U.S. Department of Education Issues Final Rules on Distance Education and Innovation

Updated by on Thu, 10/01/2020 - 15:37

On August 24th, after a comprehensive 2018-2019 Negotiated Rulemaking session and additional public comments on the proposed regulations this past spring, the Department of Education has released final rules on Distance Education and Innovation. These rules include changes in distance education, “regular and substantive” interaction, Competency-Based Education (CBE), direct assessment, and other topics. The new regulations go into effect July 1, 2021. Institutions may voluntarily implement any or all provisions before then upon publication in the Federal Register.

Although these new regulations pertain to distance learning, they do not have a direct impact on NC-SARA or its requirements. These new requirements take effect July 1, 2021, yet early implementation is permitted.

Here are some highlights of the new rules:

  • Clarity is provided on definitions of “regular and substantive interaction” in distance education such that “regular” is defined as taking place on a “predictable and scheduled basis” and “substantive” means students are engaged through teaching, learning, and assessment as well as at least two of these five activities:

        providing direct instruction;
        assessing or providing feedback on a student’s course work;
        providing information or responding to questions about the content
        course or competency;
        facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course
        or competency;
        or other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s
        accrediting agency.

  • The “clock hour” definition now includes asynchronous as well as synchronous classes, lectures, or recitations with the opportunity for direct interaction between students and instructors.
  • “Academic engagement” can be fulfilled through virtual/augmented reality activities.
  • In evaluating competency-based and distance education, there is now  increased flexibility to focus on learning over seat time.
  • Distance education and correspondence education are more clearly distinguishable through five critical factors:

        Distance education should be delivered through an “appropriate” form of
        online media.
        Distance education must use instructors that meet accreditor requirements
        for instruction in the subject matter.
        There should be at least two forms of substantive interaction (see above).
        There must be “scheduled and predictable” opportunities for
        instructor/student interaction (see above).
        Instructors must be responsive to students’ requests for support.

  • There is increased flexibility for direct assessment programs in that only the first such program must secure U.S. Department of Education approval.
  • Subscription-based model programs must have a structure that will interact with financial aid disbursements.

Click here to view the Department’s Fact Sheet on the changes.

Click here to view the full draft regulations.

Several organizations have shared their analyses of these newly released final regulations, including:

WCET/SAN has shared its analysis here.  

UPCEA has shared its analysis here.

CHEA has shared its summary here.

Thompson Coburn has shared its analysis here.