How Social Scientists Can Contribute to Online Teaching and Learning: Research, Teaching, and Mentorship

Today’s guest authors, Mary Ellen Dello Stritto and Rebecca Thomas from the Ecampus Research Unit with Oregon State University’s Ecampus are here to discuss how social scientists can contribute to online teaching and learning research. Thank you to both of them for today’s post.

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

While remote forms of education have been increasingly discussed during COVID-19, online higher education has been growing for over 15 years (e.g., Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018). This growth is exciting because online education has the potential to increase educational access for diverse groups of adult learners (see table below). Many students may find that completing courses, certificate programs, and degree programs online can make educational attainment more feasible. However, the field of online educational research is still young, and there is a lot of opportunity to contribute to both research and practice in the field.

Students Who May Benefit from Online EducationOnline education has the potential to provide educational access to individuals who may find it difficult to attend face-to-face courses.

Students who have many responsibilities. Asynchronous online courses allow students to complete course objectives during the hours that they are available, which can make higher education more feasible for students with life commitments such as full-time jobs or childcare responsibilities. Adults who desire career changes, or want to further their education in hopes of increased responsibility or promotion may find it easier to fit online courses into their schedules. Additionally, students who may be taking courses at an institution’s campus may find that combining online and blended courses with campus courses may fit better into their work and family life.
Students who live in remote areas. Since online courses are offered virtually, they can be accessed wherever there is adequate internet access. This aspect of online education can benefit students who live in remote areas, or students who are unable to move or commute for specific courses or programs.
Students who travel or who live in multiple locations. For example, military service personnel whose job responsibilities require moving or living in multiple locations may find online courses to be compatible with their other responsibilities.
Students with disabilities or health concerns that make visiting campus difficult. Some students may find it difficult to drive to campus, travel around campus, or attend class in a face-to-face setting due to disabilities or physical or mental health symptoms. Online education may allow these students to take courses in environments where they function more optimally.

We, the authors of this piece, are psychologists by training who currently work in the Ecampus Research Unit (ECRU), a research team housed within Oregon State’s University Ecampus, the division for online degrees and programs. Our educational and research experiences have provided us with a unique perspective on the online higher education field, as well as on how social scientists can contribute.

Social scientists (including but not limited to sociologists, historians, and political scientists) are excellent candidates for contributing to future work in online teaching and learning. For example, social scientists are often trained in how to conduct research involving human participants, and the diverse methodologies offered in the social sciences could allow the field to investigate online education through multiple lenses. Many social scientists may be surprised to learn how their skills could contribute to multi-disciplinary teams, as researchers in other fields (e.g. researchers in STEM fields) may desire to conduct educational research, but lack the training in human participant methodologies.

If you are a social scientist who wants to contribute to research, teaching, or mentorship in online education, the following sections describe important considerations.

How Social Scientists Can Contribute to Research in Online Higher Education

Do You Already Study Teaching and Learning?

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In addition to social scientists’ expertise in research design with human participants and data analysis, many social scientists are already studying content areas that relate to teaching and learning. For example, social scientists often aim to understand trends and relationships in between humans and society. These areas could potentially be applied to educational environments, as education is situated within a broader culture and society, and teaching depends on interpersonal relationships and communication. Many social scientists who do not consider themselves to be “educational researchers” may find that educational research fits their skill-set and interests. For example, phenomena studied in social psychology such as implicit bias, collaborative group work, and social norms could be applied to understanding online education.  

More Variety and Opportunity

Social scientists filling multiple roles in higher education may find it rewarding to conduct research related to online teaching and learning. Faculty with heavy teaching loads, many of whom may already be teaching online or blended courses, may choose to conduct research within their current courses. Faculty in research-heavy positions may also find that Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research complements their current research agendas. Since so many areas of social science could relate to online teaching and learning, there is opportunity for many in the field to contribute.

Research Starting Points and Ideas

The following are areas where additional scholarship would be useful in online higher education. These areas are by no means exhaustive, and since they have been written from our perspective as psychologists, they may not completely align with perspectives offered by all social sciences. However, we hope that these areas can provide a starting point for social scientists to consider online educational research in the context of their expertise and experiences.

While some of these research areas may require original research, other research areas may be able to be addressed by current work that has not yet been applied to online teaching and learning. Social scientists with specific areas of expertise could consider ways that their content areas could improve online education and educational environments. While these research areas run parallel with endeavors of the SoTL more broadly, there has been less research in the context of online teaching and learning, as well as in regard to other modalities of education, such as in blended learning.

Research Area 1: Performance in Online Education

Example Research Questions How do students perform in a specific online course or in a specific online program? Why are students performing this way? How well do faculty teach specific online courses, or within specific programs? What are best practices for teaching online and evaluating teaching effectiveness?Are there differences in student performance for the same course or program offered online compared to other modalities? What reasons are there for these differences?What efforts can be made to improve student and faculty performance in an online course or program?
Important Considerations What indicators of student performance to measure (i.e. grades, retention, post-graduation employment data), as well as indicators of faculty performance (e.g. peer evaluations, student evaluations)Whether there is interest in performance for a specific online course, or for a larger online program If this research is about online education in a specific field, it could be useful to consider sub-fields (i.e. comparing performance in a specific content course to a statistics for social sciences course)

Research Area 2: Educational Experience in Online Education

Example Research Questions What factors (e.g. social support, self-compassion) impact student and faculty experiences in online courses and programs? What barriers do certain students and faculty encounter in online courses and programs (e.g. bias, isolation)?How can interventions improve the educational experiences of online students, faculty, and other stakeholders?
Important Considerations Some students and faculty may experience different barriers than others when completing their education. For example, some research has focused on students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds. Barriers can be course or program specific, as well as specific to student or faculty demographic variables.Barriers in online learning may or may not be similar to general barriers in higher education. It is important to consider the online education context and how that may interact with other factors.

Research Area 3: Pedagogy in Online Education

Example Research Questions Which pedagogies are effective in online learning?What are the study methods used by online students? If we understand this information, then pedagogy can be designed specifically for the online learning environment.Are there pedagogies that are particularly useful for teaching specific concepts online?
Important Considerations Most Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research has been conducted in face-to-face environments. More research is needed related to online learning.It is possible that some pedagogy established in face-to-face environments could be effective in online environments. However, it is also possible to design pedagogy that utilizes the online medium and aligns with the way that online learners tend to study.Research done in multiple fields could be applied to pedagogy in online education.

Considerations for Social Scientists: Teaching & Mentoring Online Students

In addition to contributing to the online teaching and learning field through research, social scientists can also contribute to the field as they teach and mentor online students. While more research in this area would be useful, equivalency theory suggests that online students will achieve equivalent learning outcomes to face face-to-face learners if they receive equivalent learning experiences (Simonson, 1999). We recommend that social scientists consider how they can ensure that they are providing equivalent learning experiences to their online students, both in the classroom, as well as outside of the classroom.

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  1. Faculty can provide equivalent learning experiences in the online classroom. While online pedagogy may look different from face-to-face pedagogy, it is possible for online students to receive equivalent learning opportunities in online classrooms. Fortunately, if you are new to teaching online, many professionals have been working in this area for years, and there are many resources that you can refer to so as to avoid reinventing the wheel. We recommend looking into online teaching resources provided by your institutions, as well as visiting resources provided by Quality Matters, Online Learning Consortium (OLC), UPCEA, and EDUCAUSE. In an Ecampus Research Unit study, we interviewed 33 instructors who had been teaching online for 10 years or more. These instructors recommended taking advantage of trainings and professional development opportunities. For example, some found that they could teach more content online than they originally thought, and many enjoyed the challenge of teaching in a new environment (more results from this study can be found here). Visit these blog posts for more information on skills that you can develop as an online instructor, as well as advice for new online instructors.
  2. Social Scientists can provide equivalent learning experiences outside of the classroom. In addition to providing quality education within online courses, departments can consider ways that they can make other learning experiences available to online students. For example, many undergraduates receive opportunities such as research and teaching assistantships, tutoring positions, and involvement in student organizations. These experiences can be invaluable in preparing students for graduate work, as well as for work in other areas such as industry. With a creative approach to logistics, online students can partake in these experiences outside of the classroom. For example, many social science related student positions could be completed remotely, and many events, such as seminars and guest speaker sessions, could be recorded or broadcasted online. If you are a social scientist in higher education, we would encourage you to consider a) What experiences do students in your field need to be successful?, and b) How can these experiences be offered to online students?

An Exciting Future for Online Learning and Research

There is a lot of quality work that has been done by social scientists that could enhance online teaching and learning research, and additional efforts could be made by faculty when teaching and mentoring online students. We believe that social scientists have the potential to contribute to the online education field in their specific roles, at their institutions.


author headshot

Mary Ellen Dello Stritto
Director, Ecampus Research Unit
Oregon State University, Ecampus

Rebecca Arlene Thomas
Postdoctoral Scholar Ecampus Research Unit
Oregon State University, Ecampus



Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade increase: Tracking distance education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group.

Simonson, M. (1999). Equivalency theory and distance education. TechTrends, 43(5), 5-8.


“What is College Worth?” – Postsecondary Value Commission Addresses that Question

What is the value of a college education? The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Value Commission released today the first in a series of reports, data tools, and action agendas to address this elusive question.

photo of three women sitting in a classroom. Text reads "Postsecondary value commission. What is college worth?"

Students, parents, employers, and policymakers increasingly question the collegiate investment if the economic return is not apparent, opportunity costs are considerable, and students are left with stifling loan debt. These questions have been amplified due to the pandemic and the feeling among some students that they are not getting what they purchased.

While not all benefits to the college experience are financial, the economics loom large and equity considerations come into play as voiced by the Commission:

The Issue

Concerns about college affordability and debt are giving rise to the question “What is college worth?” The returns on education after high school vary greatly by who a student is and where they come from – and they shouldn’t. Today in America, Latinx adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn 25% less than their White peers, while Black adults earn 21% less. This contributes to the reality that a household headed by a White college graduate has eight times the wealth of a household headed by a Black college graduate.

This can and must change. A national commission – the Postsecondary Value Commission – is shining a light on this issue and is calling for action to improve the value of education after high school and make that value more equitable.

The Commission’s work is extremely data driven and views the concept of “value” through different lenses. For students, they consider the student investment, impact on student ability to build wealth, learning (including critical thinking and collaborative problem solving), skills gaps, and impact on wellbeing. For society, they consider public benefits and the role in promoting justice.


Using “the best available data and new analyses for measuring and promoting value” they make the following key observation:

Today, the returns on an education after high school vary according to a student’s race, ethnicity, income, or gender, and there are actions that can be taken – now – to change that.
College is worth it, but how much it is worth varies by who a student is, which institution(s) they attend (and which programs they pursue), and whether they earn a credential.

In detailing their findings, the following one will cause heartburn at institutions cited as not meeting the basic economic thresholds for their students.

Colleges and universities vary widely in the economic value realized by their students – and many are showing minimal returns.

DATA POINT: While a majority of public and private not-for-profit colleges and universities post minimum economic returns for their students 10 years after first enrollment (i.e., earnings at or above those of high school graduates plus total net price), just under 650 institutions fail to meet this most basic threshold (including a majority of private for-profit institutions).

Commission analysis of federal College Scorecard data

Undoubtedly some colleges deserve to be called out and others are incapable of failing this test because they attract wealthy students who (mostly) will succeed in any case. In a “question and answer” follow-up in the materials provided to me, the question is asked about the Commission’s work being used to “punish colleges and universities that are trying to do a better job of serving students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and women but still have relatively low outcomes?” They respond that their intent is for the data to be used for improvement and not to shame institutions.

Other findings, include:

  • Economic returns also vary by a student’s race/ ethnicity and whether they complete a degree or certificate or not.
  • Economic returns also vary widely by race/ethnicity even among graduates of the same program, recognizing that earnings disparities stem from educational and non-educational sources.

Access institutions have been much more focused on economic opportunity and equitable outcomes, whereas the perceived value of a more prestigious institution can be harder to measure. This report demonstrates why institutional leaders should examine long-term economic mobility, the total cost of education, time to degree and long-lasting damage caused by student debt.

Jory Hadsell (Executive Director, California Virtual Campus and Chair, WCET Return on Investment Working Group)

Recommendations and Next Steps

The Commission recommendations double down on the need for data driven decisions and provide actions that they would like to see taken by the different constituencies:

Information can and should drive action to improve value – especially for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and underrepresented Asian American/Pacific Islander students, students from low-income backgrounds, and women.

  • Colleges and universities can create stronger and smarter paths to credentials that reduce the time and money students need to invest, focus more of their resources on students with the greatest financial need, and create stronger pathways to economically stable and fulfilling careers.
  • State and federal policymakers can better target student aid dollars to the most financially vulnerable students, strengthening investment in colleges and universities that are serving (not just enrolling) a significant number of diverse students.
  • Students and families should be empowered to ask critical questions about the return on their educational investment – and get answers to those questions. These questions include things like time-to-credential, earnings for graduates at different points in time, debt-to-earnings ratio for graduates, and more.

This is just the beginning of work coming from the Postsecondary Value Commission. They will release a data tool containing performance data on value measures for thousands of colleges and universities. They also will form a coalition of institutions committed to advancing value through improved data collection.

What About Digital Education?

Any time one gets into the economics of higher education, I wonder about when the “digital education is cheaper” argument will come into play. WCET has addressed this in our work on the price and cost of distance education. As we outline in the Change Magazine article on this issue, there is widespread misperceptions on both the academic and policymaker sides on the cost vs. price equation. The common refrain from the public is that online education must cost less to create and offer.

From what I have read thus far, the Commission is curiously silent on the impact that digital technologies might have on postsecondary value. Let’s keep watching and get prepared. WCET’s Steering Committee has a working group that is preparing a series of posts and events addressing student return on investment that will be released this fall.

Why Should You Care About This Report?

The value of postsecondary education has driven decisions by hundreds of thousands of students and by multitudes of policymakers. This report turns the bright spotlight on the question. There will even more expectations for colleges and universities to respond.

Sasha Thackaberry (Vice President, Online & Continuing Education, Louisiana State University and WCET Executive Council Chair) put the report into context for WCET members:

“The report from the Postsecondary Value Commission underscores the importance of what we do in the field of online education. Critical to this is providing access to higher education in an efficient way that respects the abilities of students to transfer credit into their institution of choice. Relevant, rigorous degrees from highly-valued institutions are more important than ever before for economic mobility. LSU joins other WCET institutions in being completely aligned with the mission of improving opportunities for all students, regardless of where they live or what background they come from. Providing robust academic support and anywhere/anytime access to resources is key to supporting students.”

For WCET members…we need to ask ourselves how digital education is part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Event Practice

Thoughts on the Next Frontier of Higher Ed Digital Learning, Delivery Modalities, and WCET Summit 2021

This month WCET wrapped its two-part epic mini-series Practical Considerations for an Uncertain Future. Both sessions were filled with, as our Executive Director put it, never-ending and only slightly miserable chess/Queen’s Gambit, Star Wars, and Star Trek references plus amazing sessions and discussions with the superstars of digital learning in higher education.

Episode 1 – The EdTech Gambit

In our first episode, we focused on The EdTech Gambit, where we discussed what we’ve learned through the implementation of new (and sometimes old) technologies during an emergency situation. Our opening session touched on best practices gathered from the pandemic and how best to serve students, whatever delivery modality their class or program may be. Attendees brought up great questions such as the use of Cares Act funds on technology tools and considerations about keeping the purchased tools up to date plus how students may feel about asynchronous versus synchronous online/blended learning moving forward. The breakout sessions from exciting higher education leaders included:

  • A preview and discussion with authors about the upcoming Caring for Students playbook, from the Every Learner Everywhere Network,
  • Chats on the future landscape of educational technologies,
  • Ways to ensure we are always keeping edtech accessible, and
  • A great discussion about what faculty really want administrations to know.

The final session was an entertaining and incredibly valuable panel who discussed edtech evaluation, purchasing, adoption, and implementation. The critical factors included in the discussion were the importance of accessibility, equitable access, and privacy and security of student data.

Episode 2 – WCET Discovery: Where No Educator Has Gone Before

The second episode, WCET Discovery: Where No Educator Has Gone Before, showcased what’s in store for the future. Our opening session was a high-level discussion of that future, complete with Stark Trek references and space themed Zoom backgrounds. My biggest takeaway was trying to keep the focus on student (and staff and faculty!) mental health and individual success with better assessment and engagement strategies, even once we are approaching “back to normal” (whatever that means for us now). The panel ended with each presenter talking about what gives them hope for the future of higher ed. The panelists spoke so highly of the students who keep us doing this work, the creativity and innovation that has come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators who practice what they preach and are active lifelong learners, and finally the renewed focus on social justice, not only in higher education, but all over the world.

And, yes, we know, it was highly illogical that we mixed Star Trek with Star Wars Day, but please set your phasers to stun, because it was all in good fun!

One of the discussion topics narrowed in on the ways institutions are defining different modalities offered for classes. John Opper, Executive Director, Distance Learning and Student Services with Florida Virtual Campus and Megan Raymond, WCET, provided a definition table based on FVC definitions of primarily face-to-face (Primarily Classroom), Hybrid, Flex, Primarily Distance Learning, and Fully Distance Learning. The table includes sections to track terminology variations for each modality, the unique faculty/instructor skills needed for each mode of delivery, the faculty development for each mode of delivery, student engagement and support needed for each mode, and policy issues that can be identified for each mode.

This type of table or exercise would be useful for institutions to complete, as it would allow the campus community to understand the differences between the various modalities available PLUS administrators could then use the information to develop or tweak faculty development programs and policies.

Attendees were invited to review the table and make suggestions, or use the table as an example to create a similar resource for their individual institutions.

Here at WCET, we have written a few times about the overwhelming number of definitions possible for course delivery methods. You can review our thoughts through the following posts:

If you’re interested in seeing the table from FVC (thanks John!) please check it out and feel free to add comments and suggestions!

The breakout sessions for this episode included:

  • A discussion about how higher education institutions and alternative providers can help bridge the skills gap,
  • A presentation about the WICHE Knocking at the College Door report, which considers the changing demographics of learners and what this means for higher education,
  • Reflections on faculty development and how this has changed through and because of the pandemic,
  • An exercise to prompt post-COVID strategic and operational planning, and
  • A roundtable discussion about the roles of instructional designers and how these important team members can help faculty (and how to get faculty interested in working with IDs!).

We would like to share a special thank you to our student panelists who joined us for both sessions. We were so impressed by the students who provided their expertise and lived experiences through their educational journeys, especially during the pandemic.


We appreciate the good feedback on our events, it helps us to know what we have done well so we can continue to do well! But we always take the time to review the suggestions for improvement our event attendees provide us. I did want to share two comments that made our events team smile (!) but I also want to include that we have noted the suggestions for what we can do better next time.

“I have been to about 6 virtual higher ed conferences this year and WCET programming is far and away the best! I absolutely love how you consistently gather brilliant people and let them engage one another and the audience in relevant and meaningful conversation about topics impacting the community. True thought leadership.”

and from our second episode:

“The panels were expertly constructed. I especially enjoyed the opening conversation as it was very thought provoking about significant strategic considerations in higher education post-COVID.”

Live Long and Prosper

Our entire team thanks this year’s Summit attendees and sends a huge thank you to everyone who participated as presenters, panelists, and discussion leaders. We learned so much from each and every one of you. We certainly have a lot to think about as we boldly go into the future! It doesn’t feel like too much of a gambit with such an exceptional community around us.

Want to steam the recordings of the Summit episodes? No worries, we DVR’d them for you. Registered attendees can stream recordings for both episodes through June 30, 2021. Recordings will be housed in wcetMIX after June 30 for WCET members. 

We have several other great events lined up over the next few months. Keep updated on our events page!



The Round-Out Rule and What Institutions and Military-Affiliated Students Need to Know

For the last several years, WCET has shared about the implications on GI Benefits for Veterans who participate in courses solely online. Student utilizing GI Bill benefits who participate in a full-term course load solely at a distance are eligible through Federal law to receive only half the Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA) of the eligible student who enrolls in a full-term course load that consists of a mix of distance and in-person courses.

Congress acted quickly to offer a waiver of this MHA limitation through December 2021, if the institution was forced to supply the courses at a distance due to the pandemic. However, as courses become more available face-to-face at institutions, the waiver will not remain applicable to the students participating in courses solely online.

Today, we welcome Sara Appel and Kimberly Bloodgood who will provide us with updates on an additional nuance, the elimination of the “Round-Out Rule,” that affects VA Benefits including the MHA.

Cheryl Dowd, WCET

In the last few months, several major bubbles floated to the ocean surface known as Veterans Affairs (VA) education benefits. One of these bubbles encircled the issue around the practice of the Round-Out Rule as the VA announced it was scheduled to be phased out on or after August 1, 2021. Recently though, the VA had a change of heart and agreed to keep a modified version of the rule.

What is the Round-Out Rule?

several military members in service uniform in front of a body of water
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This rule allows military-affiliated students utilizing GI Bill benefits to “round out” or “round up” their final academic term course schedule with classes that may or may not apply towards their degree program to retain full-time status, thus receiving full-time benefits. If not for this tenet, students could only take courses necessary for program completion to maintain full-time status.

“However, it can be incredibly difficult for students to perfectly plan their academic schedules to ensure enough required courses will be available in their final term. If there are not enough required courses available to reach full-time status, students receive significantly reduced benefits, including a lower Monthly Housing Allowance,” stated Lauren Augustine, vice president of government affairs at Student Veterans of America (personal communication, April 9, 2021). This is especially true for students who have credit transferring into their institution from other institutions and/or military service.

How Does This Impact Military-Affiliated Students?

This could deeply impact military-affiliated students financially potentially causing them to stop out or take out unnecessarily large loans so that they might complete their education. Currently a full-time GI Bill student, eligible for maximum post-9/11 benefits, may earn $7,452 in monthly housing allowance (MHA) per semester. Assuming the student is taking twelve credit hours, getting rid of a single 3 credit hour course would reduce their housing allowance to $5,962. Not to mention having to pay for the course out of pocket costing an average of $1,677 without including books, any additional fees, supplies, etc. “That full-time status ensures their housing allowance remains steady, consequently helping them complete their post-secondary education,” said Tanya Ang, vice president of the advocacy group Veterans Education Success.

How is BHA calculated?

Military-affiliated students who attend a typical postsecondary brick-and-mortar institution where they physically attend most of their classes will be provided an amount based on the school’s ZIP code. Does this affect online programs? Yes. The Round-Out Rule also concerns students enrolled in distance education. The Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Improvements Act (GI Bill 2.0) made this change in October 2011. Military-affiliated students taking online courses are given half of the BAH’s national average (please note, this is very basic explanation and other factors may be considered in the actual BHA calculation).

What’s Next for the Round-Out Rule?

a poster telling veterans to attend education training by working with the office of the veterans administration.
By Cameron Addis. Public Domain.

The Round-Out Rule is not in statute or regulation but is located within in the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs School Certifying Official Handbook.The VA School Certifying Official Handbook is intended for School Certifying Officials and others engaged with the certification of recipients of VA education benefits. The manual is maintained by the three Processing Offices and Education Service and is meant to be the official resource of information for VA School Certifying Officials.Even though the Round-Out Rule has been in place for many years, the VA has wanted to change its course on how they address this issue by redacting the guidance. After a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs meeting on April 14th, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the department will no longer sunset the rule and will allow the practice to continue with modification.

Legislators and education supporters welcomed the decision to not discontinue the Round-Out Rule as an affirmative move in the direction of aiding military-affiliated students obtain the maximum amount of their GI Bill benefits. “Under the new proposal, it appears they’ll be able to continue providing students with ongoing flexibility in their final term but tightening the policies on requirements to bring them in line with the GI Bill’s intent,” said Justin Hauschild, legal fellow for Student Veterans of America. Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee will continue collaborating with the VA in finding improvements to the GI Bill without damaging veterans’ degree completion plans.

What Can Institutions Do?

Institutions can be proactive by:

  • attending VA approved training on this rule modification,
  • determining how many military-affiliated students could be affected on your campus,
  • looking at the programs that have the highest enrollment of military-affiliated students and match potential elective related courses that could be utilized if needed,
  • reminding advisors of the importance of military affiliated students being in classes that are part of their program of study,
  • communicating as soon as possible with the military-affiliated students who fall or potentially fall into this position, and
  • working closely with State Approving Agencies on this issue (State Approving Agencies are in each state and maintains responsibility for ensuring the quality and integrity of education programs and training for the use of GI Bill benefits).

What Can Military-Affiliated Students Do?

Military-affiliated students can be proactive by:

  • reviewing their schedule and contacting an academic advisor early to avoid the situation,
  • ensuring their contact information is correct at the institution such as current/permanent address, and
  • keeping in contact with their school certifying official.

As of April 22nd, 2021, the VA School Certifying Official Handbook does not reflect this change and the VA has not provided any specific or final details on this or any other modification that may be developed. As this issue continues to move quickly in Washington watch for news from the VA about changes to the Round-Out Rule.

Sara E. Appel,
Associate Director of Policy Initiatives,
Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC)

Kimberly Bloodgood,
Director, Division of Enrollment Management Office for Veterans and Military Personnel,
Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis



Racism in the Educational Cyberspace

Last semester, I began a graduate program to study Technology, Cybersecurity, and Policy. I have also, like many other people, been digging deeper into learning about anti-racism since the summer of 2020. As my learning about these two topics coincided, it didn’t take me long to begin looking into the ways in which these topics intersect. I did research on the topic at the end of last semester and have since narrowed the research to focus on higher education for this post.

a person gesturing in front of a laptop with several others attending a video call
Photo by Surface on Unsplash

There are a lot of industries in the United States where white people are disproportionately over-represented in positions of authority. This is often an outcome of historical racial bias, which in turn perpetuates racial bias across society in leadership, policies, and access to future opportunities. Higher ed is one such industry that is impacted by this trend, but beyond institutions themselves, institutions can also experience biases that come from the technology that they use. Higher education has been struggling to address bias and inequality since the summer of 2020 when the murder of George Floyd brought renewed urgency to racial inequality in the U.S. Institutions must also take into account the bias that is embedded in the technology that they use. Technology has many biases, and without proper oversight, issues are not always addressed when they should be. It is therefore essential that institutions understand the many ways that technology and cybersecurity can fail their students, especially students who are Black, Latinx, Native American, Asian, and other students of color. To strive towards anti-racism in higher education, it is important to recognize the many forms that racism can take within cyberspace and address the different problems wherever they occur.

Unequal Vulnerabilities

To begin with, many technologies offer a platform for race-based bullying or cybercrime to take place. Harassment in cyberspace is more scalable and less location-based than harassment that takes place in person. A quarter of Black Americans say they’ve faced race-based harassment online. Women of color face disproportionately more harassment on Twitter than other groups. A wide range of technologies and social media can be utilized as a platform for racial harassment. And technologies can be hacked to cause further harassment or even facilitate hate crimes. One such example of this is in “Zoom bombings,” which spiked in frequency in the spring of 2020 before Zoom increased its security practices. These events often had a racial element and frequently used anti-Black and anti-Asian language (the latter of which resulted in part from racist ideas about the origins of the pandemic). Any communication technology can be hacked and can then be used in a race-based attack. Another example of this can be found in the exploited insecurities in Amazon’s Ring security camera and microphone, which hackers have used as a platform for racist harassment.

While the previous examples of racism in cyberspace are preventable because they are caused by people abusing technology rather than by biases embedded in the technology itself, it is important to recognize that any tech that students are using could be susceptible to such race-based attacks or harassment. Therefore, it is essential that academics ensure, whenever possible, that students are not experiencing such harassment, especially within any tech tools used by the institution for learning and communication.

Bias in Technology

The following examples of the ways that systemic racism impacts cyberspace pertain to the ways that bias is embedded within technology itself. These examples may be just as harmful as the previous examples but potentially less obvious and harder to address because technologies themselves are perpetuating the issues, rather than humans.

a person using a laptop
Photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash

Systemic racism can be discreet in its impacts on cyberspace. The use of algorithms, facial recognition, and surveillance all have the potential to have very negative impacts especially on students who are Black, Latinx, Native American, or other people of color. Each of these topics is rooted in something that is marketed as positives:

  • algorithms are supposed to help filter data quickly and make predictions to find solutions faster;
  • facial recognition allows individuals to use their faces as biometric data to do things like unlock their phones or make payments; and
  • surveillance, although the word is often used in the negative, is supposed to be used as a tool for promoting safety or protection.

However, just like in many aspects of society outside of cyberspace, even things that are promoted as helpful or positive can have embedded bias that furthers inequality and are a disservice to peoples’ safety and their access to education. Algorithmic bias can be the unintended consequence of algorithms that results when historical data used in training an algorithm is biased or even when the code itself is written from a biased point of view. Failings in algorithms can contribute to widening racial divides in a number of circumstances from determining who needs increased medical care to the likelihood that someone who has previously been arrested will reoffend. Meanwhile, the bias in facial recognition, far from providing the convenience and ease of unlocking a smartphone, can cause misidentification in arrests, as the technology used in facial recognition misrecognizes people of color more often than white people; women more often than men; and children and the elderly more often than all ages in between. Lastly, surveillance can be used in combination with facial recognition technology to monitor the movement of people, or it can be used on the internet to monitor the search terms, activities, and communications or specific people online.

Unequal Access

Finally, another major issue from the physical world that has crept into cyberspace is the issue of access, which contributes to the digital divide. Neighborhoods that were previously redlined, rural areas, and a significant portion of Tribal Lands, lack high quality access to the internet. While the digital divide is not strictly race-based, as there are white people who live in places with poor access to the internet including rural areas who face their own issues around internet access, historical racism has a significant impact on where internet connectivity issues exist.

This divide subsequently contributes to poor access to education, information, employment, telehealth, and more. A limited number of possible internet providers in the U.S. creates low levels of competition between them, which has the potential to leave rates high because there is nothing to drive rates down. When rates are too high, poverty-impacted people must forgo digital access and all the privileges that come with it. Additionally, in some cities, internet providers have replicated the same issues that redlining caused within their own coverage. Since formerly redlined neighborhoods now lack the accumulated wealth that neighborhoods that weren’t redlined have, residents may be unable to pay as much for broadband access. As a result, internet providers do not connect high speed fiber networks to those neighborhoods because of apparent low demand (though a lack of available funds is the more likely reason), which perpetuates historical inequalities into present day inequalities.

While access to high-speed broadband remains unequal, there is an insignificant racial gap in smartphone ownership. A 2019 study from Pew Research Center shows that while Black and Hispanic adults have less access to computers and internet than white adults, they own smartphones at a similar rate as white adults. Because smartphones can use data or connect to public Wi-Fi, smartphones can serve as an alternative option for accessing the internet for people who do not have home computers or high-speed internet access at home. However, smartphones cannot fill all the same functions that a computer that is connected directly to the internet can. While a large portion of the web is now ‘mobile first,’ there remains many aspects of the web that are considerably less accessible on a phone than a computer. For example, infographics, tables of data, online forms, and many PDFs can be difficult to navigate from a smartphone. Unfortunately, such digital forms are often needed when applying for jobs or schools, when filling in financial information, and when accessing health services. Furthermore, public WI-Fi can present vulnerabilities to the user if the network is insecure, which is the case for many free and public WI-Fi networks.

Current Events and Data Insecurity

Just this semester, the school that I’m attending has been spotlighted in the news for a major hack to a 3rd party system that has compromised over 300,000 student records. I recently received one of multiple communications from the university stating which records may have been hit. Included in the overview are items like veteran status, visa status, disability status, medical information, and occasionally financial information. While I am not feeling too great about the breach which could have compromised some of my own data, I have also been considering the ways in which this hack might disproportionately impact students who already experience marginalization. Additionally, because of societal inequality, the recovery from this hack could be unequal as well, with international students, students with disabilities or medical issues, or impoverished students needing to deal with the fallout of their data being exposed online.

Looking Forward – Consider the Impacts of the Tools We Use

a woman working on a laptop
Photo by Surface on Unsplash

Although the tech industry bears much of the responsibility for addressing racism in cyberspace, as does public policy, higher education should be cautious of the way that it uses technologies because of the potential impacts that it could have on their students. Racial bias is not limited to that which exists within institutions themselves when the tools that they use carry their own bias. I recommend the following as we all try to address these issues:

  1. Use Technology Intentionally – Education practitioners should use technology intentionally and understand the potential issues that their students could face in using different tools.
  2. Continue Anti-racism Efforts – Institutions should continue making their own efforts towards anti-racism in modifying their hiring practices, educating their students and staff about racial inequality, and properly compensating those that work on anti-racism projects.
  3. Consider Potential Bias in Tech Tools – When adopting new technology (anything from an LMS that has features that are tricky on mobile to adopting a technology that uses algorithms, and anything in between) administrators should consider potential bias issues the same way that they consider potential accessibility issues. It is essential that schools understand the bias within the systems they use even if they are provided by an outside vendor.

Further Learning

Although the topic of cyber racism is still relatively niche, it is expanding. I recently attended a virtual viewing of the film Coded Bias, which is based on impacts of algorithmic bias and facial recognition on society. I am also making my way through a growing list of books that tackle a range of topics within cyber racism.

Check out the following to learn more, and email us if you can think of more that I didn’t include:


“Show me the money”: Proposed federal investments in postsecondary education

During the 2020 presidential campaign, then candidate Joe Biden released a sweeping higher education platform that, in addition to free community college, included calls for increased federal investment in minority serving institutions (MSIs), doubling the Pell grant, and increasing workforce education and apprenticeship programs. Although direct institutional and student aid were included in the most recent COVID aid bill, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the higher education community has been awaiting further information on more comprehensive, non-COVID specific postsecondary education budget plans. Two recent proposals—the $2 trillion infrastructure proposal and the president’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget—lay out the broad strokes of President Biden’s higher education policy priorities.

A Crash Course in the Federal Budget Process

Before we look at these two recent proposals to understand what they might mean for higher education in general and digital learning in particular, a quick primer on the federal budget process is in order.

Federal spending can be categorized as either entitlement spending or discretionary spending. Entitlements are those programs that are required by law such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Pell to name just a few. Discretionary spending is federal spending for programs that are not required by law such as some workforce education programs or research programs. This difference between entitlement and discretionary spending is important because it impacts which type of spending can be passed through reconciliation.

Image by Memed_Nurrohmad from Pixabay

Budget bills, unlike other legislation, can be passed in the Senate through a process known as reconciliation which, because it is not subject to the filibuster, only requires a simple majority to pass. Most bills in the Senate require 60 votes in order to break cloture and make them “filibuster proof.” In an evenly divided Senate such as the one we have right now, this means that all Democrats and at least ten Republicans have to agree to a piece of legislation before it can even make it to the floor for a vote—an almost impossible task. Reconciliation, however, allows a bill to be passed with a simple majority and limits debate on the bill to 20 hours.

There are limits to the use of reconciliation, however. It can only be used for entitlement spending and can only be used for legislation that changes spending levels or the federal debt. In addition to these limitations, the reconciliation process is also limited by the Byrd Amendment, named after West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. The Byrd Amendment further restricts reconciliation by preventing it from being used to impact Social Security spending and disallowing it to include any “extraneous” measures that do not directly and purposefully implement budget changes. Additionally, programmatic changes must result in a budgetary impact that is “more than incidental.” In other words, the purpose of the proposed changes must be to primarily impact the budget or the federal debt.

There is one other important piece of the current configuration that is likely to impact the reconciliation process—moderate West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. In order for Democrats to pass anything through the reconciliation process they have to muster all 50 Democratic votes (or face the even tougher prospect of getting a Republican to cross the aisle and vote with them), including Senator Manchin, a fiscal conservative. This makes certain types of federal aid and the possibility of a tax increase highly unlikely.

Why is all of this important for higher education? It directly impacts the type and extent of economic legislation that is likely to pass the Senate and show up on President Biden’s desk for his signature.

The American Jobs Plan

Late last month, the Biden administration released the American Jobs Plan, its $2 trillion wide-ranging infrastructure proposal. Although much of this proposed legislation focuses on the repair of infrastructure such as highways, bridges, ports, airports, and transit systems and investments in delivering clean drinking water and a renewed electric grid, it also includes substantial investments in broadband access, community colleges, and workforce development programs.

person holding black ceramic teapot
Photo by cottonbro on

Proclaiming that “Broadband internet is the new electricity,” the President’s proposal goes on to observe that more than 30 million Americans live in areas with highly limited high speed broadband that creates a “stark digital divide.” The president’s proposed solution? A $100 billion plan that would:

  • Build high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage.
  • Promote transparency and competition among internet providers.
  • Reduce the cost of broadband in order to promote widespread adoption.

In addition to this unprecedented investment in digital infrastructure, the plan also proposes several other actions that would impact higher education including:

  • $12 billion investment in infrastructure improvement at community colleges.
  • $88 billion in workforce development including $40 billion for a dislocated workers program and considerable funds for apprenticeship programs. Although not limited to community colleges, many of the impacted workforce development programs are housed at community and technical colleges.
  • $40 billion in research with $20 billion earmarked for the development and improvement of research facilities at MSIs.
  • An additional $25 billion in research and development including funds for the development of research incubators at MSIs.

Obviously, if passed, this legislation could have a substantial impact on higher education, especially minority serving institutions and community colleges. However, and this is a big however, it won’t pass as written. Even though Senate leadership has indicated that they plan on using the reconciliation process to try to pass the American Jobs Plan, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has declared that the proposed plan, especially with its increase to corporate income taxes, is essentially dead on arrival. According to Manchin, “As the bill exists today, it needs to be changed.” And without Manchin on board, Democrats are one vote short of the simple majority that they would need to pass another reconciliation measure.

The FY 2022 Proposed Discretionary Budget

In addition to the proposed American Jobs Plan, the Biden administration also recently released the outline of its proposed FY 2022 budget on April 8th, including over $40 billion in additional higher education support which is presented as an attempt to “drive towards equity in higher education.”

Divided into five broad categories (investing in public health, creating an economy that works for all, tackling the climate crisis, advancing equity, and restoring America’s global standing and confronting 21st century security challenges), the resulting $769 billion non-defense discretionary funding request would be a 16 percent increase over the FY 2021 enacted budget. In the Congressional transmittal letter, Acting Budget Director Shalanda D. Young describes the proposed budget as:

The discretionary request proposes investments to help deliver on America’s shared commitment to advancing equity across the Nation—creating an inclusive economy, expanding housing and reducing the racial wealth gap, committing to criminal justice reform, redressing longstanding injustice, and upholding the trust responsibility to tribal nations.

Perhaps most striking is the proposed $102.8 billion for the Department of Education which represents a 41 percent increase over the 2021 enacted budget.

Given the higher education proposal advanced during the campaign, there is little in the way of surprises for higher education in the proposed FY 2022 budget. Among the higher education items in the proposed budget:

  • Increase of the maximum Pell grant by $400 to $6,895 maximum award. This would be the single largest increase to the Pell program since 2009 and would result in an additional $3 billion. Also of note, the proposed budget would expand Pell eligibility to DACA students.
  • An additional $600 million to minority serving institutions and “low-resourced” institutions to improvement enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. This would include community colleges.
  • $258 million (representing an additional $100 million) in funding for the Department of Labor to expand the Registered Apprenticeship program
  • $3.7 billion (representing an additional $203 million) in funding for the Department of Labor to expand Workforce Investment Opportunity Act funded workforce development programs. Many of these programs are at community colleges.
  • An additional $20 million to the Office of STEM Engagement to increase minority recruitment for STEM careers and postsecondary degrees that would be administered in cooperation with minority serving institutions and other higher education institutions.

It’s important to note, however, that the likelihood of this budget as proposed being passed is non-existent since it does not have bipartisan support and, unlike the entitlement spending that makes up the American Jobs Plan, the discretionary spending of the proposed budget means that it cannot be passed via reconciliation. As a result, Democrats would need 60 votes, including ten Republican votes, to advance the proposed budget in the Senate. Nevertheless, it does provide instructive insight into the likely postsecondary education priorities of the Biden administration.

What All of This Means for Digital Learning

Although they don’t directly call out digital learning, both the American Jobs Plan and President Biden’s proposed budget could have a significant impact on digital learning and postsecondary education.

young lady typing on keyboard of laptop in living room
Photo by Vlada Karpovich on

The recent pandemic has made visible the chasm that represents America’s digital divide. The proposed $100 billion in broadband aid would be transformational in much the same way as the investment in rural electricity transformed large swaths of America during the Great Depression. In essence, the American Jobs Plan is suggesting that broadband internet should be treated like electricity or any other utility—something that is necessary and not a luxury. For rural institutions, especially tribal colleges that are located in internet deserts, easy student access to broadband can significantly increase student access as well as transform pedagogical practices to leverage digital learning best practices.

The proposed budget would also have a tremendous impact on postsecondary education and digital learning. With its funds for infrastructure improvement, including IT infrastructure, at minority serving and low-resourced institutions, the proposed budget would address the institutional technology divide between well-funded institutions with developed digital learning capacity and those institutions that are still struggling to embrace digital learning and leverage the opportunities that it provides. Additionally, the increased investment in apprenticeship and workforce development programs would pump money into institutions, especially community colleges, that are committed to serving as key parts of the school to career pipeline. Furthermore, based on the ways in which workforce development dollars were distributed during the Obama administration through the TAACCCT (Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training) grants, there is ample reason to believe that there would be an expectation that at least a portion of any workforce development education would involve digital learning. As a result, digital learning at community and technical colleges could stand to make enormous gains.

It’s unlikely that either the American Jobs Plan or the proposed FY 2022 budget will be passed in their present form. However, there is bipartisan support for at least some broadband assistance, particular to rural areas and bipartisan support for workforce development so it is highly likely that at least some portion of each plan will be enacted. Postsecondary education, and particularly digital learning, stands to benefit from the final passage of both proposals. In the meantime, we just have to wait until Congress can show us the money.


Origins of the State Authorization Network: We Missed the Bus, But Caught the Spirit

Ten years ago on April 6th, the first meeting of the initial members of WCET’s State Authorization Network (SAN) was held in Boulder, Colorado. To honor SAN’s 10th Birthday, I asked the founder of SAN, Russ Poulin, to reflect on the history of the state authorization issue and the need for the Network. I also asked a few other folks who were in attendance at the meeting or were part of early SAN coordination to share their reflections as well. Enjoy a look back at the development of SAN!

Cheryl Dowd, WCET | SAN

Russ Poulin – Executive Director, WCET


In late October 2010, I was watching a twitter feed about new federal regulations for higher education and someone noted that there was a new federal financial aid expectation:

“If an institution is offering postsecondary education through distance or correspondence education in a State in which it is not physically located, the institution must meet any State requirements for it to be legally offering distance or correspondence education in that State. An institution must be able to document upon request from the Department that it has such State approval.”

That is a simple enough statement and a reasonable expectation, but I was surprised because there was no mention of such a requirement in the proposed rules that had been released earlier that year. As a result, I made lots of calls, especially to some very helpful staffers at the U.S. Department of Education (the Department).

In my first blog post on the issue, I said: “There has already been some conversation among organizations about how we can work closely to address this.” Answers seemed to lead to more questions.

Institutional personnel were befuddled and the deadline for all institutions to be in compliance was only eight months away.

We’re Going to Need A Bigger Room

I asked Megan Raymond, who runs our conferences, for a room at our Annual Meeting held in early November to provide an update to attendees on this topic. She was great in finding me a fair-sized room, but a good number of the overall registrants showed up.

I told the audience what I had learned. There were lots of quizzical looks and expressions of disbelief. Some were sure that the Constitution would not allow this rule, but weren’t sure why it would not. Several were learning that the United in United States, actually meant that this country is a united collection of 50 states. A blog post with what we learned from states and the Department was published in early December.

We followed up with a webcast in early December with a Department of Education staffer. He was wonderful in explaining the regulation and the expectations for compliance. People did not have to take the word of some weird guy from Boulder (that’s me). The Department appreciated the questions that we and those in attendance at the webcast raised and promised to write a “Dear Colleague” letter addressing the most pressing inquiries. Late December saw another blog post update.

This was getting more complex, institutional personnel are still in denial, and the date for federal compliance was just over six months away.

How We Spent Our Holidays

I talked to lots of people. The Department staff thought that the “good institutions” were already in compliance. When I told them that I was having trouble finding a single private, non-profit or public institution that was in compliance, I was met with a brief silence on the other end.

By this time the WCET Annual Conference was complete, and I engaged Megan to help on the issue. Bruce Chaloux (then of SREB), Maggie Murdock (University of Wyoming), American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC), and us started a list of state agencies and expectations. This is easy, right? That is how we spent our holiday and new year’s vacation. Little did we know how antiquated or unfindable some state rules were…even if you called the office.

We did our best and published the List in January. In my blog post about the release of the “Starter List,” I made the observation that “This ain’t easy.”

And here’s the paragraph that followed that observation:

“I know that people don’t like to hear this, but each institution needs to perform much of the investigation on its own. Given the mix of different regulations in each state and the mix of activities that an institution could be doing in that state, the permutations are too numerous to fit in any matrix.”

I didn’t say “it depends” yet, but that was the sense of it. We also let the Department know that some state authorization processes take a year or more to complete, so even if an institution applied for approval on November 1, 2010 (days after the release of the regulation), there was no way for them to be in compliance by June 30.

Institutional personnel were getting more anxious and compliance was five months away.

We Can Share the Burden

Around this time it became clear that this was a very complex issue and institutions needed help shouldering the burden of state authorization learning and understanding. And so, we invented the idea of the State Authorization Network. In the original call and in the first few years, we often used the following phrase:

“Expecting each institution to navigate authorization regulations in every state is highly inefficient. Working cooperatively, institutions can share the burden.”

The original State Authorization Network was envisioned as a service for state systems or consortia of institutions using a “train the trainer” model. It was not long before we had individual institutions asking to join and that was allowed.

Our promise for benefits included:

“WCET will provide training on the regulations, access to experts on the issue, and networking among participants so that they can share what they learn when navigating each state’s regulations.”

The training started with a two-day meeting in Boulder on April 6-7. In those early days, we also saw the benefit of networking among institutions. State regulators were starting to update their rules or clarify their answers. It was helpful for members to share new information about a state. Once we got started, we would often have questions that began: “Did you hear about the change in” <<fill in the state>>? Together, we were an early alert system for other members.

SAN Advanced Topics Workshop in Boulder in 2016

The Department delivered on March 17 with a “Dear Colleague” letter that provided some insights and relief. Institutions did not have to be in full compliance by June 30, but had to show a “good faith effort” in complying. I was probably not as generous in my appreciation for that change as I should have been, but our questions led to two more Dear Colleague letters with clarifications on expectations and timelines.

Institutional personnel were really taking the issue seriously and we were three months to federal compliance…but the “good faith effort” change allowed for a necessary (if not fully defined) bit of relief.

At the First Meeting…We Literally Missed the Bus, But Caught the Spirit

We had about 50 attendees at that first official SAN meeting in Boulder, CO on April 6-7, 2011. In the agenda, Mike Goldstein (then legal counsel at Dow Lohnes) and I spent 90 MINUTES presenting and answering questions on the federal regulation. Remember that the regulation was only two paragraphs long. I worried about that until I recalled that context was needed, and we had the new “Dear Colleague” letter (which was much longer) to interpret.

The meeting also included sessions with state regulators in which participants could learn about their rules, processes, and concerns. It also was helpful to see that regulators are people interested in working with institutions to protect students. There also was a session about the nascent idea of creating a reciprocity agreement. Paul Shiffman (Excelsior College) was leading that effort. Paul, Bruce Chaloux (SREB), George Roedler (Minnesota Office of Higher Education), Sharyl Thompson (now of HER Consulting), Marshall Hill (Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education) and I were among those on the initial team that worked on the reciprocity idea.

a bus on a busy street
Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash

Since participants were coming from across the country and we were keeping them busy, we wanted to treat them to a wonderful meal at an iconic Boulder location at the foot of the famous Flatirons mountain formation. Chautauqua was a music, learning, and lectures series that operated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Chautauqua camp in Boulder is the only surviving camp west of the Mississippi. Great place. Great food.

But, where’s the bus to take us there? We finally contacted someone from the bus company and they forgot. They could get at bus to pick us up an hour-and-a-half after dinner was supposed to start. In about 10 minutes we drew maps, figured out who had cars, called cabs (and Ubers? Were there Ubers then?), assigned people to vehicles, and got everyone headed to dinner.

It worked!! Megan and I knew we had a special group that could roll with adversity and make the most of it. And the food was yummy, scenery wonderful, and the company was fantastic. We learned that by working together and helping each other that we would all succeed.

We were less than three months to federal compliance and things were looking up.

SAN Exceeds Expectations

In the beginning we thought that this was a service for systems but then the bulk of our members were institutions.

logo from the WCET | SAN podcast
logo from the WCET | SAN podcast

As SAN grew, Megan had to go back to her day job. We contracted with Marianne Boeke from NCHEMS to help out part time. Of course, she was great. However, when we needed a full-time director, we were lucky to find Cheryl Dowd who has grown both the membership and the services. And now we say a fond farewell to Dan Silverman who brought innovations to SAN services.

We thought that this would be needed for only a few years until everyone was comfortable with the work. It’s been a winding road with regulations, reinterpretations, reciprocity, rescinded regulations, and reinstated regulations.

Ten years into SAN, institutional personnel are informed and help each other every day. We’re 117 months since the original federal compliance date and we’re looking forward.

I remember the first meeting of SAN. There were lots of questions around its purpose: would it become a viable group? Would the group grow? We felt overwhelmed with the state authorization regulations and what they would mean for each of our colleges.

Shirley Adams – Provost, Charter Oak State College

I think we were all trying to figure out what it would become. For me, it was a life saver as I negotiated all of the 49 state approval processes and it continues to be a life saver as I figure out the nuances of professional development.

One of the strengths of SAN is the sharing among the members. I always take the time to skim the emails that go back and forth from members asking for input on various topics. Those emails have added to my own professional development. I have also posted questions a number of times and received very helpful feedback. It is like having your own sounding board.

SAN is and continues to be so important that we helped form a consortium of colleges. The new members to the consortium are also finding it invaluable.

The information on the SAN website and the webinars are terrific!

Marianne Boeke – Senior Director for Research & State Support, NC-SARA

When WCET-SAN started in 2011, Russ and I wanted to help our colleagues across the country with this complex issue of state authorization. We set up a monthly conference call, a webpage, and a listserve. Quickly our membership grew and soon WCET-SAN was able to offer its members even more services – such as a dedicated website, webinars, face-to-face meetings, papers and reports, and even awards (the SANsational Award). The work that WCET-SAN took on was grounded by the membership itself; every research project, webinar, or meeting was because the membership requested it and was willing to help with the work. WCET-SAN is truly a network.

In the beginning, WCET-SAN members were most interested in helping each other track compliance regulations across states and gaining an opportunity to talk with state regulators (getting questions answered). As we began this endeavor, I naively expected to help institutions for a year or two with these issues and then we would be done. As we dove into the process of state authorization we realized that there was so much more to learn and do. However, three years later, I found myself thinking that when the majority of states join SARA our work with WCET-SAN would be done – nope! In actuality we found ourselves expanding our work to help institutions navigate not only state authorization and SARA but also other federal and state regulations.

The driving force behind WCET-SAN has been Russ Poulin. I remember many times talking with Russ about how WCET-SAN might evolve and grow. Always we came back to being helpful, seeking answers, working collaboratively, engaging our colleagues, and advocating for continuous improvement in state authorization work.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprising, what drew us all to work with WCET-SAN is what still drives us – helping students.


Lanna Dueck – Executive Director, Arizona SARA Council

sansational award logo

It was April of 2011. It had only been a couple months prior that I was tasked with a “temporary side project” at the institution I then worked for. This side project was to “research and come into compliance with state authorization across the country.” This side project was only supposed to only take a month or two of reassignment and then I’d be back to business as usual. Well, we all know now how that turned out. But at that time, nearly 10 years ago, that was how many felt. I can say that even then, once I started to delve into this mysterious world of state authorization, I began to doubt that very much. 

That is how I found myself on a plane to Boulder, CO. On a crisp morning I walked into a room full of others trying to make sense of the world of higher education state authorization and I can honestly say that I felt both a sense of relief and comradery. Here were my people. Here were others who were grappling with the same levels of complexity I was. To my never-ending gratitude, this meeting  brought us all together and see if we could make sense of this collectively. This small but mighty gathering was the kernel that started what is today SAN and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. 

From then to now, SAN continues to be what it was to me on the very first day: a place where smart people can come together to solve complex situations by sharing expertise and leveraging the solution generating capacity of the whole. As I did then, I still rely on SAN to keep me in the know with what’s current. Even more importantly, SAN helps me stay connected to others who share the important work we all do, from institutions to state regulators and other stakeholders, in ensuring students have access to high quality education. 

Thank you SAN for 10 years of being part of the solution!

Humble Beginnings, United Present, and SANsational Years Ahead

SAN virtual seminar presenters

These reflections show what the true collaborative effort that brought SAN together. That collaborative spirit continues to be the centerpiece of SAN today. A community was built, and it thrives! What started out as a project to research and manage the many requirements overseen by state higher education agencies in each state, has grown to include not only compliance management by state by state institutional approval requirements, but together we tackle Federal regulation compliance, reciprocity management, and requirements in states set by other state agencies that are outside of reciprocity.

From our group of 50 at the first SAN meeting to a current group of staff members at 800+ institutions nationwide, the idea of a personal approach to learn, share, and celebrate each other’s successes continues. A colleague at one of our institution’s shared the word “schmooze” which is a perfect word to describe the interactive nature of our SAN community.

As we look into the years ahead, SAN will continue to serve its members with resources & research, events & training, and member interaction. If you are not familiar with SAN and wish to learn more, please review the SAN website! You will find information about Upcoming Events and please check out our SAN Membership Page.

Thank you Russ, Shirley, MB, and Lanna for your reflections! Happy Birthday, SAN!

a card reading "happy 10th birthday san! best wishes to san network - here's to another 10 years of outstanding work!" with a graphic of a birthday cake.


Extra Extra! Read All About It (these books)

There are always new books.

Several books have either come across my desk or caught my attention this year. Wish I (and all of you) had more time to get all the reading done that we would like to accomplish.

Today, I will share some of the new books that you might enjoy considering for your eBook reader or bedside table. We also invite you to participate in the following ways:

  • Suggest other books that you have just read or have on your short list that you think would benefit others in the WCET community.
  • Volunteer to write a short review of a book that you think would benefit others in the WCET community. Contact Lindsey Downs if you would like to do so. We have some complimentary books to send to the first few reviewers as a thank you!


Looking to the Future for Institutions and Instruction

Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity
Scott Galloway

In a review in this ZDNet article, the reviewers say that the author “outlines the real threats and opportunities that lie ahead. The book identifies some businesses that will grow and thrive post-pandemic and others that are currently on a slow death spiral. One of the industries that will struggle in the new normal will be higher education, an industry that may not be able to maintain a value proposition that makes sense in a decentralized and digital economy, where scale, speed, and personalization are the new relevant currencies.”

A pile of books mentioned in the blog

Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet
Michelle R. Weise

From the Wiley site:

“Long Life Learning: Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Even Exist Yet offers readers a fascinating glimpse into a near-future where careers last 100 years, and education lasts a lifetime. The book makes the case that learners of the future are going to repeatedly seek out educational opportunities throughout the course of their working lives — which will no longer have a beginning, middle, and end. Long Life Learning focuses on the disruptive and burgeoning innovations that are laying the foundation for a new learning model that includes clear navigation, wraparound and funding supports, targeted education, and clear connections to more transparent hiring processes.”

Leading the eLearning Transformation of Higher Education: Leadership Strategies for the Next Generation
Gary E. Miller & Kathryn S. Ives

“eLearning has entered the mainstream of higher education as an agent of strategic change. This transformation requires eLearning leaders to develop the skills to innovate successfully at a time of heightened competition and rapid technological change. In this environment eLearning leaders must act within their institutions as much more than technology managers and assume the prime role of helping their institutions understand the opportunities that eLearning presents for faculty, for students, and for client organizations in the community.”

The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes Kindle Edition
Nathan D. Graw

From the Johns Hopkins Press website:

“Demographic changes promise to reshape the market for higher education in the next 15 years. Colleges are already grappling with the consequences of declining family size due to low birth rates brought on by the Great Recession, as well as the continuing shift toward minority student populations…In this essential follow-up to Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, Nathan D. Grawe explores how proactive institutions are preparing for the resulting challenges that lie ahead. While it isn’t possible to reverse the demographic tide, most institutions, he argues persuasively, can mitigate the effects.”

What Teacher Educators Should Have Learned From 2020
Richard E. Ferdig & Kristine E. Pytash

From the LearnTechLib site:
“This book begins the hard work of synthesizing what the experiences of 2020 can show us about how to remake education for the future. As we look back and look ahead, it’s clear that education is not going to return to anything like pre-pandemic schooling. Instead, a workable balance of in-person and digital learning must be found to motivate and educate all students. While many people yearn for a “return to normal,” the shift to emergency remote teaching, accompanied by a resurgence in the civil rights movement, made clear that “normal” really only worked for the privileged few. We must see 2020 as an opportunity for an educational revolution. There is great value in what we can learn, uncover, unpack, and change from education in 2020, and this book invites us to do just that.”

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

The Sum of Us: Why Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
Heather McGhee

The Sum of Us is a brilliant analysis of how we arrived here: divided and self-destructing, materially rich but spiritually starved and vastly unequal. McGhee marshals economic and sociological research to paint an irrefutable story of racism’s costs, but at the heart of the book are the humble stories of people yearning to be part of a better America, including white supremacy’s collateral victims: white people themselves. With startling empathy, this heartfelt message from a Black woman to a multiracial America leaves us with a new vision for a future in which we finally realize that life can be more than a zero-sum game.

The Sum of Us is a brilliant analysis of how we arrived here: divided and self-destructing, materially rich but spiritually starved and vastly unequal. McGhee marshals economic and sociological research to paint an irrefutable story of racism’s costs, but at the heart of the book are the humble stories of people yearning to be part of a better America, including white supremacy’s collateral victims: white people themselves. With startling empathy, this heartfelt message from a Black woman to a multiracial America leaves us with a new vision for a future in which we finally realize that life can be more than a zero-sum game.From the Penguin/Random House site:

From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education
Tia Brown McNair, Estela Maria Bensimon, Lindsey Malcolm-Piqueux

From the Wiley website:
“From Equity Talk to Equity Walk offers practical guidance on the design and application of campus change strategies for achieving equitable outcomes. Drawing from campus-based research projects sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, this invaluable resource provides real-world steps that reinforce primary elements for examining equity in student achievement, while challenging educators to specifically focus on racial equity as a critical lens for institutional and systemic change.”

Advancing Online Teaching: Creating Equity-Based Digital Learning Environments
Kevin Kelley & Todd Zakrajsek

From Stylus Publications:
“The goal of teaching online is fundamentally the same as teaching face-to-face: facilitating the learning of all students to the greatest extent possible. This book differs from other books on online teaching in that, in the process of offering guidance on course design and planning, developing outcomes and appropriate engaging activities, managing the workload and assessment, the authors pay explicit attention throughout to the distinct and diverse needs of students and offer effective strategies to accommodate them in a comprehensive and inclusive way by using the principles of Universal Design for Learning. By following those principles from the outset when planning a course, all students will benefit, and most particularly those whom the research shows have the greatest achievement gaps when taking online courses — males, first generation and low income students, those from underrepresented minority groups, the academically underprepared, students with disabilities, and those with limited online access or lacking readiness for online learning.” 

Promoting Inclusive Classroom Dynamics in Higher Education: A Research-Based Pedagogical Guide for Faculty
Kathryn C. Oleson

From Stylus Publications:

“This powerful, practical resource helps faculty create an inclusive dynamic in their classrooms, so that all students are set up to succeed. Grounded in research and theory (including educational psychology, scholarship of teaching and learning, intergroup dialogue, and social justice theory), this book provides practical solutions to help faculty create an inclusive learning environment in which all students can thrive.”

Let us know if you have other books that have helped you.

Happy reading!

russ headshot

Russ Poulin
Executive Director
WCET – The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies  @russpoulin

Event Practice

Modern Mentoring – and Thoughts on What That Is

Later today WCET will be hosting the first of its new member only events called Closer Conversations. These events are meant to foster active engagement and discussion between several higher education digital learning experts and attendees. in honor of International Women’s Month, today’s Closer Conversation is focused on mentoring women in digital learning. The session will be hosted by several incredible experts to discuss how to support women working in digital and technological fields. One of those discussion leaders is someone who I not only view as a wonderful friend, but definitely as a role model and mentor. I’m so thrilled she accepted our invitation to write today’s post and is involved in today’s conversation!

I hope you’ll join us this afternoon! Enjoy the read,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

Mentoring is…

The traditional practice of mentoring is one-directional, as the Google definition says, it is to “advise or train (someone, especially a younger colleague).” Mentoring as solely a match between a senior employee and a junior employee who aspires to the same position will do nothing more than continue to promote the status quo. This mental model of mentoring harkens to the days when careerists worked 30 years for the same company, climbing one rung of the ladder at a time, until they retired from the same company. This mindset no longer matches with the reality of a volatile job market, where employers are looking to match skills to problems rather than simply filling vacancies. This type of top-down mentality is not enough to meet the needs of women in educational technology today, or really the needs of anyone in any career path in 2021 and beyond.

Modern Mentoring is…

Modern mentorship is built on mutual benefit which is neither directional nor disciplinary. It is not age dependent or title dependent. It does not require a formal agreement, though it may have one in place. At its heart, mentorship is leadership personified. It is taking the time to share wisdom, coach, guide, reflect with, advocate for, and proactively take steps to support the talent surrounding you and that exists within you.

Women’s History Month gives me an opportunity to pause and reflect on what I’ve learned as a mentor, a mentee, a professional coach, and a human, and today, to share that with you.

Modern Mentoring is…Trust

a hand holding orange slime
Photo by Kyle Brinker on Unsplash

Mentoring relationships are built on mutual trust and on the faith we each put into the relationship. I became a formal mentor in 2001, when, fresh out of my undergrad program in a new city, I sought an opportunity to connect with and give back to my community. I volunteered with Thrive and was paired up with a shy 7th grader to meet once a week, during school, to be her CAP mentor. In over a 15 years as a CAP mentor, I had a half dozen CAP pals. While each had different reasons for joining the program, the first step with each new mentee was to build trust. For kids and adults alike this means showing up, maintaining confidences, and following through on what you said you would do. With my CAP pals, that meant if I promised we’d make slime at our next meeting, I showed up with the supplies to make slime. As I have entered into adult mentoring relationships – both formal and informal – that hasn’t changed. Building trust means maintaining confidences – my personal cone of silence. Unless I suspect harm, what is said between a mentee OR a mentor and myself stays between us. And it means following through with what we each committed to do.

Modern Mentoring is…Listening for Understanding

Too often when we are having a conversation – inside a mentoring relationship or otherwise – we are listening with the intent to respond. Our brains are formulating the nugget of wisdom to pass on before the person we’re engaging with is even done talking. It takes a conscious act to help our brains stop and focus entirely on listening, on understanding the words with all of the meaning and undertones contained within. When you listen for understanding, you might find the problem the person thinks they have is not the problem at all but rather a symptom which can help you guide them forward.

Modern Mentoring is…Sharing & Receiving Wisdom

confident elegant lady in eyeglasses looking at a computer
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

Oscar Wilde is credited (on Good Reads so, mildly questionable) with saying “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.” Plainly stated, wisdom does not come from age alone, but rather from lived experiences. There are ten-year-olds with great wisdom and 90-year-olds with none. In any mentoring relationship, sharing wisdom – what you have learned through your lived experiences and your reflection on them – is essential to helping your mentee grow. However, sharing wisdom with an unwilling participant is a fool’s errand. The recipient must be open to receiving wisdom before it can truly help them learn and move forward.

One of the hardest lessons I have learned in my coaching practice is to know the difference between sharing wisdom and giving direction. In coaching the goal is to guide the client to the answer buried within themselves, sometimes through the example of your own lived experience, rather than giving the client direction on what choice to make. This is where coaching and mentoring differ – mentors can be more direct in making suggestions, offering solutions, if they so choose. Both can be beneficial, however different based on the goals of the relationship.

Modern Mentoring is…Investing in Others

Mentoring is investing your time, your mind space, and your caring in others. To build a strong relationship those investments must be made over time, not in one-time wisdom drops. However, what I’ve found is that by investing in others, you recognize the return on that investment in yourself. My life has been so positively impacted by those who’ve come before me and reached a hand back and those I turn back or to the side to reach for in this game of life. Mentoring is advocacy – it is bringing to the forefront a voice that doesn’t match the status quo or that is being talked over by an ostentatious individual. It’s saying, “I’m speaking” or “Please allow this person to finish their contribution.”

In my career, and in my life, I have serendipitously fallen into mentoring relationships in the hallways of WCET conference and I have banged on doors to seek out the wisdom closed behind them. I have answered the call, the knock on my {virtual} door, and I have shared my lived experience with others so they may learn from my mistakes, from my successes and from my epic fails. That shy 7th grader is now a confident young woman who holds two degrees and has dedicated her life to serving others through nursing. I couldn’t be prouder, seeing the woman she’s become and thinking that maybe my investment contributed to who she is today.

So, in celebration of Women’s History Month, I invite to take your own moment of reflection about those you have mentored and those who have mentored you. Cherish the investments you have made and received. And bring your learning and your questions to the WCET Closer Conversation today as we talk about Mentoring Women in Digital Learning.


“What is Past is Prologue”: Reading Thelin During a Pandemic

Image of Aitken's statue "The Future"
Highsmith, C. M., photographer. Sculptor Robert I. Aitken’s statue, “The Future,”

Recently, Josh Kim in his Inside Higher Education blog, Learning Innovation, suggested that any discussion of the future of higher education should be informed by an understanding of the past. The solution, according to Kim, is reading John R. Thelin’s seminal A History of American Higher Education, 3rd edition.

As a historian I have long ascribed to the adage “What is past is prologue,” which is carved into the base of Robert Aitken’s statue Future located at the northeast corner of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. But Kim’s admonition nudged me to revisit the latest edition of Thelin’s updated work and read it through the lens of what his history of American higher education can tell us about the post-pandemic higher education world.

A few general thoughts on A History of Higher Education

I agree with Kim’s assessment that there are two large oversights in Thelin’s work.

First, there is little on the role that teaching and learning play in the history of American higher education save conversations about the tensions between formal academic curriculum and the extracurricular learning of students. The work focuses almost exclusively on the structural aspects of American higher education with special attention paid to the changing roles of presidents and boards with the occasional mention of faculty. For a work that purports to chronicle higher education there is very little education going on.

Second, and most disappointingly, the work is virtually silent on the role of technology in American higher education save a cursory conversation about MOOCs. This is especially problematic and disappointing since Thelin spends time discussing the changing demographics of students and the need for institutions to expand how they think about the “typical” undergraduate student, including their needs and their experience of college. One can’t help but wonder how the rise of digital learning during the 2000s impacted not only the students enrolled in higher education but the missions of colleges and universities as many strive to expand student access to postsecondary education for a broader array of students.

None of this is to detract from Thelin’s work, however. It remains eminently readable and engaging as well as superbly researched. And although the work is a broad survey, what it misses in depth is more than made up by the breadth of Thelin’s analysis.

What is “past is prologue”

What most struck me reading Thelin this time around are the longevity of higher education’s retention problem and the tensions around the purpose of a college degree. Retention and success are such dominate themes in our current conversations around higher education that it is easy to believe they have always been concerns and the focus of higher education reform. Thelin, however, paints a very different picture as he lays out the ways in which, as early as the colonial period, higher education did not adhere to a four-year model. As Thelin writes, “One peculiar characteristic of the colonial colleges in their first decades is that there was little emphasis on completing degrees” (Thelin, 2019, p. 66). He goes on to suggest that by the end of the 19th century, “The completion of a bachelor’s degree was hardly a universal accomplishment, nor was it expected to be so” (Thelin, 2019, p. 163) and that even during higher education’s “golden era” of the early 20th century renowned institutions such as Harvard, Amherst, and William and Mary routinely experienced high dropout rates and low levels of bachelor’s degree completion (Thelin, 2019, p.264). Our focus on college completion is, historically, a rather recent phenomena of the late 20th century.

Photo by Mike Peel (
“What is Past is Prologue” statue, Washington, D.C.

Debates over the purpose of college and the resulting economic tensions also struck me as prescient in this reading of Thelin. Chronicling the writings of Francis Wayland, a nineteenth century president of Brown University, Thelin explores criticisms that nineteenth century American colleges were “out of touch with the demands of an energetic, industrial society” (Thelin, 2019, p. 152).

These debates over the purpose of college continue and intensify into the 1940s and 1950s as debates over who should access higher education intensify. Nowhere is this more evident than in Thelin’s discussion of the 1947 Truman Commission Report, “Higher Education for American Democracy,” which eloquently advocates for the “ultimate goal [of] an educational system in which at no level—high school, college, graduate school, or professional school—will a qualified individual in any part of the country encounter an insuperable economic barrier to the attainment of the kind of education suited to his aptitudes and interests” (Thelin, 2014, p.225).

These calls culminate in the 1971 Newman Report on Higher Education’s admonition, “We must enlarge our concepts of who can be a student, and when, and what a college is. We need many alternate paths to an education” (Thelin, 2014, p. 267).

What Thelin’s History can tell us about post-pandemic higher education

If we agree with the adage “What is past is prologue,” then what lessons can we take away from Thelin’s comprehensive history of American higher education? I was struck by two significant lessons.

  • Higher education has been remarkably resilient.

Higher education has faced significant challenges from the colonial period to the present. Institutions have struggled to survive economically, have grappled with who they serve and how they serve those students, and have long been asked to justify their existence. Despite all of these crises, American higher education has been highly resilient as long as it never lost sight of its educational mission.

  • We can’t afford to lose sight of educational mission and the needs of students.

The extent to which American higher education has stumbled has often corresponded with losing focus on its fundamental mission of educating undergraduate students.

The extent to which American higher education has stumbled has often corresponded with losing focus on its fundamental mission of educating undergraduate students.

As Thelin observed about the higher education crisis of the 1970s, “The problem was not that the center [of higher education] had failed, but rather that the modern American university had no center at all” (Thelin, 2018, p. 436). The 1971 Newman Report was even blunter in its assessment of higher education’s mission: “It is not enough to improve and expand the present system. The needs of society and the diversity of its students now entering college require a fresh look at what ‘going to college’ means” (Thelin, 2014, p.266).

The pandemic has exposed higher education’s fault lines that we must all grapple with—access without equity, challenges around student success, and the changing nature of who our students are. These are all profound challenges. However, the good news is that Thelin paints a picture of higher education as a resilient, vital institution capable of meeting these challenges. As he concludes, “higher education remains vital, its remarkable past worthy of connecting with its complex present and its promising future in American life” (Thelin, 2019, 592).

van davis headshot

Van Davis
Policy and Planning Consultant, WCET
Principal, Foghlam Consulting


Thelin, J. R. (2019). A history of American higher education, 3rd edition. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Thelin, J.R. (Ed.) (2014). Essential documents in the history of American higher education. Johns Hopkins University Press.