Ed Department Shakes Up OPMs and Third-Party Servicers: This Is Huge

Update 3/1/2023

The Department of Education has updated the dates previously discussed in this post.

  • The effective date of Third-party Servicer Guidance has been updated to September 1, 2023.
  • The institution deadline for to report any arrangements with a Third-party Service (TPS) that have not previously been reported to the Department has also been extended to September 1, 2023.
  • Entities that meet the definition of a TPS due to the new guidance must submit the Third-Party Servicer Data Form by September 1, 2023.
  • The Department is accepting written comments on the guidance through March 30, 2023 through (Docket ID ED-2022-OPE-0103).

Did you hear that loud noise last Wednesday? For those in the middle of the country, it was the Kansas City Chiefs victory parade. For those in higher education, the U.S. Department of Education created its own rumblings by releasing new guidance with rules about any contracted services and a series of questions about companies helping institutions with online learning. For some time, we have been expecting a change in guidance regarding Online Program Management (OPM) and the revenue-sharing model used by some of those companies. There has been much interest in assuring student consumer protection in this growing industry and in institutional outsourcing. 

Earlier this year, the Department signaled it would hold negotiated rulemaking including “Third-Party Servicers”. We thought OPMs and other contracts would be covered in that process. Instead, the Department issued broad guidance on a wide range of “Third-Party Servicers”. It also announced that it was seeking input on nine questions about OPMs, especially around the OPM revenue-sharing model and its “bundled services exemption.”  

The Announcement Has Impact Throughout the Institution 

We did not expect the large-scale change in guidance regarding almost any service for which an institution might contract. In the PhilonEdTech blog post review of the release, Phil Hill opined:  

Text: Don't sleep on this department of education announcement. Institutions will need to examine almost every service contract to see if it subject to this new guidance.

“Basically, if a vendor provides software and services enabling in almost any way an academic program eligible for Title IV financial aid, that vendor may be considered a TPS with all of the increased regulations.” 

This could have an impact on contracts for OPMs, tutoring services, retention tracking, student analytics, adaptive learning, learning management systems, contracted instructional design, and (surprisingly) even contracting for financial aid consulting. This regulatory guidance will reach into every corner of an institution. And there were some surprising elements including the exclusion of the use of foreign contractors and the inclusion of services offered to an institution by its own higher education system. 

The Announcement is Confusing – So We Took Our Time 

The bundling in the announcement of new guidance for Third-Party Servicers and a series of questions about OPMs resulted in confusion both for us and for several analyses we have read. Some think that the Third-Party Party Servicers wording is focused only on OPMs. Not so. It covers any contracted service. And there are only two comment opportunities and one action with a short deadline.  If we were confused by their bundling of the two issues in one announcement and some unclear wording, we feel for institutional personnel not used to interpreting this language. 

text: Be sure to note that the Third-Party Servicers language will affect everyone and has immediate effect. Take action now.  

As a result, we took our time to write this blog post where we tried to interpret at the highest level what is happening and give you some context. This post separates the information about the OPM and Third-Party Servicers impact into two sections. Regarding the term “OPM”, we realize that there are varying models for the provision of online support services that use different names. Some use the “revenue sharing” method of reimbursement while others use a “fee for service” model that does not have payments dependent upon the number of students recruited. For  simplicity, we use the term “OPM” as an all-encompassing moniker.  

Be sure to note that the Third-Party Servicers language will affect everyone and has immediate effect. Take action now.  

Part One:  Participate in the Department’s Call for Input on Online Program Management Rules 

The first part of the Department’s announcement last week had to do with the oversight of Online Program Management (OPM) companies. They are specifically concerned about incentives for “revenue sharing” or “enrollment compensation,” such as paying contractors on a sliding scale based on increased enrollments. One can imagine the distasteful image of bounty hunting such actions raise. 

A Brief History of the Current Rule 

In last week’s announcement, the Department gave a brief history of the issues and their concern:  

“Since 1992, section 487(a)(20) of the HEA has prohibited institutions of higher education (institutions) from providing any commission, bonus, or other incentive payment to individuals or entities based, directly or indirectly, on success in securing enrollments or financial aid to any persons or entities engaged in any student recruiting or admission activities or in making decisions regarding the award of student financial assistance, subject to certain exceptions…” 

The Department cites guidance it issued in 2011 (DCL GEN-11-05) providing its interpretation of regulations relating to the prohibition on incentive compensation. Continuing from the Department’s announcement last week:   

“Under that guidance, direct payments to recruiters based on tuition generation are considered prohibited incentive compensation. However, in the case of a third-party entity that is not affiliated with the institution it serves and is not affiliated with any other institution that provides educational services, the guidance specifies that providing a set of services that includes recruitment (known as bundled services) does not violate the prohibition on incentive compensation as long as the entity does not make prohibited compensation payments to its employees, and the institution does not pay the entity separately for student recruitment services.” 

Commonly known as the “bundled services exception,” many see it as a loophole that allows companies to prioritize profits they get from recruiting over prioritizing whether the institution is the best fit for the student. The Department cites the larger-than-expected impact that the 2011 interpretation: 

“Since issuing that guidance, the number of students who were recruited to institutions by entities operating under this bundled services exception has increased significantly, particularly through online programs operated by third-party entities, including Online Program Managers (OPMs).” 

Concerns Have Been Raised that Online Recruitment Benefits Companies and Not Students  

There have been plenty of concerns raised about issues with OPMs and companies performing significant services (especially in recruiting) for colleges and universities. There have been times when students have been harmed. There are projections about what might happen to future enrollees if OPMs continue unchecked.  

Here’s a sample of problems, concerns raised, and calls for action: 

In brief, there is a worry that OPMs represent a for-profit model operating under the guise of a non-profit or public institution; the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. These concerns were heightened by stories of the OPMs taking large shares of the tuition revenue, aggressive recruiting of students, and institutional lack of control over the program. We have heard stories from members about conflicts with their OPM provider. We work deeply on institutional compliance issues and have seen some examples where actions and advice made us feel uncomfortable. 

Text: In an era of state disinvestment in higher education and lower enrollments, colleges and universities need to act more like a business. Even so, institutions need to maintain their operational integrity and do all they can to protect students as vulnerable consumers. 

On the other hand, while egregious actions make the headlines, they do not seem to be the norm. Institutions have had great success with OPMs. They have been able to develop programs, reach new markets, and educate students who otherwise would have been left behind. In an era of state disinvestment in higher education and lower enrollments, colleges and universities need to act more like a business. Even so, institutions need to maintain their operational integrity and do all they can to protect students as vulnerable consumers. 

Your Opportunities to Provide Input to the Department 

The Department of Education announced opportunities for anyone to give input during “listening sessions” or written comment. Details on how to participate are listed at the end of this post in the section: “Part Three: Comments to Make, Action to Take, and How to Do So”. Quick action is needed as the commenting period ends on March 16. 

According to the Department, the purpose of the comment period is for: 

“…seeking to better understand the impact of the bundled services exception in the context of growing online enrollment and associated Federal student loan debt. The Department is currently reviewing the incentive compensation guidance to determine what, if any, changes to the incentive compensation guidance might be appropriate, particularly regarding the exception for bundled services.” 

Below are the nine specific questions they are asking. While the focus is on the “bundled services exception,” it is clear that (as you will see with the Third-Party Services guidance below) their interest goes well beyond revenue sharing models.  

We sent out a survey to WCET and SAN members about their experiences with OPMs. We will also provide both memberships with further guidance and impressions about the OPM questions asked by the Department and give you suggestions on options to use in submitting your own response.  

The Nine Questions from the Department of Education  

It is important to get comments from all sides of this issue. If your institution has or had an OPM, consider commenting. Some of the questions are hard for institutional personnel to give much insight, so they can be skipped. 

  1. What are the benefits and disadvantages of the current incentive compensation exception for bundled services for institutions and students? 
  1. How can the Department better identify, define, and address the activities that may raise concerns under the current incentive compensation guidance? 
  1. How much of an institution’s spending on a bundle of services provided by a third-party entity is typically allocated to recruitment and related expenses? This will help the Department understand the proportion of the spending in the bundle that goes to recruitment versus a range of services. 
  1. How has contracting with a third-party providing services under the bundled services exception impacted enrollment, tuition and fees, the types of programs offered, the modality through which programs are provided, student outcomes, revenues, and expenditures at institutions? How do these results compare to programs not supported by an OPM or students attending in-person at a program that is also supported by an OPM? 
  1. How would changing third-party servicer contracts from a revenue-sharing model to a fee-for-service model impact the services, such as recruitment, currently provided to an institution under the bundled services exception? 
  1. How do tuition and fees of programs supported by third-party services differ when provided under a revenue sharing model as compared to a fee-for-service model? 
  1. To what extent does the bundled services exception impact institutions’ ability to create or expand online education offerings? To what extent would fee-for-service models impact institutions’ ability to create or expand online education offerings? 
  1. How might the Department more clearly define what it means to be an unaffiliated third-party for purposes of the incentive compensation guidance to ensure there is no affiliation between the institution and the entity providing services? 
  1. What steps can the Department take to better ensure compliance with the prohibition on incentive compensation? 

Part Two: Third-Party Servicer (TPS) Guidance and Opportunity for Public Comments 

Separate but Related 

As mentioned above, a separate but related part of the Department’s February 15 press release is what the Department indicates is “updated third-party servicer guidance”. This guidance can get complicated very quickly, but we are providing an overview and will dive deeper in future messages to members and blog posts. 

Text:  In addition to providing further direction to assess when a contracted organization is considered a TPS, the Department is requiring institutions to report by May 1, 2023, any arrangements with a TPS that have not been previously reported to the Department.

Effective immediately, the Department’s updated guidance is intended to clarify what contracted services are considered a third-party servicer (TPS). The guidance includes an updated list of functions that are within the scope of the Department’s oversight as a TPS. In addition to providing further direction to assess when a contracted organization is considered a TPS, the Department is requiring institutions to report by May 1, 2023, any arrangements with a TPS that have not been previously reported to the Department.   

The guidance acknowledges that OPMs are a type of TPS. However, the guidance goes further to describe other agreements that should be considered a TPS. The examples provided are sometimes helpful and often fall short in detailing the extent to which the institution should consider that their contracts fit within the view of the Department as a TPS. Institutions should be aware that the guidance appears to address campus-based functions not just distance education. 

This guidance updates and replaces past guidance provided in Dear Colleague Letters GEN 12-08, GEN 15-01, and GEN 16-15 (as amended by the March 8, 2017 electronic announcement), and those documents are considered rescinded. 

Definition of a Third-Party Servicer (TPS) 

Text: Third-Party Servicer (TPS) is defined by Federal regulation as an entity that contracts with an institution to perform administrative functions on behalf of the institution to address any aspect of the institution’s participation in any Title IV HEA program.

Third-Party Servicer (TPS) is defined by Federal regulation as an entity that contracts with an institution to perform administrative functions on behalf of the institution to address any aspect of the institution’s participation in any Title IV HEA program. The regulation goes on to indicate a long, but noted as non-exhaustive, list of functions that primarily includes processing financial aid applications and payments. The Department, in its new guidance, maintains that most activities by outside entities are subject to Department oversight because the activities are “intrinsically intertwined” with the administration of Title IV. This new guidance provides a list of six functions intended to summarize the long list of functions provided in regulation that would identify the contracted entity as a TPS. Particularly concerning are two of the functions in the guidance that appear to be very broad. These two broad functions below appear to be catch-alls that capture any remaining activities conducted by outside entities as “intrinsically intertwined” with the administration of Title IV and making them a TPS: 

  • To provide Title IV eligible educational programs. 
  • To perform any other aspect of the administration of the Title IV programs or comply with statutory and regulatory requirements associated with those programs. 
Text: The wide-ranging impact of this new guidance throughout the institution was noted by one colleague who observed: “If it breathes on Title IV, it is a TPS.”

These catch all bullets cause us to pause and consider what a colleague shared as “if it breathes on Title IV, it is a TPS”. Based on the guidance language, our colleague’s assessment might be correct! This view could mean in addition to OPMs, Learning Management Systems, state agencies, law firms, and some consultants could be categorized as a TPS. This list could get long! 

Lastly, a non-US entity cannot contract with an institution as a TPS. The guidance explains that contractors located outside of the United States or those owned or operated by an individual who is not a U.S. citizen or national or a lawful U.S. permanent resident cannot contract with an institution as a TPS to perform any aspect of the institution’s participation in a Title IV program. We will seek answers about the impact of this criterion. 

Guidance to Assess Functions of a TPS 

The Department provides a set of tables with two columns with the elements of a Third-Party Servicer vs. Not a Third-Party Servicer to help an institution assess their agreements with outside entities who perform activities in certain topic areas. These topic areas include: 

  • Recruitment-and Application-Related Activities. 
  • Student and Institutional Eligibility. 
  • Consumer Information. 
  • Default Prevention. 
  • Delivery of Title IV Funds. 
  • Computer Services/Software and Record Maintenance. 
  • Retention of Students. 
  • Instructional Content. 
  • Consulting and Auditing. 
  • Federal Perkins Loan Program. 

If after review of these topic area explanations you are still unsure whether your contract with an entity is a TPS, the Department directs that you should contact the School Participation Division at We urge you to keep that email contact handy! Ask them questions, as this guidance is far-reaching, and you will want to understand how the guidance should be implemented at your institution. 

Third-Party Servicer Reporting 

Federal regulation directs the required reporting of a TPS. The guidance reinforces that requirement and highlights key components including: 

  • Information must be reported within 10 calendar days of entering a contract with a third party. 
  • Report whenever there is a substantial modification to an existing contract or the termination of the contract. 
Text: Based upon this guidance, institutions have until May 1, 2023 to report any arrangements with a TPS that have not previously been reported to the Department. If you have questions, contact

Because this guidance will cause institutions to re-evaluate their contracts to make new TPS determinations, the guidance provides that institutions have until May 1, 2023, to report any arrangements with a TPS that have not been previously reported. Additionally, entities or individuals that meet the definition of a TPS have until May 1, 2023, to submit the Third-Party Servicer Data Form to the Department or update their existing form. 

Opportunity to Comment 

The Department’s press release provides a mechanism to comment on the TPS guidance that is separate from the OPM-related commenting process, but it is very confusing.  The opportunity to comment about TPS guidance is through a different Docket identification number than the request for information for OPMs regarding incentive compensation. It is important to keep these two parts of the Department’s press release and the two opportunities to comment separate. We provide the details below. 

Department guidance does not typically offer the opportunity to comment. However, the Department is seeking comments regarding the new TPS guidance and indicated in the press release that they will consider those comments and publish any relevant changes based upon that feedback at a later date. The information to submit a public comment about the third-party servicer guidance is offered below. Given the wide-ranging impact of this guidance without any warning or input before releasing it, we think you should consider commenting if you have questions, requests, or suggested changes. 

Part Three:  Comments to Make, Action to Take, and How to Do So 

We know that the Department’s press release, the TPS Guidance, and the Announcement of Listening Sessions about Incentive Compensation for OPMs that followed, are confusing and it is easy to conflate the two different but related issues that the Department wishes to address. We hope that the following helps distinguish the tasks to be completed, inquiries about applicability of TPS oversight, and the opportunities for comment. 

Actions to be taken regarding each aspect of the Department’s Press Release: 

OPM Incentive Compensation 

  • Comment Opportunity #1 Regarding Incentive Compensation for OPMs. 
    • Present Comment at the Virtual Listening Session – March 8-9, 2023; 1-4pm ET 
      • Register by sending an email message to no later than 12:00 p.m., Eastern time, on the business day prior to the listening session at which they want to speak. 
    • Observe the Virtual Listening Sessions – March 8-9, 2023; 1-4pm ET  
    • Submit a written public comment addressing the nine questions posed by the Department regarding incentive compensation for OPMs. Deadline: March 16, 2023. Submit a formal comment. Docket Number: ED-2023-OPE-0030. 

Third-Party Servicer Guidance 

NOTE: These dates have been updated from May to September 2023, and comment period through March 29th, following extensions received from the Department of Education.

  • Inquire with the School Participation Division at if the institution is unsure of whether an individual or entity is subject to the TPS requirements, or any entity or individual directs the institution not to report the entity as a TPS. 
  • Report any individual or entity with which it contracts that meets the TPS criteria listed above using the Department’s E-App process.  
    • Institutions to report any arrangements not previously reported by September 1, 2023.
    • Contractors Submit the Third-Party Servicer Data Form to the Department or update their existing form no later than September 1, 2023.  
  • Comment Opportunity #2, by written public comment, regarding the third-party servicer guidance. Deadline March 29, 2023. Submit comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at, under Docket ID ED-2022-OPE-0103. 

We urge you to consider public comments to the Department. The issues surrounding Third-Party Servicers including OPMs is slated to be part of the next negotiated rulemaking for which the Department intends to announce in the spring. Your comments as practitioners are important as you can share the impact on the students at your institutions. Your experiences can help inform the next regulatory steps taken. 


The impact of these announcements can be very widespread and deep across your institution. Make sure that action is being taken as the commenting times are short and the expectation for institutions to report additional services covered by the new guidance has a May 1 deadline.  

Expect further posts on these issues. We will be communicating directly with our SAN and WCET members to gain additional insight on expectations, advice, and impact at the institutions. Please know that SAN and WCET will continue to seek clarification about these actions by the Department and share what we learn. 

For transparency, we disclose that for-profit corporations and non-profit organizations that will be affected by this guidance are WCET and/or SAN members. Their membership did not influence our analysis. The information and analysis in this blog post are our best understanding and should not be considered to be or used as legal advice. Legal questions should be directed to legal counsel.


ChatGPT’s Take on the WCET Spring Virtual Summit

So, this post was written(?) generated(?)by ChatGPT. Mostly, but not fully.

If you’re like us, you’re reading many of the articles and news about ChatGPT with excitement, sometimes confusion, and often apprehension. Many of the WCET team members have accessed ChatGPT and given it various prompts, and the results have certainly been intriguing to review. We wanted to see ChatGPT’s take on this year’s WCET Virtual Summit. We asked ChatGPT to write a blog post highlighting the event. While we do not believe ChatGPT will be replacing any of our team or guest blog post authors, it helped us understand a bit more about how the platform can be used and to see what it got right and what it got wrong about our event.

We had a few main takeaways from using ChatGPT in this manner:

  1. It wrote a fairly good synopsis of our event. It produced a great starting point for an article marketing the Summit.
  2. We still had to do quite a lot of editing to ensure that the content made sense and was a correct representation of the event and of WCET.
  3. It felt odd and conflicting to use the content from ChatGPT, even as a “starting point” that we then edited.

Without further ado, I give you ChatGPT on the upcoming WCET Summit. Enjoy.

WCET’s Spring Virtual Summit: Elements of Evolving Business Models of Higher Education – Written by ChatGPT with assistance from WCET staff.

Image of a robot assistant white big eyes carrying a computer.

Attending the WCET Member-only Virtual Summit on March 9, The Elements of Evolving Business Models of Higher Education, is a must for anyone in higher education. The Summit program provides a comprehensive overview of the key topics relevant to higher education and digital learning:

  • Demand,
  • Supply,
  • Forecasting and Planning,
  • Services, and;
  • Disruption.

The half-day Summit offers attendees the opportunity to interact with expert speakers, digital learning practitioners, and higher education leaders, who will discuss the latest trends and advancements in the field. With sessions covering everything from shifting demand for course delivery, to funding models for online courses, and many more topics, you’ll leave the Summit with a deeper understanding of the current state of higher education and where it is headed.

The Summit is an excellent opportunity to stay ahead of the curve in an ever-evolving industry. Higher education institutions are facing new challenges and opportunities, and the WCET Virtual Summit provides the perfect platform for discussions and solutions to these complex issues. With a focus on the external forces and internal practices that impact institutions, attendees will have the opportunity to hear from experts and engage in discussions that will help them develop their own strategies for success.

Phil Hill, publisher of the PhilOnEdTech blog and partner at MindWires, LLC, will kick-off the event with as the opening keynote. Phil will discuss growth in online learning and enrollment trends. This is a unique opportunity to ask Phil your questions about the business of higher education.

In addition to the expert panelists providing pragmatic guidance, WCET’s virtual format offers the added convenience of attending from anywhere. You won’t need to worry about travel expenses or time away from work, as you can attend the Summit from the comfort of your own home or office. Furthermore, the sessions will be recorded, allowing you to revisit the content at your leisure and share it with your team.

Overall, the WCET Member-only Virtual Summit is an excellent opportunity to stay up to date and learn from experts and practitioners. With budget-friendly registration fees, exclusive access to industry leaders and experts, and a wealth of information, you won’t want to miss this opportunity. If you’re not already a member of WCET, now is the time to join, and take advantage of the two complimentary registrations to the Summit if you submit your membership form by February 28. Use “Summit Promo” in the promo field to claim your complimentary registrations.

Don’t miss this opportunity to learn, grow, and expand your network in higher education!

Kudos to ChatGPT, it wrote a fairly good overview of our upcoming event. We particularly appreciated the focus on our opening keynote. To be fair, we did do some editing to make the post more informative – about 50 percent was edited and updated.

Have you given a prompt to ChatGPT? How did it turn out? Share with us on social!


Three Ways to Make Distance Learning Actually Work

Today’s blog emphasizes the need to continue iterating on how digital learning works and how we can leverage technology to deliver successful outcomes for learners. Thank you to Katie Brown, founder of EnGen, for this look at the shift to remote learning and building upon the shift to provide high-quality digital learning.

The Ups and Downs of Remote Learning

By most measures, the COVID-19 pandemic – and the resulting shift to remote learning– was devastating to education in the United States.

In K-12 settings, students lost as many as 22 weeks of in-person instruction during the 2021-2022 school year. The shift to remote and hybrid instruction has been linked to a widening achievement gap across predictable – and frustrating – racial and socioeconomic lines.

We can track similar achievement gaps in adult learners: COVID-related shutdowns propelled a 25% decrease in workers’ participation in on-the-job training. Here too, varying levels of access and digital literacy drove disparities as front-line workers and those with lower levels of formal education saw their learning opportunities drop twice as much as those with more formal education.

Yet despite the documented shortcomings of remote teaching and learning, the pandemic was a boon for U.S. education technology startups, who raised over $2.2 billion in venture and private equity capital in 2020 alone. Disparate trends suggest that higher education leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors in the edtech sector still have a lot to learn about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to building distance learning platforms that actually support learning.

Three Ways We Can Do Better

For more than 25 years, I have worked at the intersection of technology and learning – specifically for adult English learners – and have consistently found that most tech-based learning platforms are ineffective, not based on research, and don’t help advance learning outcomes.

Through my experiences in higher education as well as building a new type of digital learning platform, I’ve gathered several insights that I believe will help educational institutions and edtech companies successfully enhance student learning outcomes and work toward eliminating the unjust divides discussed above.

  1. Use technology to solve real learning problems.
Woman sitting on a couch doing online coursework.

There’s a reason the “ed” comes first in edtech. Technology should be a way to foster a well-thought-out learning strategy. Unfortunately, technology is often viewed as THE learning strategy rather than a tool to support a more innovative approach. Instead of online schools that simply replicate traditional classrooms in virtual environments, educators and innovators should use technology to differentiate instruction, immerse learners in virtual experiences, and open access to learners not served by traditional models.

For adult English learners, for example, offering digital, mobile-friendly language instruction solves the challenges of overbooked in-person ESL classes, waitlists, transportation, and childcare issues. Tech can also be leveraged to offer customized, contextualized content that resonates with learners’ lives and livelihoods – a benefit that is applicable to other groups of learners as well.

  1. Make instructional design a priority.

Strong instructional design is critical to ensuring that distance learning fosters actual educational outcomes. Distance learning provides us the opportunity not only to leverage technology to drive these outcomes, but it also often gives us the tools we need to make sure we actually do it.

I’ll offer another example: Traditional methods of language teaching frequently focus too much on teaching about howthe language works – think conjugating verbs, flashcards, and complex grammar explanations – rather than giving learners an opportunity to actually use the language. Well-designed distance learning courses can give learners ample opportunities to practice using the language to do real things, such as watching videos aligned with their interests, participating in virtual experiences, and collaborating with speakers of the target language. Further, because these real-world tasks are all being accomplished in a technology-mediated way, learner outcomes can be tracked and measured, ensuring that experiences are delivering results.

  1. Reinvent learning paradigms to focus on personalization and collaboration.

Technology gives us the power to connect in ways we never thought possible. But it can also create divides that leave learners feeling left behind – as we saw during COVID-19.

A woman sitting in a bright room looks at her computer screen.

The traditional “sit and get,” one-size-fits-all learning is simply not effective online (the truth is, it may not be effective at all!). When it comes to language learning, for example, technology gives us the power to use machine-learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to build customized learning plans that adapt to the learner and offer actionable insights to teachers and coaches – all at scale. Using insights from technology-mediated learning, instructors and administrators can connect learners for targeted support and intervention. These connections also foster community – one of the biggest drivers of success in distance learning, according to decades of research.  

What Does the Future of Digital Learning Look Like?

Throughout the course of the pandemic, I’ve heard one question consistently: “Will online learning go away once COVID ends?” The answer, of course, is absolutely not. People were learning online pre-COVID; digital learning will be part of our post-COVID “new normal” as well.

What I hope happens, though, is that the education community continues to iterate on how distance learning works and leverage technology to deliver outcomes that are not possible in traditional settings. The pandemic has offered a wide window to better understand what is possible with digital learning and we also got to see what simply does not work. Technology can open opportunities at incredible scale – if we use it the right way.

Dr. Katie Brown is the founder of EnGen, a Certified B Corporation that delivers personalized, contextualized, mobile-first English language upskilling to immigrants, refugees, and speakers of other languages, using patented technology that has served over 4 million language learners worldwide. Learn more at


Reasonable Cause and Voluntary Membership: The Key Objectives When Institutions Wish to Change a Primary Accreditor

Today, WCET’s policy team shares important updates about guidance from the Department regarding approval for accreditation changes.

Due to an important federal regulatory change that became effective July 1, 2020, which expanded formerly “regional accreditors” beyond specific geographic areas for institutional accreditors and a new state law in Florida requiring public institutions to change their accreditor on a periodic basis, the U.S. Department of Education determined the need to issue guidance addressing institutions’ changes of accreditors. This very functional guidance is important for institutions to understand the steps that institutions must take when making a change in their primary accreditor or obtaining accreditation by multiple agencies. Additionally, accreditors will benefit from clarifications regarding the Department’s review process to approve accreditor changes.

The guidance released on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, included direction to institutions as to appropriate purpose and specific process steps to make changes plus direction to institutional accrediting agencies to ensure that the changes are for “reasonable cause” and are “voluntary.” Simultaneously, the Department released a post, Postsecondary Accreditation Cannot Become a Race to the Bottom, in its blog HOMEROOM, The Official Blog of the U.S. Department of Education, to further clarify its reasoning for issuing new guidance. Institutions should carefully consider the Departments’ documents as they operationalize the process described by the guidance.

The guidance documents include the following:

  1. (GEN-22-10) Guidance for Institutions Seeking to Change or Add Accrediting Agencies – addresses how the Department evaluates the materials provided by the institutions when requesting to change accrediting agencies to ensure “reasonable cause” for a change.

Guidance for Institutions Seeking to Change or Add Accrediting Agencies

Photo of the capital building in Washington DC

To make a change or add an accrediting agency, institutions are statutorily required by the Higher Education Act to submit materials concerning the change to Federal Student Aid (FSA) to demonstrate “reasonable cause” for the change. Federal regulation, 34 CFR 600.11 provides the implementation structure for the statutory requirement by directing institutions to submit materials to establish “reasonable cause” in order for the Department to approve the change.

Federal regulation directs that the FSA will not provide a determination of “reasonable cause” if the institution’s accreditation has been terminated for cause or the institution placed on probation or suspended for cause in the preceding 24 months unless the termination is rescinded or due to accreditor improper action.

Review by FSA is on an institution-by-institution basis which will include specific circumstances related to the institution’s history of compliance, financial stability, and other institutional information supporting the institution’s request for change.

The Department’s guidance, which provided a nonexclusive list of factors to evaluate the request for change of accreditor, include:

  1. The institution’s stated reason for the proposed change or multiple accreditations.
  2. Whether the institution is seeking to change accrediting agencies or multiple accreditations to lessen oversight or rigor, evade inquiries or sanctions, or the risk of inquiries or sanctions by its existing accrediting agency.
  3. Whether the proposed change of agencies or multiple accreditations would strengthen institutional quality.
  4. Whether the institution is seeking to change agencies or seeking multiple accreditations because the new agency and its standards are more closely aligned with the institution’s mission than the current accrediting agency.
  5. Whether the proposed change or addition involves an accrediting agency that has been subject to Department action.
  6. Whether, if ultimately approved by the Department and the accrediting agency, the institution’s membership in the accrediting agency would be voluntary, as required for recognition of the accrediting agency under 34 CFR § 602.14(a).

The Department made it clear in its guidance that it is the responsibility of the institution to provide sufficient evidence through its materials to the FSA to reach a finding of “reasonable cause” for the requested change.

Procedures for Institutions Seeking Approval of a Request to Change or Add Accrediting Agencies

Change in Process: Before applying to a new accrediting agency, institutions must first submit the required materials to the Department’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) and receive the Department’s approval.

Institutions should pay close attention to the steps provided by this guidance to seek FSA approval for a change a primary accrediting agency. This 2022 guidance updates, revokes, and supersedes previous guidance published in 2016. The significant change in process now directs that the institution must submit the required materials to FSA and obtain notification of approval prior to submitting an application to a new accrediting agency. The Department reminds institutions that failure to follow the procedures could affect the institution’s accreditation status and impact eligibility for Title IV HEA programs.

The new guidance directs that the institution must proceed with the following steps to seek a change to the primary accreditor or add a new accrediting agency:

  1. Prior to applying to the new accrediting agency, notify FSA in writing of the intent to make a change primary accreditor or add a new agency. Notification must include the materials demonstrating “reasonable cause” and submitted via email to with a subject line that reads “Notification Regarding Accreditation.” 
  2. Prior to submitting an application to the new accrediting agency, the institution must receive notification from FSA that the institution has provided the required materials, demonstrated “reasonable cause” and has the Department’s approval.
  3. After the institution receives notification from FSA, as previously described, and has secured new accreditation or pre-accreditation by an agency recognized by the Department, the institutions must formally notify FSA of the new accreditation in the online electronic application (E-App) and update the “primary accreditor” if there is a change. The notification in the online electronic application should include documentation regarding the new accrediting agency.

Additionally, the Department guidance instructs institutions not to drop its association with the current accrediting agency until after:

  1. Approval of the institution’s request for change or additional agency by FSA,
  2. Granting of accreditation by the new agency, and
  3. Acknowledgement by FSA by written notice of the new accrediting agency.

Letter from the Department to Institutional Accrediting Agencies

The Department, by public letter to institutional accrediting agencies, chose to address inquiries regarding the “voluntary membership” requirement as directed by Federal regulation 34 CFR 602.14(a) to implement the statutory requirement of the 1992 HEA Reauthorization. This letter, while not submitted within the typical Dear Colleague Letter structure of Department guidance, provides insight into the Department’s analysis of the Federal regulatory language and how it may affect institutions in Florida seeking to comply with new Florida Law SB 7044 (which took effect, July 1, 2022).

old looking handwritten letters
Image by Nicole from Pixabay

The letter shared the history of accrediting agencies, the recognition of the voluntary membership by institutions to accrediting agencies by Congress, and the important relationship of the program integrity triad. The Triad, which consists of states, accreditors, and the Department, is noted to have “distinct principal areas of responsibility” to work together to support quality in higher education. Additionally, the letter described the two guidance documents previously discussed addressing specific process and required FSA finding of “reasonable cause,” for FSA to approve a change of primary accrediting agency or additional accreditor.

Specific to the circumstances surrounding the new Florida state law, the Department expressed its concern that the new law potentially undermines the voluntary nature of accreditation and could impact the independent roles of the members of the triad. The Department advises accreditors to consider whether accrediting an institution will compromise the voluntary nature of the institutions membership prior to approving the institution’s membership application.

In addition to reasonable cause, the Department’s letter indicated that there will be an examination of voluntariness by FSA during the review of an institution’s request. The Department explained that even if there can be a finding of reasonable cause based on the institution’s materials, FSA will consider all relevant factors to determine that an accreditation agency has a voluntary membership. Upon a finding that the accrediting agency does not have a voluntary membership, the Department will not recognize the accrediting agency.


This three-part guidance provided a very practical application structure and useful insight of factors for application analysis for institutions to establish “reasonable cause” for a primary accrediting agency change or addition. Furthermore, the Department provided notice to institutional accrediting agencies and the public that in this application process, FSA will scrutinize the institution’s application and review all relevant information to determine if the accrediting agency has a voluntary membership.

We will continue to watch and share information on the institutional impact with the implementation of this structure and scrutiny in the next few years as institution’s seek new primary accreditors or additions either as a result of the change in Federal regulations or compliance with the new Florida law.


#WCET2021- That’s A Wrap…Almost

The 33rd WCET Annual Meeting took place on November 2nd in our virtual platform. The event was a one-day conference which included two pre-conference workshops as well as post-conference sessions taking place this week and next. Although we were disappointed that we were unable convene in person yet again this year, our virtual Annual Meeting afforded many positives and a few challenges.

WCET Annual Meeting banner with a graphic of a tree in fall.

The Format

When the WCET team realized that the likelihood of meeting face-to-face was low, we brainstormed numerous options for creating a high-quality educational content, in a virtual format, that would be compelling enough to keep attendees engaged. Sound like a familiar challenge? We were up for it, that’s what we do and is in our mission and vision. We vetted our options with the WCET Steering Committee and landed on a one-day meeting with value added content before and after.

The format seemed to work well, and the early feedback is that attendees liked that they could block their calendar for the day and participate versus juggling the competing demands that we are all familiar with during multi day virtual events. This did pose some challenges, as our staff was spread across numerous sessions, supporting registration, and providing tech support simultaneously, but they are amazing and executed beautifully. Thank you WCET staff!

The Content      

Condensing the conference program from 100 to 26 sessions meant that we had to creatively showcase good practices and shared challenges in digital learning in higher education. Our program team did this by developing sessions that incorporated perspectives from different institutions and roles in unique sessions like lightning talks. Attendees learned different approaches to tackling digital learning challenges on the topics of online student services, equity in course and assessment design, deep learning, badges, and microcredentials, and more.

Screen shot of panelists: Pyeper Wilkins, Angie Paccione, Feng Hou, and John Dominque.
Opening General Session Panel

The opening general session, Empowering Learners: Can Blockchain Technology Unlock the Full Potential of Transcripts and Credentials? featured higher education leaders discussing distributed ledger technology and the potential for democratizing learning by providing trusted and verifiable learning and employment records that a student owns. The speakers shared stories of impact and hopes for the future. The potential exists and the promise of NFT tokens for students and professors, digital transcripts, and more, are abundant. However, challenges such as interopability, cost, and scale, are a reality. This session gave attendees a lot to ponder and pushed our thinking at the outset of the conference.

The program was a strong mix of pragmatic solutions, roundtable discussions, and inspiration. The speakers were all incredible and covered an array of topics. It was truly difficult to select from the concurrent session options. I was only able to participate in a few since I couldn’t be in more than one Zoom room at a time, but I am thankful that one of the affordances of a virtual event is that the sessions can be viewed asynchronously by registrants so I’ll be catching up this weekend!

The Twitter hashtag, #WCET2021, lists several session snippets, Tweet-able tidbits, and some puppy pictures sprinkled in if you want some bite size highlights.

The Attendees                                                    

Another one of the upsides to the event being virtual is that travel funds were not a roadblock for access. Organizations were able to bring groups of attendees and several institutions brought teams of  25. We had more than 600 people register and welcomed over 400 people to their first WCET Annual Meeting; 62% of total attendees were first timers! Attendees came from institutions across the United States with nearly every state represented. The table below shows which states the majority of attendees came from.

Chart showing attendance from the top 10 states including Texas, Colorado, Ohio, and California.

The Surprise

The highlight of the Annual Meeting for me was the networking lunch, which was a sneaky cover for our Awards Lunch. Why didn’t we just say it was an awards lunch on the program? We knew that our awardees would connect the dots and know they were invited because they were going to receive an award, it’s always more fun to surprise an honoree! Our award recipients are incredibly deserving and very good sports:

  • John Opper, executive director of Distance Learning and Student Services at the Florida Virtual Campus, was awarded the Dick Jonsen & Mollie McGill Award, presented by Mollie McGill, former deputy director of WCET, who made a special guest appearance.  
  • Our emerging young leader award, the Sally Johnstone Award was given to Chantae Recasner, dean of academic success at Northeast Lakeview College in Texas, by Russ Poulin, WCET’s executive director.  

You can learn more about the awards and be sure to give a shout out to John and Chantae who do so much for the WCET community and learners in their states. A huge thank you to Tina Parscal the Chair of the WCET Steering Committee and associate vice chancellor for CCCOnline and Academic Affairs with the Colorado Community College System, for emceeing the surprise ceremony. Watch the celebration below.


The 33rd Annual Meeting and 2nd Virtual Annual Meeting was great no matter the format, because of the people- staff, speakers, and participants. WCET is an incredibly friendly and collaborative community of digital learning leaders and practitioners. The virtual format provided many benefits, but I for one am looking forward to talking over coffee with new and old friends at the 34th, October 19 – 21 in Denver, CO! We will announce the call for proposals in March so stay tuned to @WCET_info on Twitter or the WCET member community, MIX. We’d also like to know which locales you would like to see future WCET conferences take place. Tweet them or leave them in the comments below.

See you next year,



The Fun of Minneapolis and #WCET16

WCET’s 28th Annual Meeting is a mere seven weeks away- October 12-14.  In no time, our community of edtech leaders and innovators will convene in beautiful Minneapolis to connect with colleagues,  exchange ideas,  and share triumphs and challenges. The WCET program is a blend of extended sessions which provide a deep dive into emerging issues, panel sessions, facilitated discussions, and networking events.  Make the most of your time at #WCET16 and in the scenic urban oasis of Minneapolis.

Minnehaha falls_ Evan Miles
Minnehaha Falls, Photo Credit: Evan Miles, flickr

WCET Activities at the Meeting
Here are a few ways to enhance your conference itinerary:

Minneapolis Highlights

Betcha don’t get to go to Land of 10,000 Lakes, very often, doncha know.  Try and achieve as many of these as you can and Tweet it with #WCET16.

We look forward to seeing you in Minneapolis in October.  If you haven’t registered yet, do so before the early bird registration rate expires on September 9. Join us.

Megan Raymond headshotMegan Raymond
Assistant Director, Programs and Sponsorship
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies



You Too Have Déjà vu with EdTech Conferences?

A list of conferences in a circular pattern showing the seasons of the year
Higher-Ed Edtech & Innovation Conferences graphic from our Friends at EdSurge HigherEd.

We have all attended a conference and had that déjà vu feeling, where you look at the program and the attendees and have the sensation that you’ve recently experienced this same thing. If you Google EdTech conferences you’ll get a this lengthy list from EdSurge Higher Ed and more lists.

The upside is that tech-enhanced teaching and learning is well beyond the peak of inflated expectations and is a standard mode of education delivery.

The marketplace is still ripe for innovation and sharing of best practices and each EdTech conference brings its own unique twist and synergy to the mix.  In the mix, what niche does the WCET Annual Meeting fill?

The WCET Annual Meeting, in its 28th year, continues to evolve.  The second meeting, held in Jackson, WY, demonstrated the promise of a T1 line, which was a buried cable capable of a transmitting a whopping 1.5 mbps.  This year, in Minneapolis, October 12-14, in our pockets we will carry 4G cell phones capable of communicating at 100 mbps. Like our phones, our programming is also keeping a rapid pace of change.

Engaging Sessions

A depiction of the Gartner Hype Cycle graph, which has Visibility as the Y axis and Time as the X Axis. A curved line goes through the following steps: 1) Technology Trigger, 2) Peak of Inflated Expectations, 3) Trough of Disillusionment, 4) Slope of Enlightenment, and 5) Plateau of Productivity.
The Gartner Hype Cycle:

At the Annual Meeting, Jaime Casap, chief education evangelist with Google, will inspire us to look at how we can continue to make education a powerful, effective, and engaging learning experience.  Throughout the event, we will look at how virtual reality can take us places we never imagined possible.  We will explore how technology can improve or impede access and the essential role of an effective digital inclusion strategy.  As the leader in the practice, policy, and advocacy of technology-enhanced teaching and learning, WCET’s program includes several sessions on timely higher education policy issues, including a discussion with David Soo, senior policy advisor with the U.S. Department of Education and Burck Smith, CEO, with StraighterLine discussing “The Growth of Alternative Providers: Competitors, Partners, or Both?”  And if you are looking for an opportunity to discuss quality with the experts, bring your questions to the “Ask an Accreditor Roundtable: The Future of Quality” session.

The WCET program is a mix of concurrent sessions, roundtable discussions, general session panels, and in-depth deep dive topic discussions.  The in-depth sessions provide context from expert panelists, lessons learned, and strategies attendees can bring back to their institutions as well as small group discussions. This year, the in-depth topics cover the key issues of open content and resources, stackable credentials, and adaptive learning.   Not to be missed, a closing panel discussion with several leaders from innovation hubs from institutions across the United States, including an MIT media lab student who has launched her own open source content platform, FOLD , in Innovation Hubs and Labs: Driving Change and Creativity.

 A Comfortable, Manageable Size

WCET’s niche, beyond an emphasis on policy and practice, is the size and scope.  The meeting is capped at 450 attendees and tends to sell out.  This is intentional.  Attendees find value in being able to quickly build their network because they see their colleagues frequently throughout the 2.5 day event.  They appreciate the small group discussions.  The smallness and friendliness of the group creates an inclusive and collegial atmosphere.  The program has broad appeal, most in tech-enhanced teaching and learning will find something of value on the program, but the program is not geared to be all things to people in edtech.  The focus is on providing content that is current, timely, and helps decision makers inform their choices.

A picture of a very large sculpture of a bent spoon with a cherry in the dish of the spoon. All of this is over a lake at the Minnesota Sculpture Garden.
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

Corporate Participation is Integrated and Not Focused Completely on Sales

What you won’t find in the sea of familiarity that is the fall edtech scene, is a large exhibit hall.  Expos are a great way to meet vendors, pick up swag, and see emerging products and services. But at the WCET Annual Meeting, we think that vendors can bring a lot to the conversation and by engaging directly with attendees, both can shape products and services. Corporate participants have the luxury of looking 5-10 years into the horizon and can help inform our practices. WCET invites corporate attendees to participate like any other conference attendee.  The EdTech Meet-up on Thursday provides a fun and informal networking venue for attendees to connect with corporate attendees as well as institutions showcasing innovative technology applications. The space is a casual area for networking and lounging while engaging with innovative leaders on the corporate and institutional side.  If you are vendor and are interested in learning more, contact us.

Come Join Us at the Annual Meeting in the Twin Cities

In considering where to invest your professional development resources, there’s a lot to factor in to the decision, and plenty to choose from.  View the Annual Meeting program, see why WCET is unique, and join us in Minneapolis in October.

Megan Raymond headshot


Megan Raymond
Assistant Director, Programs and Sponsorship
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies



Photo credit:
Cherry on spoon at Minnesota Sculpture Garden. Photo by Josh Haroldson used through Creative Commons License.


Progressive and Innovative, Denver is the Perfect Host for #WCET15

Denver and its surrounding area, including Boulder, is known for progressive and innovative tech business incubation and growth. The urban landscape adjacent to the foothills and the Rocky Mountains nurtures an innovative yet reenergizing spirit.  The WCET Annual Meeting, commemorating it’s 27th milestone, will be held in Denver November 11-13 at the Westin Downtown Denver and the conference program is both reenergizing, innovative, and practical.

Denver Super Moon Bo InsongaSince the preliminary program was posted late July, the speaker line-up, workshops, and sessions have evolved. We have several great additions we are pleased to highlight. View the program and make sure to register; registration is capped at 450 to maintain the collegial feel WCET is known for.

Preconference Workshops | Wednesday, Nov. 11
Two preconference workshops are scheduled for Wednesday morning.  Workshops provide an opportunity to dive into a key topic with expert session leaders and a limited number of colleagues. Both are free to WCET members  and a nominal charge for non members.   Space is limited to 40 attendees and participants can register during online registration.

Implementing and Scaling Innovation
WCET Steering Committee chair and the director of Distance Learning  at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Luke Dowden, and Sasha Thackaberry, the district director of eLearning Technologies at Cuyahoga Community College are leading an interactive workshop- Strategic Innovation: Working Through the Strategy and Skeptics.  Attendees will explore concrete strategies for implementing and scaling successful innovation within existing institutional structures.  Through discussion and interactive activities, participants will leave with mini-plans to take back to their institution. Learn how to leverage your college’s culture and context to implement and scale innovation.

Adaptive Learning
On the heels of our successful Leadership Summit, we will be providing a workshop on Adaptive Learning.  The final group of workshop leaders is being confirmed and the description will be posted shortly.  Attendees will explore the many challenging elements of choosing and applying an adaptive learning approach for remedial, undergraduate and graduate, and professional education.  Participants will learn about exciting metrics and tools for incorporating adaptive learning into your programs.

Other Program Additions

National Distance Education and Technological Advancement (DETA) Research Center Workshop | Thursday, Nov. 12
In 2014 the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee established a National Distance Education and Technological Advancement (DETA) Research Center to conduct cross-institutional data collection with 2-year and 4-year Institutions of Higher Education. WCET is pleased to bring Tanya Joosten, the director of E-learning Research and Development at UWM, and her remarkable team, to provide a two-hour workshop on Conducting Research in Blended and Online.  This hands-on-workshop will prepare attendees to take a plan back to their own institution to successfully gather research on blended and online teaching and learning. The session is first come-first served so be sure to grab your seat.

Westin Downtown Denver Mezzanine FoyerEdtech Meet-up | Thursday, Nov. 12
Over the years we have heard from attendees that they like that the WCET meeting doesn’t have a large exhibit hall where sponsors sit and wait for attendees.  However, the feedback is that attendees are still seeking ways to connect with businesses in the edtech sector so they can learn more and connect directly. This year, we are trying something new and we hope it provides value to the attendees from the corporate and institutional side, WCET’s Edtech Meet-up.  The meet-up will include invited corporate participants, businesses that the WCET community wants to hear from, who will have an opportunity to participate in a conference session as well as the meet-up.   The meet-up is a casual venue where tables are setup throughout the mezzanine area of the conference hotel for the invited corporate participants to showcase their product or service on tabletops (not exhibits). Lounging areas are setup throughout the space so attendees can disconnect or reconnect.  We think this will be a great way to see what tech trends are on the horizon, foster interaction, and create an inviting space to mingle.

Opening and Closing General Session: We Need to Be Ready for IoT | Wednesday, Nov. 11 and Friday, Nov. 13
Gartner defines IoT as “the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment.” Think- smart coffee pots and thermostats. What do we do with an increasing number of IP-enabled students who show up in IP-enabled vehicles (or via high speed networks), wearing IP-enabled garments, bearing multiple IP-enabled devices, with the expectation that our community has the resources required to meet their expectations? To help institutions address this emerging technology challenge and opportunity, WCET is spotlighting IoT in higher education during the Annual Meeting. The opening and closing keynotes at WCET will discuss many of the IoT implications, considerations, and fun ways connected devices can impact our students and institutions.

connected devices from perspecsys.comThe opening session will be a fun look at the technologies and innovative by  applications for teaching and learning. The ever dynamic and Robbie Melton, associate vice chancellor of mobilization emerging technology with the Tennessee Board of Regents, will guide attendees through mobile aps and alternate realities that help set the context for what IoT on your campus might mean to administrators, instructors, and students.

The closing IoT panel brings together experts in higher education that are exploring and experiencing the impact of IoT. The session will be a lively moderated panel discussion about IoT in higher ed- what are the implications for your campus? What about student privacy? What about accessibility/students with mental illness affected by alternative realties? Who owns the data? and more.  The discussion with Michael  Abbiatti, WCET’s executive director, Florence  Hudson  the senior vice president and chief innovation officer for Internet2, and Bruce  Maas the chief innovation officer and vice provost for information technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is not to be missed.

What’s next? Stay tuned for information about additional activities and the release of our 2015 mobile app.  The WCET Meeting is capped at 450 attendees to maintain the collegiality of the event. Registration is nearly halfway full so be sure to register soon.  

Megan Raymond Headshot

Megan Raymond
Manager, Events & Programs

Photo Credit: Cloudy Hazy Denver Colorado September Super Moon by Bo Insogna

Photo Credit: Westin Mezzanine Foyer

Photo Credit: Perspecsys


Technology Toys to Tools

Jane Bozarth, author of the book “Social Media for Trainers,” is an expert on training and social media strategy and a dynamic presenter. You won’t want to miss Jane’s keynote presentation which kicks off WCET’s 24th Annual Meeting, October 31 – November 3, in San Antonio. Following is a blog from Jane about how emerging technology, when used effectively, can enhance teaching and learning.

One of the challenges with any emerging technology is the perception that it’s a problem, and this has only  worsened with the advent of social technologies. Blogs, back in the old days, were largely regarded as online one-person rant and argument spaces, not the remarkably easy web page creation tools they really are. Even today, those who don’t know the power of a good Twitter network still think of it as an online free-for-all with people randomly posting what their cats had for breakfast.
But in the right hands – of people who see the new technologies as the means of solving a problem, easing a pain point, or reaching a learner in a new way – these “toys” can be powerful tools.  Like the 2nd grade teacher who used Skype so the kids could stay in daily video contact with an 8-year-old classmate kept home when chemotherapy treatments left him susceptible to infections. Or the CEO, tired of hearing that the front line employees felt there were too many communication obstacles, began scheduling Google + hangouts so staff could drop in and chat with him for a moment. For learning? There’s microblog-based bookclubs, image-based learning experiences for low-literacy adult readers,  virtually all of whom own a mobile phone with a camera, constantly evolving worker-generated FAQs wiki pages for new hires,  and Facebook working as a reasonable facsimile (architecturally, anyway) for an LMS.
The challenge?  Looking past the hype at the potential benefits. Exploring the technology enough to understand it at its root. Identifying real gaps and problems in existing practice, and choosing the right tools to use when. In other words: leveraging the toys in ways to make them useful tools, not timewasters.

Want to know more?  Join me in San Antonio for the WCET Annual Meeting! Registration is open.

Read more about Jane and view the description of her keynote presentation.


Forging the Future: How Much Affordability Can Higher Education Afford?

Increased affordability is a hot topic for 2012, but just how much affordability can higher education afford?  How do we increase affordability and what are the pitfalls? The Forging the Future workshop, developed and directed by Myk Garn, Southern Regional Education Board; Hae Okimoto, University of Hawai’i System; Rob Robinson, University of Texas – San Antonio focused on reducing the cost of the baccalaureate degree.  Following is a summary from the 2011 Forging the Future workshop held in conjunction with the WCET Annual Conference, October, 26-29, 2011 where experts analyzed the affordability topic in depth.  View the full report

Mark your calendar for the 2012 Conference and Forging the Future 2, October 31-November 3, 2012.

Photo of Hae Okimoto
Hae Okimoto, Director of Academic Technologies University of Hawai’i System

Photo of Myk Garn
Myk Garn, Director, Educational Technology Southern Regional Education Board

This fall we have convened over 60 educational technology leaders from more than 30 states through two separate workshops, in an examination of what role technology can play in making Baccalaureate degrees significantly more affordable.  Using the target price of $10,000 suggested by Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2011, and working in teams, the experts identified the issues, trends, and uncertainties surrounding affordability today – and looked at events that could potentially alter affordability in the future.

The results of the investigation give us both tactics that are immediately available to increase affordability using our current fiscal structures and suggest ways we can dramatically increase affordability in the future.  In the former we can reduce the cost of a degree, in the latter, the time-to-degree.

Through Forging the Future, a full day workshop held in conjunction with the WCET Annual Conference in Denver, CO, October 26-29, 2011, participants (online higher education leaders from more than 20 institutions across the U.S.) delved into the possibility of the $10,000 degree.  They were asked to rate the importance and predictability of the factors and the results were plotted to identify factors that were highly important and predictable (trends) and those that were highly important but less predictable (uncertainties).

Following are some of the highlights assimilated from both the Forging the Future workshop and the Southern Regional Education Board workshop also focused on the affordability topic.

Trends Impacting an Affordable Baccalaureate Degree.

In the face of increasing pressure for accountability and competition, universities can be expected to develop more partnerships among K-12 schools, community colleges, other universities, and external providers.  Online learning, a competency-based curriculum, and advancement with mastery are the primary innovation trends that are already available in meeting the desired outcome of affordability.

Interestingly experts almost universally rejected developing a new entity with an express purpose of offering an affordable degree (the virtual university option).  Apparently we have been down that road already.

Leading Trends Impacting Affordability

  • Competition between public institutions and among public and for-profit institutions would increase.
  • Legislative emphasis on outcomes and affordability will increase driven, in part, by the impact of the implementation of common core state standards in the K12 sector and the new generation assessments being developed to measure outcomes.
  • Partnerships among K-12, community colleges, and universities are critical to degree affordability and will become more common. Partnerships with educational management organizations (EMOs) will increase in importance as well.
  • Online learning options, driven by increasing needs to work, learn, and study where ever students are and whenever they want, will continue to increase.  Shifting to digital content and establishing robust online student support services are critical to success.
  • Implementation of competency-based teaching and learning models are critical to affordability and the emphasis will continue to grow

Uncertainties in Increasing Academic Affordability

  • Economic outlook.  Challenges of the “new normal” budgeting where current reductions will continue and in some cases worsen.
  • Pressure from the public and policymakers are critical driving factors but the intensity of that pressure is not certain.
  • The cost of purchasing (and developing) the technology needed to support or drive change is expected to be significant, but nobody knows for sure which technologies are needed nor what they will truly cost.
  • The differential between the high speed at which technology is driving change across the education sector and the slow speed of cultural change at academic institutions give rise to significant concerns.
  • Faculty attitudes, participation, and support are among the most critical factors in affordability.  The role of faculty will increase over the next three years, but it is highly uncertain whether they will support or resist changes.

Tactics for Today

Because affordability is an issue with significant current implications for institutions, workshop participants identified several tactics that would be effective in reducing costs in the short term:

  • Earning college credit in high school.

    Forging the Future logo
    Image Credit: jscreationzs
  • Greater alignment between K-12 and higher education.
  • Dual credit between K-12 and community colleges.
  • 2+2 programs between community colleges and universities.
  • Credit for prior learning.
  • Conversion from textbooks to digital content.

Deep Concerns for the Future

The experts observed that, once you accept the premise of offering a four-year degree at a target cost of $10,000, you are stuck with a simple and depressing equation. No matter how clever or complicated the calculus or how you play the fiscal shell game of shifting costs among the campus, student, and state, the biggest reduction would need to be in costs of faculty.  While technology could reduce costs modestly (such as through transition to digital OER content), reducing the cost of instruction is where the burden would fall.

This observation was captured in the inevitable conclusion, “If you want a cheaper degree…you need to get cheaper faculty.”

Towards a Better Solution (and Return on Investment)

As can be imagined, this was neither a palatable nor acceptable solution to the experts.  And this is where the thinking got interesting.  The affordability constraints academia deals with are epitomized in the “iron triangle” of cost, quality, and time.  Adjusting one impacts the others.

Reexamining the strictures of the triangle, our experts chose to rethink not quality (as proxy for the cost of faculty) but time as the nexus for innovation.  We need to change our concept of a baccalaureate degree from a credential awarded after 120 credit hours of instruction to a credential earned after 120 credits of demonstrated competencies. Key to this capability is developing the pedagogical infrastructure of competencies and correlated assessments that enable validation of learning and advancement upon mastery.

Technology will be an instrumental part of a competency-based model. Research shows technology enables students to learn at the same level of quality – in less time.  When students can complete coursework in perhaps half the time, it now becomes conceivable to leverage technology to reduce the time to degree.

Strategies for Change

In summary, the most self-evident conclusion is that, if an institution is preparing to invest in a transformative change initiative, the best focus may not be to fund more faculty development of technology infused courses. The only “bolts on” technology (and its accompanying costs) to a model that is already affordability-challenged.  The opportunity for changing the time factor in the baccalaureate process is real. It was revealed by the work of 60 experts this fall, that when an institution focuses on just four key actions they will provide the pedagogical infrastructure for true transformation.

These four actions are:

  1. Establish competency-based instruction across the institution.
  2. Develop assessments and robust assessment engines correlated to those competencies.
  3. Create the technological and analytical platforms that support independent, personalized learning paths for all students
  4. Implement the ability to advance individually upon mastery instead of by course or credit hour.


First the good news.  Technology can help address affordability in the ways we do things now.  Dual-credit, early college, 2+2 programs between community colleges and universities all are proven ways to reduce cost while maintaining quality.  More importantly, the real potential lies in doing things differently…for most institutions.  There are already successful examples of competency-based advancement upon mastery institutions (Western Governors University comes to mind).

And the bad news?  Technology does not care if we succeed or not.  That is the challenge.  Can our culture move at the speed of technology?  Is there a pace at which we can survive the revolution?  The scenarios developed by the experts of the Forging the Future workshop tell us yes.  Higher education is resilient, resourceful, and can actually be pretty innovative.