Higher Ed in the News: 8/31/2020

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

In this week’s Higher Ed in the News, we look at the U.S. Department of Education’s updated guidelines for online education and get an inside look at how things are going as fall semesters get started around the country. You can read the last edition of this series here.

Department of Education releases finalized guidelines for online education

In the early months of 2019, the U.S. Department of Education began assessing distance learning regulations for higher ed, seeking a “permanent upgrade to online and competency-based education.” Their newest guidelines go into effect July 2021 and can be implemented once they appear in the Federal Register. The guidance lays out rules for online student instruction, clock-hour programs, instructional teams, and other aspects of online education that have been particularly exposed during the pandemic-driven shift to digital learning. The potential impact of these updated policies was explored in a recent piece by Education Dive.

The policy change with the broadest implications is likely the new requirement governing instructor interaction with online students that is attached to federal financial aid eligibility. The current guidelines require schools to maintain “regular and substantive” interaction with these students, but the new policy takes it a step further by requiring them to utilize at least two of five Department-approved online instruction methods. Education advocates are concerned that the added criteria may be too vague and worry about some schools only doing the bare minimum to meet the requirements.  

One new guideline that colleges and universities could find helpful is the option to use instructional teams instead of a sole instructor. If schools meet proper standards, this change would give them added staffing flexibility while exposing students to different teaching styles. Critics point out that this method could also cause “a lot of deviation within the quality of these programs” and they worry about students receiving enough direct instruction under this arrangement. Additional changes included in the finalized guidelines cover restrictions for schools offering competency-based instruction and the use of pre-recorded instructional videos by students in clock-hour programs.


Tales from the fall

Across the country, colleges and universities are beginning one of the most bizarre semesters ever in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Inside Higher Ed’s Doug Lederman spoke to a handful of professors across the country to get the story from the inside. Lederman said that most of the professors interviewed felt that the semester has been better than expected, though plenty had concerns as well. 

One professor said that her classroom was set up so that students sit at least six feet apart from each other, but didn’t give her the space to be six feet away from the closest students. Many are also finding it more difficult to do group work and hold classroom discussions with the social distancing requirements.

Professors were also worried about the students. Nearly all the instructors said students are “anxious and ‘overwhelmed,’” and one check-in survey of students found they feel “helpless,” “out of control” and “frequently in tears.” 

One professor found that students preferred a class to be either fully in-person or fully online as opposed to a hybrid. In another, more students have asked to stream class because of safety concerns. Overall, faculty generally agreed that they’re more prepared for their classes – whether in-person, online or hybrid – than they were last spring.