to assure that they have quality offerings and meet accreditation expectations?

Karen Solomon, HLC: Although it is tempting to want to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, it is important to reflect on what happened and what will happen next:

  • What happened? Document the institution’s efforts to ensure faculty were prepared to offer high quality learning opportunities when the pandemic moved into the fall 2020 and beyond. Many institutions have submitted evidence of training sessions and the adoption of good practices that are utilized to evaluate distance education courses. For many institutions, these efforts were introduced or became more widespread when federal relief funds were distributed and professional development was encouraged.  
  • What will happen in the future? Reflect on what was learned from the COVID-19 experience. How can recognized good practices, regarding the evaluation of distance education courses, be utilized across the institution regardless of the modality?   

Leah Matthews, DEAC: Practices that build consistency in the quality expectations for all distance education courses are really important priorities.  

  • Offering a training program to faculty that offers them strategies for effective online teaching and engaging their students in a variety of meaningful ways will always elevate quality. 
  • An instructional design manual that sets internal standards for quality assessment and rigorous review of curriculum being delivered online should be a part of every distance learning enterprise.
  • Engaging in the community of experts in various distance education practices is incredibly worthwhile. Participate, even virtually, in events sponsored by groups such as WCET, Quality Matters, USDLA, Educause, Competency-based Education Network, and the Online Learning Consortium. Network with everything these incredibly effective organizations have to offer.

Sylvia Fernandez, CACREP: Entering the arena of digital and distance education:

  • Practice shift.

Only 3.5% of our accredited institutions deliver their programs solely online/digitally while the rest identify as solely in-person or as hybrid programs. The Covid pandemic pushed a majority of in-person programs to deliver solely online/digitally for a period of time; some hybrid programs continued in that manner the entire time; and solely online programs maintained delivery as is except with interruption to clinical placements.

The practice shift is that more in-person programs are now retaining a higher portion of their coursework offered in the online/digital format. The notion of in-person, as per the USDE definition of distance education, doesn’t exist anymore.

  • Paradigm shift.

Counselor education as a whole has resisted moving to the digital teaching and learning environment from the perspective that the counseling profession is a relational one and that being in 3-D space is necessary for effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment/counseling. The quick pivot to digital delivery opened up the possibility of digital teaching and learning effectiveness and increased awareness of and appeal to both faculty and students to that environment, resulting in a paradigm shift regarding how to prepare counselors for practice. This paradigm shift is occurring both for counselor education and for CACREP as an accreditor.

  • Change in regulations.

CACREP is not a U.S. Department of Education-approved programmatic accreditor; however, we do require that our programs are housed at institutions that hold regional (national) accreditation. Thus, we do pay attention to USED regulations. The change in USED definitions and expectations of distance education added another layer to what we as an accreditor needed to pay attention to and consider impact of these definitions on CACREP Standards and Policies.

CACREP Board of Directors and Staff needed to become better informed about what the changes would mean for us in our work and engaged in our own professional development. We were deliberative and proactive in articulating our own evolving paradigm shift regarding digital delivery and its effect on our role in assuring compliance with our Standards and continued applicability of our current Policies. These actions led to a reconceptualizing of quality assurance in program digital delivery and now looking at all of our accredited programs through a different lens (technology-integrated) and paving the path towards future required reporting.

  • Assure they have quality offerings.

This past year, CACREP embarked on a journey of guiding its programs transitioning to more fully embracing digital delivery and, for its programs already engaged digital delivery, explaining to them the re-vision of quality assurance in digital delivery for all programs. CACREP provided guidance to facilitate a common, shared understanding of digital delivery while identifying key components required in providing ethically and pedagogically-sound digitally delivered programs.

  • Meet accreditation expectations.

In the first year and a half of the pandemic, CACREP provided programs flexibilities in the Standards but always requiring continued compliance and maintenance of their accredited status. From a study of the changes our accredited programs made, CACREP identified the Standards most impacted by the practice shift and has created a template for future reporting under the current set of Standards that addresses the expectations regarding quality assurance.

Second Question

Question 2: With all the innovations in the use of technologies in instruction, what are the greatest challenges that you are facing in fulfilling your roles both as accrediting agencies and in assessing quality?

Several people fist bump each other.

Karen Solomon, HLC: Instead of challenges, I see opportunities and advancements that have been made in the last few years.

Institutions have made significant investments to support faculty, students, and other instructional personnel as they continue to offer courses across various modalities. They need to increase transparency and provide definitions (or naming conventions) of the types of courses that are offered so students can make informed decisions prior to enrolling.  

A very active exchange last September in the WCETDiscuss list focused on naming conventions for synchronous and asynchronous courses. That discussion was illustrative about various ways that institutions are defining courses (e.g., videoconferencing, web, hybrid, blended, real-time online, broadcast, hyflex, low-residency, online blended, online hybrid, intensives). This information needs to be transparent, not only for the institution’s students and personnel, but should also be provided to peer reviewers while they complete an evaluation for an institutional and/or programmatic agency. <<Editor’s note: WCET is currently leading on a survey on the many digital learning definitions. It is open until June 3, 2022. Please take the survey, it is short.>>

Leah Matthews, DEAC: Faculty need to know how to utilize technologies that are available through the online learning platform or learning management system. If faculty are not given training support in how to use innovative frameworks for online teaching and learning, then critical opportunities are missed to give students the optimal experience in online learning.

Sylvia Fernandez, CACREP: The greatest challenges facing CACREP in fulfilling our role as an accreditor and in assessing quality are:

  • Educating our programs about the:
    • Paradigm shift in counselor education to digital teaching and learning.
    • Differing legal and ethical requirements/best practices for operating in a digital teaching and learning.
    • Need for them to look at their particular circumstances/programs through a different lens.
  • For ourselves as an accreditor:
    • Identifying what is acceptable in delivery of counselor education as a clinical field.
    • Re-affirming the assessment of and expectations for the integration of technology in teaching and learning will be the same for all accredited programs.
    • Re-tooling staff and program reviewers, at every stage of the accreditation review process, to look through a new lens.

In Conclusion…

We hope that you enjoyed this view into the view of accreditation leaders and the taste of our panel at the WCET Annual Meeting. Join me in virtual applause, and thanks to Sylvia, Leah, and Karen.

Meanwhile, we are looking forward to getting together in person in the Mile High City.

Thank you,

Russ Poulin, WCET


Beyond Compliance: The Role of a Compliance Professional in Equity & Accessibility

Thank you to Kathryn Kerensky of WCET’s State Authorization Network for today’s blog, and thank you to Van Davis and Emilie Cook of Every Learner Everywhere for assistance and strategic direction. Enjoy!

There is a role for everyone to play for higher education institutions to foster inclusive learning environments and increase access to the opportunities provided by higher education. For those in compliance roles, especially those without much direct interaction with students, it may be more difficult to conceptualize and articulate the impact that compliance work can have on equity and accessibility. However, policymaking and compliance planning decisions have very real impacts on students.

In today’s blog post, staff of the State Authorization Network and Every Learner Everywhere write about how compliance staff can incorporate equitable policymaking into their work and create more comprehensive solutions to the issues that underlie regulatory and policy changes while still planning for and achieving technical compliance. 

In discussing equity and equitable policy and decisionmaking, it is important to start from a place of shared understanding of these terms. The authors of this blog understand the term equity as follows:

The intentional practice of identifying and dismantling unjust structures, policies, and practices that perpetuate systemic oppression based on but not limited to race, gender, ethnicity, language, ability, sexual orientation, and/or religion, to establish corrective justice actions to realize students’ academic and social mobility goals (Achieving the Dream, 2022). See The Equity Review Tool for more.

Specific to the incorporation of equity into your policymaking and planning, consider what it means to be equitable. In Getting Started with Equity: A Guide for Academic Department Leaders, developed by Intentional Futures and Every Learner Everywhere, a WCET network partner, authors explain that “equity is achieved when the varied needs of people are considered when developing programming, policies, and pedagogies. While equality is often deployed in the interests of placation and pacification, equity is deployed in the interest of empowerment for traditionally disempowered peoples.”

Washington DC at night.

Regulatory and policy compliance are important institutional objectives. Postsecondary institutions are subject to a myriad of federal and state laws and regulations, in addition to meeting standards of institutional and programmatic accreditors. These laws relate to business practices, data privacy and protection, consumer protection and information, and institutional approval. The U.S. Department of Education is the agency of the federal government that establishes policy for, administers, and coordinates most federal assistance to education, to ensure the integrity of Title IV, Higher Education Act programs. Given the number of laws and regulations that apply to higher education institutions, there can be institutional challenges to implementing plans for compliance.

For institutions that offer distance education, these legal obligations could extend beyond the home state of the institution. States maintain the authority to regulate out-of-state postsecondary institutions that offer or participate in activities located in their state to protect students as consumers, the public, and other interests of the state.

Consequences for noncompliance may vary per state, but could include fines, accreditation problems, lawsuits, cease and desist letters, barring licensure for regulated professions, and even the concern of bad publicity for the institution. Additionally, noncompliance with federal Title IV regulations could result in loss of federal financial aid eligibility and fines, among others.

It is important to understand and appreciate the legal, financial, and institutional consequences of noncompliance as a motivating factor for compliance. To move into creating equitable and student-outcome-driven processes, rather than having compliance plans center around end goals of achieving technical compliance with the given law or regulation, consider how equitable and accessible processes can be imbedded into your compliance work to optimize the learning experience and maximize the student experience for all.

The Insufficiency of Technical Compliance: Student Experiences and Perceptions

There are times when technical compliance could be insufficient from the student experience perspective. In some cases, it may be that an institution complies with or meets an accommodation request; however, that may not be enough to make students with disabilities feel included. For example, consider compliance with the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A study to measure student perceptions of accessibility found that, though the campus was found to be compliant with the ADA, there were several areas identified for improvement based on the perceptions of students.  

In other cases, the process to request and receive the accommodations themselves may pose barriers. In the 2020 EDUCAUSE Student Survey, some students rated their experience with institutional accommodations fair or poor because the process to apply was difficult or lengthy, there was a lack of timeliness in receiving the needed accommodations, and/or there was a lack of awareness of policy or a lack of discretion.

Further, it is important to note that, although online learning has many advantages, it is not automatically accessible. In fact, online learning can exacerbate some challenges, such as incompatibility with assistive technology. Automated test proctoring may also adversely impact students with disabilities as the software may erroneously flag students as suspicious based on disability-specific movement, speech, and cognitive processing, or based on the use of assistive technology.

Changing the mindset from reactive to proactive may go a long way in terms of making long lasting progress for accessibility. Appreciate that accommodations such as virtual class meetings, captions, and class recordings can benefit all students and lead to more flexible and equitable learning experiences so long as the accommodations are thoughtfully implemented.

The concept of universal design is one example of a move from reactive to proactive accessibility. As stated by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, “Universal Design” is the “design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” By considering the following seven key principles of universal design in the design of products, environments, processes, and services, institutions can ensure that the designs are inclusive for diverse users:

  • Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and intuitive. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Size and space for approach and use. The design provides appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Universal Design can also apply to the design of learning experiences and student services at institutions of higher education. According to CAST (2018) Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of guidelines that support teaching and learning and can be applied to reduce barriers and maximize learning opportunities. The concept of UDL is founded on research in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology.

Beyond Technical Compliance: Reframing the Conversation

While it is initially important to check the boxes to achieve technical compliance, compliance is not the end goal. Consider that the goal is to leverage compliance strategies to achieve institution-specific objectives around advancing accessibility and improving student outcomes and experiences.

In developing strategies and solutions, institutional compliance staff want to consider equity-driven, comprehensive strategies that account for the impact that each proposed solution will have on all student populations. This starts with not only a change in mindset and how the conversation is framed to focus as much on what is required and how to achieve compliance, but also on considering the why. What is the policy rationale for this legal/regulatory requirement? What is the issue that the state or federal regulator is seeking to address with this requirement?

As an example, for those familiar with the current federal regulations relating to notifications and disclosures for professional licensure programs, consider the U.S. Department of Education’s rationale in placing the onus on institutions rather than students. The Preamble to the 2019 federal rulemaking mentions that, while it may be true that students have the same access to State licensure requirements as the institution, students may not have access to the requisite information to determine whether the program meets those requirements without assistance from the program and curriculum experts at the institution. Essentially, it comes down to transparency to ensure that students may successfully achieve their educational objectives at the institution of their choice by having been provided full and accurate information about the programs in which they may enroll.

Once you consider the spirit of the law and the issues it is meant to address, you can move forward with developing policies and plans that address those issues fully and equitably.

Key Considerations in Developing Equitable Compliance Plans and Policies

It is important to keep in mind that not all matters of regulatory or policy compliance may have an obvious connection to equity or accessibility. Think broadly about how a particular policy or process may impact all student populations to ensure that they do not have unintended negative consequences that could disproportionately impact a specific subset or subsets of students.

In considering the policymaking process, we can revisit the three principles of UDL as a helpful thematic lens in developing an equitable policymaking process that works for your institution:

  • Provide multiple means of engagement
  • Provide multiple means of representation
  • Provide multiple means of action & expression
A photo of a gavel on a keyboard representing a legal finding in a technology-based case.
Photo credited by

Involve a truly diverse representation of the impacted populations in the planning, development, and implementation of policies and procedures. Consider how the student perspective can be included and institutionalize student voice in administrative policymaking practice. In what ways can students be empowered to be involved in the process and ensure that their voices are heard? For example, could students be involved in the review of consumer information disclosures to provide feedback on how information is understood by those for whom it is intended? Students could be included in commissions, working groups, stakeholder meetings, among other active roles in the process.

While there is immense value in seeing concrete examples of how to integrate concepts into actual processes, we want to encourage readers and policymakers to consider the following discussion on the value of diverse representation, informed data, and regular evaluation and impact assessments as well as how these factors would inform your institution’s processes.


Although there is not necessarily one right way to involve students, prioritize seeking feedback and removing barriers to participation in the policymaking and planning process that you identify. It cannot be assumed that everyone has the same capacity to participate without analyzing the limitations to fully participate and engage and take the necessary steps to remove the barriers to equitable participation. Barriers to participation could include not only logistical issues such as the location and timing of meetings but also issues relating to income inequality. Unpaid engagement in the policymaking process is a commitment that many may not be able to make and could lead to key stakeholders being left out of the process.

Information could also be a barrier to full participation in that there may be an unequal access to, or knowledge of, critical contextual or background information. It is important to provide all relevant information in a way such that it is equally perceptible to all and conveyed in a clearly understood form.


To ensure adequate representation and fully informed policymaking requires empirical and disaggregated data to inform decision-making and develop positively impactful policy. Disaggregating data means breaking down data by race, language, income, and other important demographics to contextualize data analysis, support thorough analysis and strategies, and customize those strategies as needed to best support specific populations of students.

For example, consider how effective disclosure of consumer information such as graduation rates, earnings, and debt may be to inform student choice. The College Scorecard is a resource designed to help prospective students by making information on student outcomes accessible. One study found that some white and Asian students changed application behavior in response to the data in the Scorecard; however, the same study did not find that the data had any significant impact on the college choices of Black or Hispanic students. If an institution was considering information sharing alone as a compliance strategy, it should note the disparate impacts it could have based on student demographics and consider what other options may be available to reach equitable outcomes.

Impact Assessments and Evaluations

To this end, an institution could include an equity impact assessment as part of its policy or procedure development process to consider this information at the beginning of the process and devise and revise plans in ways that advance equity. An impact assessment could consider whether a policy or procedure may lead to bias, barriers, exclusions, or other adverse impacts to any specific student population(s).

Finally, support the post-implementation sustainability of the policy with regular evaluation and adjustments as needed to meet the spirit and intent of the legal or regulatory requirement at issue. The institution should demonstrate a willingness to commit necessary resources of time, money, and people to ensure that equity is prioritized in all institutional activities, including compliance planning and policymaking.

Checklist of Considerations for Institutional Compliance Staff for your Policy Development Processes

  1. Familiarize yourself with the policy reasons for the regulatory/compliance requirement.
  2. Frame policy development and compliance solutions around the student experience.
  3. Formalize means to enhance meaningful participation in policy development from all impacted communities
  4. Institutionalize student voice in administrative practice and in policy examples: include students in commissions, working groups, and stakeholder meetings and delegate some responsibilities and decisionmaking to students.
  5. Disaggregate data for appropriate contextual analysis and for optimal planning and decision-making. Disaggregate data to the highest extent possible to prevent the erasure of student populations.
  6. Conduct equity impact assessments to consider how a proposed policy or compliance strategy may have disproportionate negative impacts by specific subsets of the student population.
  7. Ensure that policy and procedure language uses inclusive, simple, and intuitive language and instructions (you may review the Equity Review Tool for examples of strength-based and equity-minded language, among other guides to help you integrate an equity mindset into your institution’s work).

WCET, SAN & ELE appreciate hearing stories of institutional and student experiences. If you are interested in collaborating or have experiences or practices to share, please reach out! We love to hear from you at

The State Authorization Network (SAN) empowers members to successfully resolve regulatory challenges to improve student protections in digital learning across state lines. Benefits of SAN membership center on timely updates, analysis, training, and member interactions. Members count on SAN to keep them up to date on regulatory and policy changes for interstate compliance, analysis to understand the impact on institutions, and for the development of strategies to manage compliance. If you are interested in membership, please review the Membership webpage on the SAN website. Every Learner Everywhere is a network of twelve partner organizations with expertise in evaluating, implementing, scaling, and measuring the efficacy of education technologies, curriculum and course design strategies, teaching practices, and support services that personalize instruction for students in blended and online learning environments. Our mission is to help institutions use new technology to innovate teaching and learning, with the ultimate goal of improving learning outcomes for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, poverty-affected students, and first-generation students. Our collaborative work aims to advance equity in higher education centers on the transformation of postsecondary teaching and learning. We build capacity in colleges and universities to improve student outcomes with digital learning through direct technical assistance, timely resources and toolkits, and ongoing analysis of institution practices and market trends. For more information about Every Learner Everywhere and its collaborative approach to equitize higher education through digital learning, visit


Before and After Moments

WCET welcomes Kara Monroe, President and Founder of Monarch Strategies LLC. Today we are continuing the article series on leadership in higher education digital learning. This is the third blog post in the featured series. Enjoy the previous posts: “Shifting from Covid-normal to New Normal” and “The ‘New Normal’ and Reflections on Accessibility.”

Thank you Kara for the thoughtful blog and insights.

~Russ Poulin, WCET

I recently visited New York City for a conference and to catch up with family and friends who live in the area. This was my third or fourth time in the city– all post 9/11. We made a visit to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum on this most recent trip. The stillness of the Memorial located in the middle of New York’s vibrancy always stills me inside for a little while. 

Where Were You When…

For my generation, those “where were you when” moments are defined by questions like:

  • When the Challenger space shuttle exploded? (I had been in Mrs. Huffman’s sixth grade classroom.)
  • When Princess Diana was killed? (I had been at  my friend Janene’s house in Lakeland, Florida.)
  • When planes hit the Twin Towers & the Pentagon? (I had been dropping my mom off at work before I went to my office at Ivy Tech.)
empty grocery shelves
Photo by Kara Monroe

I got chills as I typed that last sentence. I will never forget standing in the student lounge watching the only television with cable in the building. We watched together as a second plane hit the tower and realized this was an attack and not a horrible accident. 

Now, we collectively add to these moments the questions “where were we when our offices shut down for COVID” and “how did we pass the days of that long COVID spring of 2020 that seemed to drag on forever.” I remember when Walt Disney World announced it would close and cruise lines ceased operations. Things definitely changed that day.

What Is Normal?

We started this series with a perspective on “New Normal.” Some have properly questioned whether we should call what we are experiencing now a “new normal.” It’s a good question and one I grappled with as we named the article series.The Oxford dictionary offers the following  definition of normal: 

“The usual, average, or typical state or condition.”

Usual, average, or typical doesn’t mean it’s right or good–it’s simply what we expect.Through the lens of what we expect to happen (based on what has happened in the past), I’d like to shift attention and explore the possibility that we might never go back to pre-COVID normal again. 

Transportation & Travel

gas station in Indianapolis
Photo by Kara Monroe

By the time this blog is published, I will have left the U.S. twice–both times on cruise ships–and flown four times since March 2020. This is far less than my norm, although I’m starting to catch up relatively quickly to my pre-COVID travel days. However, travel looks much, much different now. For example, my traveling pre planning has changed in the following ways: 

  • For road trips, I’m looking ahead at all the places I will be traveling through and considering where I will and won’t stop, where I will be required to wear a mask, where I will wear a mask because COVID rates are high, etc.
  • Now, I ALWAYS wear gloves or use a form of protection when filling my gas tank, even when I’m at home.
  • As I write this, the requirement to wear face masks in airports and on airplanes has been lifted. I will still wear one, although I don’t know if I’ll do this forever. For now, at least, I’m still going to.

I’m of the belief that COVID is now simply a part of our days, and it will be a part of the foreseeable future. When I am booking plans, I expect things to change because someone has COVID, something is closed because of COVID, or because someplace can’t be staffed as a result of the way the world has changed due to COVID. 

Masks, Personal Protective Equipment, & Sick Leave

Many campuses have been able to go mask free over the last few months.This is wonderful, and it should also cause us all to pause for a moment and reflect on inclusivity.

Masks should, forever, be welcomed on our campuses. While they were not a part of the broad American experience pre-COVID, they are now a part of the American experience. One way we might see the routine use of masks is during cold and flu season. From here on, might we go so far as to encourage masks during cold and flu season? 

We also see a shift with sick leave policies and treatment. A friend who works on a college campus was recently suffering with a weeks-long persistent cough. When she fell ill with COVID, she had a welcoming experience and was encouraged to rest and take the time away she needed. With this lingering non-COVID cold, she tried to take two days off in a row to let her body recover and rest and was chastised. 

Sick leave is a part of the benefits package at colleges and universities. During COVID, we expected people to get sick and many institutional leaders were more forgiving of those illnesses and the time away needed to heal. Unfortunately, this compassionate response and flexibility hasn’t seemed to stay in place now that we’re “back to normal.” In my opinion, as a leader, it is the wrong approach to enforce this continual pushing of the busy culture rather than one of the holistic person. Focused effort on key priorities is far more important than chronic busy-ness. How are you as a leader and how is your institution treating those who fall ill now? If you aren’t treating the person and their experience with grace and acceptance, perhaps that policy and your practice requires a new look. 

What Can You Do

  • Benchmark wages. What you’ve historically paid is likely not enough anymore. If your institution has not benchmarked wages in the last two years, it’s likely time to do so and plan for how to increase wages to attract & retain talent. While none of us go into education to get rich, we all have to live and pay our bills. Leaders in institutions are responsible for ensuring that our wages are fair and commensurate with the duties of the role. If you don’t believe that leaders in your organization are doing this, take on this effort yourself for your own role or office. You can’t take action without information. For more specific information, visit The resource gives broad ranges– emphasis on broad–but you can now see additional ranges on advertisements in places like LinkedIn and HigherEdJobs. 
  • Define safe on your terms. In the travel section of this blog, I mention that I always wear gloves at gas stations. I get a LOT of weird looks now when I do this, and I have had to consciously decide that I don’t care. This is what feels safe for me now. Develop and refine your own confidence in taking a beat in any situation and thinking, “What do I need to feel safe in this moment?” Adapt as necessary to let yourself feel safe. 
  • Treat illness with the respect it deserves. There are people who abuse sick time and who do not live up to their responsibility in the office. However, they aren’t the ones who should set the standards for our practices and treatment. When someone is ill, treat them with the kindness and compassion they deserve. Encourage them to take the time away from the office to heal and recover, and model this behavior. In some offices, people “just don’t take time off, even if they are sick.” If that’s your office, start modeling better behavior. Take time off for vacation. Stay off of email when you do it. Stay home when you’re sick and don’t work unless it is a REAL emergency.  
  • Budget conservatively. April was Financial Literacy Month, but it’s never a bad time to look at your budget and consider what expenses you can cut. For example: 
    • See what discount programs might be available to you as a member of a college or university community. If you’re considering a technology purchase, know that most major hardware and software companies offer education discounts. I’ve always found them by simple Google search of “name of company education discount.” If one quick search saves you 10% or more on a $100 or more purchase, it’s worth it.
    • Consider what major purchases you might be facing. For my neighbors, the big purchase was their air conditioner. It went out once each year in the last three years. Last fall, they decided to be “proactive” and get it replaced over the winter. They ordered it in November and it’s finally being replaced today. While some of this is simply a matter of schedules, the unit itself didn’t arrive in Indiana until early March. 

COVID created a space and time for many of us to think clearly as life around us came to a bit of a stop. What do you need to go back and make time and space for as we come out of the depth of the pandemic and you create your new rhythms and establish your new normal? What “usual, average, or typical state or condition” from before COVID do you want back? Which “usual, average, or typical state or condition” needs to change now?

Networks Practice

Every Learner Everywhere’s Equity Mission

We are happy to have Patti O’Sullivan provide us with an update on Every Learner’s advances over the past year with a special focus on their attention to increasing equity in the ways institutions serve students.
WCET enjoys a dual role with Every Learner Everywhere. First, we serve as the administrative backbone host for the grant-funded Network. Second, WCET is also one of the twelve partners in the Network. We are very pleased with the great works and equity in digital learning focus of Every Learner Everywhere.
– Russ Poulin, WCET

Also, Every Learner Everywhere and NROC invite you to their webcast today, January 13, at Noon PT, Centering Equity in Digital Learning for Every Learner Everywhere.

The Backstory of The Every Learner Everywhere Network

The Every Learner Everywhere network consists of twelve partner organizations that collaborate to advance equity in higher education through the transformation of postsecondary teaching and learning. Every Learner builds capacity in colleges and universities to improve student outcomes with digital learning through timely resources such as playbooks, webinars, research studies, and ongoing analysis of institution practices and market trends. Every Learner’s works are freely available to all on our website’s resource library.

At Every Learner, we also provide direct technical assistance such as consultations, workshops, and strategic planning sessions.These experiences are currently primarily available to institutions identified through our grant work.

every learner everywhere logo

Most importantly, the network remains passionate about our mission and continues to work diligently to increase equity in the ways institutions serve students. This past year has been marked with successful initiatives, which is reason to celebrate. We’d like to share some of our success stories.

Success Story One: Include Student Voices

Student voices matter and, throughout 2021, the Every Learner Everywhere network has striven to be equity-forward in the resources we develop for faculty and administrators. An important part of being equity-forward is including the very students we are trying to serve in the process of developing our resources. Our student fellows have helped us better understand the needs of all students. They have provided input on our publications and presentations and even spoken directly to our network and our institutional partners through webinar and conference panels. 

A 16th century political slogan adopted by disability activists expresses the Every Learner commitment to include students in our work, “Nothing about us without us.” It is in this spirit that our student fellows have authored their own resource outlining myths and truths related to equitable teaching. This resource, based on educational research as well as the student fellows’ lived experience, is written for faculty, student support staff, and administrators and will be published in 2022.

Group of students in the 2021 student fellows cohort.

Success Story Two: Pursuing Equity Through Workshops and Coaching
We started the year with Strategies for Success, a weekly webinar series running January through April that featured researchers, seasoned faculty, and learning specialists who connected faculty with strategies and resources for inclusive teaching, effective course design, and engaging students in remote learning settings. 

We also incorporated a companion service to Strategies for Success with our one-on-one coaching for faculty with our Experts Network. The Every Learner Everywhere Expert Network, Powered by ISTE, was a free service we offered to support higher education faculty and leaders who needed expert advice to support students through the COVID-19 crisis, including the transition from face-to-face instruction to online learning. 

While hundreds of faculty attended the Strategies for Success webinars, it was the direct coaching provided by the Expert Network that created the most impact on faculty, according to ISTE Edusurge organizer Brandon Olszewski, Director of Research at ISTE. 

“The direct-to-client coaching provided by the Expert Network and Summer Faculty Workshop served an essential need for higher education practitioners from all walks, including tenure-track, adjunct, and leadership. The high (94%) Net Promoter Score for the Expert Network is a testament to the critical role the one-on-one, on-demand coach served.”

Next, we developed our Educational Equity Through Digital Learning Summer Workshop series that offered participants the opportunity to attend synchronous sessions with national leaders; it included facilitated peer discussions and professional coaching sessions. Workshop sessions centered on equity in digital learning through three topics: evidence-based teaching practices, differentiated instruction, and adaptive learning. In total, there were 67 active faculty throughout the 8-week workshop, and Every Learner issued certificates to 38 faculty for completing all workshop requirements.

Success Story Three: Publications that Still Resonate

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how student well-being is a key component to student success. In fact, student well-being is the focus of two related Every Learner publications: Caring For Students Playbook: Six Recommendations and the accompanying guide, Caring For Students Playbook:Getting Started With Key Terms, Challenges, and Approaches, which provides practical recommendations, concrete strategies, and resources to support instructors in operationalizing equity-focused, inclusive teaching strategies that put student care into practice by acknowledging student challenges while identifying student assets. 

We also authored multiple publications centered on equity in online classes and in departmental policies and teaching approaches.Two of these key resources are Optimizing High-Quality Digital Learning Experiences: A Playbook For Faculty and Getting Started With Equity: A Guide for Academic Department Leaders. The Faculty Playbook guides faculty in strategic online and hybrid course design that positively impacts student learning, especially for students who are minoritized because of race, gender, disability, or socioeconomic status. Getting Started With Equity offers specific strategies faculty can adopt in the classroom, the curriculum, in course design, and in assessments, all of which center on justice for minoritized students. The resource, along with the companion resource IMPACT Framework, also walks department leaders through the process of conducting a departmental equity audit. 

We ended the year with the Blended Institution of Higher Education, the second installment of our series on blended learning following Planning for a Blended Future, which we published in May of 2021. Both of these resources position students and their success at the center, prioritizing equity to ensure success for all students — specifically those who have been historically minoritized or traditionally underrepresented. The Blended resources combine an array of technological and process elements and thoughtfully integrate instruction, learning, support, and services for students.

And One More Success 

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Our network also had the opportunity to reiterate our emphasis on equity through various events. For example, in June, the authors of the above resources spoke about care and equity at the ASU Remote Summit and the Gardner Institute’s Socially Just Design in Postsecondary Education: a Series. Both events featured a conversation with the Every Learner Everywhere Student Fellows that focused on engagement and impact in higher education. You can watch the student fellows talk about their internship projects and their experiences as students during the pandemic on the Every Learner YouTube channel

We’ve summarized the network’s services, resources, and impact in our 2021 Annual Report with a look toward a new year in which we hold ourselves accountable to our equity mission while we continue to be a guide for faculty and instructors engaged in removing systemic barriers and inequity in teaching and learning through digital learning tools and innovative teaching strategies.

Hopes for 2022

We are starting off 2022 with another installment of Strategies for Success, and we’re rolling out many more resources and services during the year. If student well-being and educational equity are on your New Year’s resolution list, register for Strategies for Success and check out our new resources library. Below, we’d like to share our favorite resources  from 2021: 

Caring for Students

The Faculty Playbook

Getting Started With Equity

Planning for a Blended Future

The Blended Institution of Higher Education

Be sure to check back regularly for a great lineup of new resources in 2022 that provide a platform for students to provide feedback on their higher education experiences, that offer strategies and shared learning for faculty wanting to make their teaching more equitable, and that center student care as higher education faces a third year of the Covid-19 pandemic.  


2021 Top WCET Frontiers Blog Posts

WCET staff–thank you for your on-going support of the WCET Frontiers blog. Over the holidays, we wanted to offer you the chance to review posts that you may have missed but had been popular with your peers. Rather than evoking Casey Kasem with American Top 40 and just listing the posts topping the chart with the most views, we will highlight the top issues covered over the year. This way we can feature several related great posts.

As an aside on American Top 40…did you know Ryan Seacrest is still doing that show? If you are young, you might be thinking, “I know Ryan Seacrest, but who is this Casey guy?” For you, Casey Kasem was the original voice of Shaggy in the Scooby Doo cartoons.

Without further ado (or Scooby Doo), let’s get to the top of the charts…

Graphic with list of WCET's top blog topics: Regular and Substantive Interaction Changed Accreditation Review Standards Equity for Students  Changes to Veterans’ Benefits Emerging Technologies and Innovations Quality of Digital/Online Learning Guidelines Professional Licensure Student Notifications Rules for a Multi-state Workforce Negotiated Rulemaking Aftermath.
List of top issues covered during 2021 in the Frontiers blog

Regular and Substantive Interaction
The new and updated U.S. Department of Education definition of “distance education” is used in the determination of federal financial aid eligibility for institutions. The key differentiator between distance and correspondence education is the concept of “regular and substantive interaction.” In the past, there were questions regarding how the Department applied this rule in practice and the Department’s interpretations seemed to change over time. For several years a post by Van Davis and me (“Interpreting What is Required for “Regular and Substantive Interaction”) was a great source for advice and topped the charts.

When the revised definition became effective on July 1, 2021, we needed a new take. Kathryn Kerensky (a smart, young upstart who is new to the WCET State Authorization Network staff) tops this year’s charts with the most viewed post of the year: “Regular and Substantive Interaction: Reviewing & Sharing Our Best Interpretation of Current Guidance and Requirements.” Congratulations Kathryn!

Another oldie that placed surprisingly high was a blog  written by me, titled  “Is Your Distance Education Course Actually a Correspondence Course?” Like a song from the distant past, that 2012 post should be relegated to a fading tune in favor of Kathryn’s new post.

Watch for more on this issue as we are expecting additional guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

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Changed Accreditation Review Standards

In the Spring, we heard from some of our accrediting friends about a Department of Education reinterpretation of the requirements for reviews of distance education programs. Accrediting agencies used to require reviews for programs where 50 percent of the courses were distance education or 50 percent of its students enrolled via distance education. The Department now requires an “in whole or in part” standard. Cheryl Dowd (WCET State Authorization Network) and I (really mostly Cheryl) alerted you to this news in “Department of Ed Change May Result In More Institutions Needing Distance Education Approvals from Accrediting Agencies.” We did not have much to report at that time and it was still the second most popular post of the year. An update on this one may be needed.

Equity for Students

The events of 2020-21 highlighted the inequities faced by those who have traditionally not been served well by higher education institutions in particular, or society as a whole. Changes are needed, but they should be evidence-based. WCET contracted with Tanya Joosten of DETA (the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements) to review the research. The results of the report were highlighted in the post “New Report: Research Review of EdTech and Student Success for Racial and Ethnic Groups.”

We had additional follow-up blogs on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in digital learning, including a great series of posts authored by WCET Steering Committee members:

Changes to Veterans’ Benefits

Cheryl Dowd, WCET State Authorization Network and WCET’s Director of Policy Innovations, has been following the changing Veterans Administration rules regarding GI Bill benefits for veteran students. She was incredibly helpful in highlighting confusing rules and the sometimes confusing clarifications on the alterations that occurred in 2021:

Emerging Technologies and Innovations

We also had some updates on advances in educational technologies and the innovations surrounding them:

Quality of Digital/Online Learning Guidelines

There were two important developments this year in updating guidelines for digital and online learning:

Professional Licensure Student Notifications

Cheryl Dowd and the State Authorization Network crew have done deep work to help us all understand the differing expectations (Department of Educations, Veterans Administration, SARA) for notifying students about whether an institution’s program meets state licensure requirements:

Rules for a Multi-state Workforce

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As a result of the pandemic, institutions are now finding an increasing number of faculty and staff who have moved to other states. Such a move has several practical and legal implications. In “What is ‘NEXUS’ for higher ed? Considerations for a multi-state workforce,” Rachael Stachowiak, our new WCET State Authorization Network colleague, displays her fantastic research chops in detailing the regulations that come into play and suggested action steps that the institution might take in response.

Negotiated Rulemaking Aftermath

There is still lots of interest in the results of the Department of Education’s 2019 Negotiated Rulemaking, as witnessed by the popularity of several posts, many of which were written by Van Davis and Cheryl Dowd and published in 2020:

Have a great 2022!

If you would like to share lessons you have learned and write a WCET Frontiers blog post for 2022, let me know. We would love to have more stories from those innovating in the field or overcoming barriers in better serving faculty, staff, and students.

Well, that’s our show for this week and just remember to:

“Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”


Networks Policy

Announcing the 2021 SANsational Award Winners

Multi-colored logo for SAN sational awards with the tagline Innovative Solutions to State Authorization Challenges.

Institutional procedures to comply with state and federal law are unique to an institution’s activities and administrative structure. Regardless, much can be gained from observing the work of exemplars and sharing practical strategies deployed at other institutions. The State Authorization Network’s annual SANsational awards do just that.

About the award

These awards represent comprehensive work to answer a difficult state authorization compliance challenge. Winning projects provide tangible examples of systems or procedures which can be adapted by other institutions. They represent solutions which meet requirements and needs of regulators, the institution, and most especially students.

SAN members may self-nominate their institution or organization annually. An esteemed committee composed of talented compliance professionals reviews and selects winning projects. 2021 nominations were accepted in the following three categories:

  • Licensure Programs: Notifications and disclosures for professional licensure program status in each state.
  • Location: How do you identify where your students are located while taking online courses, doing internships/practicums etc., and to meet new Federal regulations (34 CFR 600.9(c)(iii) & 34 CFR 668.43(c))? How does your institution report this information?
  • Compliance Innovations: Institution policy, tools, compliance teams, or other inventive or novel compliance management practices.

Please join us in congratulating the winners of our seventh annual SANsational awards:

East Carolina University (North Carolina)
Where are ECU’s Students?

Group picture of people standing near a tree with their SAN award.
(Top, left) Allen Guidry, Dean, College of Education, East Carolina University Terrance Scarborough, Director, North Carolina SEAA Dan Harrison, Senior Associate Vice President for Academic and Regulatory Affairs, University of North Carolina System Office (Bottom, Left) Charlene Lee, State Authorization Compliance Specialist & SARA Coordinator, East Carolina University Cheryl Dowd, WCET State Authorization Network Kathryn Kerensky, WCET State Authorization Network

Why comply? Student location is the pivotal first step to complying with expectations of the higher education triad partners: States, federal government, and accrediting bodies. If an institution can’t identify the location of its students, it will not know how to comply with applicable state rules. Holding appropriate State Authorization where institutional activities occur also serves as one qualifying criterion to participate in Title IV HEA programs. Furthermore, reporting student location and experiential learning placement data are important components for participation in the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA).

East Carolina University (ECU) is a public four-year institution connected to the University of North Carolina System. ECU offers 212 undergraduate programs, over 90 graduate and doctoral programs, and 125 online only programs and certificates. The institution serves over 28,700 students from all 100 counties in North Carolina, 47 states, and 99 counties.

Charlene Lee, ECU’s SARA Compliance Specialist, saw a regulatory compliance need and worked with a campus-wide team to revise ECU’s student location tracking procedures. Charlene and her colleagues instituted a system that identifies the location of the student at the time of admission and every time thereafter as they register for classes. Students cannot opt out of the question. This information has supported ECU’s general compliance work to:

  • manage appropriate state authorization, professional licensing approvals and disclosures;
  • comply with reporting requirements as a condition for participation in SARA;
  • provide information and reports for accreditation purposes;
  • identify and support students impacted by and in COVID-19 “Hot Spots.”

View Charlene’s presentation about this project to hear more about the steps and inner mechanics of this student location solution.

Franklin University (Ohio)
Slate Customer Relationship Management (CRM) as a Tool for Compliance Management for Professional Licensure Programs – A Partnership Between Offices

Group of women standing in a lobby with their SAN award.
Cheryl Dowd, WCET State Authorization Network Breanna Mackley, Communication & System Specialist Kate Grimes, Director of Academic Compliance Sarah Christian, Accreditation Specialist

Why comply? In July 2020, federal rules requiring notifications to students enrolling in programs which may lead to a professional license were expanded to all students, regardless of modality. Institutions who participate in federal title IV programs are required to publish public and then issue direct disclosures for prospective and matriculated students.

Franklin University is a private, non-profit institution that was founded in 1902 as one of the YMCA’s Schools of Commerce, where working adults attended night courses to advance their careers. Franklin was an early adopter of online programming and currently serves most of its over 6,000 students online, while continuing to offer a small number of classes in face-to-face format at its campus located in downtown Columbus, Ohio. The institution offers academic programming choices that lead to a variety of credentials, including micro credentials, certificates, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees.

Kate Grimes, director of academic compliance, and Sarah Christian, accreditation specialist, with Franklin’s Accreditation and Authorization Office, utilize a variety of technical solutions to manage compliance with State Authorization. Their portfolio includes Customer Relationship Management (CRM) campaigns that allow them to effectively manage communications specific to professional licensure programs and direct disclosure notifications.

When Kate and Sarah reviewed their procedures to comply with the July 1, 2020 federal regulations, they learned that not only was the University switching to a new CRM platform, but the structure of the original campaigns was causing major systems problems and they could not be readily transferred to the new platform.

Their division, along with the CRM team, took this as an opportunity to improve the design and structure of the notifications that are automatically sent to students for Franklin’s licensure programs. The project greatly benefited from cross-departmental teams working together and helped build a deeper understanding of what was being communicated, when, and why.

Hear Kate and Sarah share about their collaboration and steps to comply with federal professional licensure disclosure regulations in their SANsational Presentation.

Slippery Rock University (Pennsylvania)
Bringing Order to Chaos – SARA Data Collection

Why comply? Per East Carolina University’s winning project, we know that the location of educational activities serves as critical information for understanding applicable rules in a State and provides an important checkpoint to participation in Title IV HEA programs. Additionally, data reporting is a condition for participation in the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA), the current national reciprocal agreement which offers eligible institutions a more streamlined process to manage institutional approvals pertaining to distance education activities in participating U.S. States and territories.

Group of people standing in front of a staircase with their SAN award.
Julie Cogley, Analytics and Decision Support, Slippery Rock University Rachael Stachowiak, WCET State Authorization Network William J. Behre, Ph. D., President, Slippery Rock University LisaMarie Weinzetl, Compliance Manager, Slippery Rock University

Slippery Rock University (SRU), founded in 1889, is a member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). Located an hour north of Pittsburgh, this four-year, public, coeducational, comprehensive university offers a broad array of undergraduate and graduate programs to more than 8,500 students.

LisaMarie Weinzetl, with SRU’s Compliance Office, is charged with gathering information on hundreds of experiential learning activities (ELA) from dozens of professors across campuses to ensure compliance with federal and state laws as well as SARA requirements. Compliance with SARA requirements, enables SRU to continue to employ the agreements’ economic and efficient methods for securing approval for distance education and ELA in other member states.

The first effort was relatively low tech and utilized the collaborative working relationship with the Office of Institutional Research. Faculty were sent a blank spreadsheet to complete. Once returned, the Compliance Office staff would then cross reference the completed spreadsheets with class rosters to ensure information was gathered on all registered students. This once burdensome process has evolved to a mostly automated one that now requires minimal time and effort from faculty.

The current process involves running a report that creates an Excel workbook that includes a verification form for every faculty member supervising ELA.

  • Each spreadsheet is pre-populated with student information, including name, Banner ID, course number, class status, and CIP code.
  • A macro is used to separate the workbook into faculty specific spreadsheets. Using a mail merge, the spreadsheets are then emailed.
  • Faculty enter the name of each student’s site, the city, and the state.
  • Information from completed forms is inserted into a master spreadsheet for that semester, with individual forms being electronically filed.
  • Semester spreadsheets are combined based on a calendar year for SARA data reporting. Once all the information for a calendar year is collected, a pivot table is used to divide the data by CIP and state for ease of reporting.

Questions regarding SRU’s project may be directed to Lisa at

University of South Dakota
Robust, Minimal Cost Tools for State Authorization and Professional Licensure Compliance

(From left) Cheryl Dowd, WCET State Authorization Network Rachael Stachowiak, WCET State Authorization Network, LaDonna Rodvold, State Authorization Specialist, University of South Dakota, Julie Barnett, Director of Continuing and Distance Education, University of South Dakota, Beth Freeburg, Associate Provost, University of South Dakota, Kathryn Kerensky, WCET State Authorization Network, Kurt Hackemer Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of South Dakota

Why comply?  As shared in the above descriptions, compliance is not a choice. It is the law, and regardless of whether one agrees, it must be followed. There are numerous regulations to navigate at both State and federal levels. Regardless, compliance staff must digest and conceive of solutions to help the institution abide by these rules, all while juggling the tricky task of mobilizing a campus community to contribute and understand requirements intended to protect their consumer, students. This SANsational project touches on multiple elements of compliance: location, physical presence, professional licensure approval, and disclosures; AND then offers a streamlined portal to share information and collect data from multiple campus community members.

Rooted in South Dakota’s value of responsible stewardship, the University of South Dakota (USD) developed a sustainable digital data matrix at minimal cost. This matrix includes four tools to compile, track, disseminate, and assess the myriad of data required to ensure compliance with federal regulations, state consumer protection requirements, and SARA policies.

This matrix came about when LaDonna Rodvold, USD’s state authorization specialist and Julie Barnett, the director of continuing and distance education, were seeking opportunities to create efficiencies, integrate data, and then make data more meaningful and accessible throughout the university.

They focused on utilizing free and existing applications available across the system and their productive working relationships with 202 undergraduate and 84 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, Knudson School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. In total, USD has 83 programs designed to lead to professional licensure and 35 online degree and certificate programs.

LaDonna and Julie’s institutional colleagues can readily access data and make appropriate updates as requested by the compliance staff through the following series of tools:

  • a comprehensive tool for professional licensure compliance data management;
  • a tool for the licensure determination process;
  • a tool to track student learning placements and other off-campus activities; and
  • a knowledge base portal to communicate and make these tools available on a familiar platform across USD’s seven Colleges and Schools.

Click to learn more from LaDonna and Julie about their unique “Knowledge Base” supporting more effective cross-institution compliance.

A final round of applause!

Image saying Thank You to the SAN sational awards committee: Sharyl Thompson, Brandie Elliott, Cheryl Carroll, Jeannie Yockey-Fine.

On behalf of the SANsational Selection Committee and SAN team, we’d like to offer our admiration of each submission and encourage our members to keep self-nominating their projects!

The award selection process has become more competitive each year, given the increase in quality of each submission. An archive of previous years’ winning projects lives on SAN’s website.

Please visit us online to learn more about this year’s winners and view their recorded project presentations:

Policy Practice

SUNY Online is Pleased to Announce the Release of OSCQR 4.0!

This week’s WCET Frontiers blog is written by guest author Alexandra M. Pickett, Director, SUNY Online Teaching, SUNY Online with The State University of New York. The blog features updates to The SUNY Online Course Quality Review Rubric, OSCQR. OSCQR can assist faculty, instructional designers, departments, and institutions by helping them plan, design, and refresh online courses/programs, and can be leveraged to ensure that online course designs support regular and substantive interaction between online learners and their instructor(s). OSCQR 4.0 has been updated to reflect and support the US federal Department of Education (ED) regulation regarding requirements for Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) in all online/distance education courses for financial aid purposes that went into effect on July 1. Thank you Alex!


What Updates Can We Expect to See?

OSCQR, developed by SUNY Online and adopted by the Online Learning Consortium in 2016 (OLC), is an openly-licensed, freely available set of online course quality tools, materials, and resources that are research-based, flexible, customizable, and non-evaluative. The 50 OSCQR online course quality standards integrate best practices in online instructional design, address accessibility, and now incorporate specific suggestions for ensuring Regular and Substantive Interaction in online course design.

An emphasis on regular and substantive interaction is entirely consistent with well-documented, research-based effective practices in online course design and delivery, and in online teaching and learning environments of any kind (asynchronous, synchronous, blended/hybrid).

According to the new regulation, regular and substantive interactions must:

  • Be with an instructor as defined by the institution’s accreditor.
  • Be initiated by the instructor.
  • Be scheduled and predictable.
  • Be academic in nature and relevant to the course.
  • Substantive interaction assumes direct interaction between the learner and the instructor and requires a minimum of two of the following:
    • Providing direct instruction.
    • Assessing or providing feedback on a student’s coursework.
    • Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course.
    • Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency.
    • Other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency (ED regulation, pp. 339-341). 

In collaboration with a volunteer campus-based workgroup, OSCQR standards were reviewed and updated, and OSCQR supporting materials, resources, and documentation were refreshed to make sure that Regular and Substantive Interaction is clearly visible, articulated, and highlighted in specific OSCQR standards, and in all related OSCQR support materials.

How Can Institutions Leverage OSCQR?

OSCQR can assist faculty, instructional designers, departments, and institutions by helping them plan, design, and refresh online courses/programs, and can be leveraged to ensure that online course designs support regular and substantive interaction between online learners and their instructor(s).

Best practices in high quality online courses assume regular and substantive interaction (RSI) between the online instructors and learners that is articulated in both the design and delivery of the course. OSCQR provides standards that can be used to guide and improve the instructional design of an online course, including explanations of instructor intentions and expectations for aspects of the delivery of the online course. Since OSCQR is a tool that looks only at the instructional design of an online course and not the delivery, and includes effective practices beyond RSI, RSI must  be visible in the design of online course content, instructions, stated expectations, and dedicated spaces/areas/forums within the course, to apply/test against OSCQR standards.

OSCQR standards serve as guidelines and effective practices in new online course development, and the review and refresh of existing online courses. Additionally, the standards serve as a framework for online faculty development activities to support RSI compliance.

OSCQR standards can be used by online faculty and instructional designers in faculty self-assessments, faculty training activities, resource materials, course reviews, and as recommendations and standards to support and document how the online course meets the RSI requirements.

In addition to the use of OSCQR, other activities are essential to fully ensure RSI compliance, such as faculty/ID training and awareness building, online teaching skills, and institutional/departmental policy and monitoring. The new version of OSCQR is one tool that can be used to support RSI in the instructional design of any online course. 

The .pdf of the new OSCQR 4.0 rubric is available to download now from the OLC website. The online interactive OSCQR rubric and dashboards will be available before the new year. 

For more information about OSCQR, please visit

For additional details regarding the new RSI regulation, please visit


SUNY Online

SUNY Online Faculty & Staff

SUNY Online Teaching

OLC Course Quality Scorecard .pdf – OSCQR