It’s Time to Change the Model for Regulating Educational Innovations

Change is inevitable.

In the world of technologies, innovations come faster than we are able to follow. Think about what we can do now that we could not do ten years ago: smartphones are the norm (but they are really used more as cameras or computers than telephones), and high-speed internet is available for free in every coffee shop. We can verbally ask a box in our living room (named Alexa or Google) to play music or order a pizza, a private company lands rockets on Earth for reuse, a bracelet-like device beeps to tell the wearer to move around, and we do not necessarily need a check-out person to leave the grocery store.

In the world of higher education, in the last ten years…wireless is available throughout the campus, one in seven U.S. students take all of their classes at a distance, competency-based education is growing, concepts such as MOOCs and coding bootcamps have gone mainstream, open textbooks and courseware are being widely adopted, and students don’t necessarily need to go to a “cluster” to use a computer.

In the world of federal higher education….not so much.  Congress last overhauled many of our key regulations more than ten years ago. Many innovations with the greatest potential for students are still held to regulations and definitions that were written not ten years ago, but back in 1992. That was a much different world.

It’s time for a change.

Combating Fraud and Appreciating the 1992 Regulations

First, let’s acknowledge that there are good reasons that regulations are put in place.

The definitions of distance education and correspondence education for the federal government trace their roots back to a need to respond to widespread financial aid fraud in the use of correspondence study. Federal financial aid dollars were wasted on courses that provided no real education to students.

Distance education and correspondence education definitions were written in opposition to each other to make mutually exclusive categories. As a result, students taking distance education courses are eligible for financial aid while only a limited amount of correspondence courses are eligible for aid.

Those definitions are based on traditional classroom techniques. Over time, educational innovations have broken that traditional model, and many of the regulations have gradually outgrown their usefulness and efficacy.

Relying on Definitions

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced a new round of negotiated rulemaking, which is a process for making changes to current federal regulations. The casual observer may note that they are spending a large amount of time on definitions.

In the current federal regulatory pathway, every attempt is made to clearly define the object of the regulation and then to define what is allowable or prohibited based upon that definition. I’m currently working on a project to define “distance education” in the U.S. and wrote a section on the upcoming Canadian survey of online education about definitions used across that country. Even with about one-in-seven students taking all of their courses at a distance, both those experiences remind me that coming to agreement on definitions is difficult.

The reexamination of definitions and federal financial aid rules historically is addressed by updating (known as reauthorizing) the Higher Education Act. It is not the only avenue to change regulations, but is certainly the most comprehensive.

We are now entering the longest period between reauthorizations. Ten years. And even then some of the provisions (e.g., definitions of “distance education” and “regular and substantive interaction”) date back much farther….such as the 26 years since 1992. Adding to the problem has been the resulting patchwork of regulations that arises from the need to cobble together fixes or new interpretations over the years. The end product is neither comprehensive nor a good fit in the innovative present times.

Due to regulations and what has essentially become a sunk investment in the status quo, innovations are tougher to achieve in traditional institutions. Consequently, innovators often surface outside traditional colleges and universities. The last ten years have seen the growth of coding boot camps, course resellers (Coursera, Udacity, etc.), and Online Program Management companies (OPMs).  

It is Time for a New Regulatory Model

Ideally, federal financial aid should go to educational modes that are effective in promoting student learning. David Longanecker,  the long-time Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education President and former Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education, summed up the problem with regulating innovations: since they’re new, there is no evidence as to whether they work or not.   

Let’s stop waiting for innovations to emerge to define them. This is not evidence-based practice and does not address the increased pace of change. Instead, let’s create a pathway that anticipates innovation.

As a recovering educational researcher, it always surprised me how rarely decisions about academic matters are based upon evidence from proven research methods. Higher education teaches these skills to students who they prepare for a variety of professions. It’s time that we learned our own lessons and make evidence-based decisions. We need a regulatory structure that enables innovation while protecting students.

One possible model is an improved version of the clinical trials process used for approving drugs and medical procedures. I know, I know…that model can be terribly bureaucratic (perhaps, rightfully so) and expensive. Education cannot afford that, and we will need to improve upon it.

In medicine, they know that new drugs or medical procedures will be introduced many times each year. In response, they have pre-defined pathways for testing an innovation in increasingly larger and varied settings. There are required research protocols with specific pre-identified ways to measure the outcomes and ways to address alternatives should a patient not do well in the clinical trial.

The medical research model uses a multi-stage approach that exposes only a small number of patients to a new regimen. In each stage, more patients are involved. The next round or experimentation is initiated only after successful passage of the requirements of the previous stage, reflection on what did and did not work in that stage, and improvements are made based upon what was learned. In other words, the model bases decisions on evidence and targeted improvements.

It Won’t Be Easy – But It Will Be Based on Evidence Rather than Ill-defined Definitions

Unlike the current process, higher education could actually use the scientific method to improve instruction and to steer away from “innovations” that are more hype than help. Obviously, many, many details would need to be worked out.

Students would benefit by being protected every step of the way. A set of pre-approved criteria for an educational protocol would need to be developed, such as: Is there evidence the student is learning? Can the student get help? What are the outcomes? Does a student need to opt-in to participate?

Institutions would benefit by knowing up front the outcomes to which they would be held accountable as well as the consequences of success or failure. Institutions would not be held to standards and definitions that are out-of-date, poorly defined, and/or not defined at all. Unlike the medical model, we can design it so that every institution can participate, adopt innovations with a demonstrated track record, and have their innovations recognized based upon evidence not reputation.

It will be hard. It will be worth it.

Russ Poulin is the director of policy and analysis at WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies.