Distance Education Legislation, Accreditation and Regulation

America faces many problems and challenges in education. From coast to coast, from local school districts to large universities, educators are being asked to do more with less and budgets are being significantly reduced. There is overcrowding in urban areas, and a lack of access to educational opportunities in both urban and rural areas. Many states have undertaken efforts to plan and coordinate for distance learning and have formed distance learning consortia, but until all the users are aggregated on a national level, they will not have enough market power to attract commercial interest for a telecommunications infrastructure to facilitate distance learning growth. The education sector is also limited by short-term planning because education budgets are formulated primarily at the state and local levels which are done on an annual or biannual basis. Since funding levels are uncertain from year to year, educators and administrators find it difficult to enter long-term agreements which would gain the discounts that they need.

There is an expanding interest in the use of distance learning for courses and enrichment for students, for teacher training and professional development, networks for teaching and learning and for courses for adult learners and continuing education. Dr. Linda Roberts of the U.S. Department of Education believes that we are just at the beginning stages of understanding what we can do with telecommunications. In continuing to contribute to the growth and utilization of the field of distance education, she feels that the vision has to be maintained and nurtured. "You can't assume that the public is on your side," she said. You have to convince them of the difference that it can create.

There are many opportunities for distance education to provide service to the more than two million teachers. "They are the most isolated professionals I know," Dr. Roberts said. The systems should serve teachers and students. As examples, she suggested that teachers should be involved in teaching specialized courses and reaching more students. Other opportunities include developing new ways of teaching, expanding classroom resources, connecting with others, pre-service mentoring and in-service to advance the profession. Roberts observed that one of the obstacles to adopting distance learning technologies is the common but nevertheless erroneous perception that teachers are delighted when distance education is adopted. "I never found that teachers were delighted because of distance education. Usually, the numbers increased." Technology has transformed every sector of our lives, It can transform education as well. It will not replace teachers, it will empower them with better teaching tools.

Boundaries are changing between schools, states, private institutions, higher education and districts. There are now many groups which are creating new relationships and coalitions. The new relationships emphasize the importance of sharing resources and brings up the question of state teacher certification. Rural and urban populations are different but the needs are the same and it emphasizes the importance of providing equal access for all students. Networks should be used 24 hours a day.

Competing interests and fragmented regulatory authority are detriments to distance learning. Regulations usually lag behind the use of technology and because of this educators should take the initiative and inform those who need to know about telecommunications policy that will enable distance education technologies and their use. Telecommunication policy decisions should address the costs, capacity and services available for distance education. Issues include the development of the nation's telecommunications structure for a mix of technologies, telecommunications policies, providing technology that teachers want that is easy to use and educational satellites among other topics. More and better courseware needs to be developed and copyright issues must be addressed.

In at least six states (Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington and West Virginia), legislation has been developed to specify the kind of telecourse evaluation to be done and the criteria to meet for telecourses and their delivery systems (Kressel, 1986). The fact that states are mandating evaluation procedures underscores the fact that the available media selection model and evaluation instrument are not being used across the board (Lane 1989). Holt (1989) warns against seeking government entitlement programs to fund the production of distance education telecourses and believes that it should remain entrepreneurial to force bankruptcy on the producer of deficient programming. He strongly feels that the administration, faculty and student consumers must judge quality. Holt's message is that both the buyer and seller should beware. Holt demands a partnership between producers and consumers that amounts to unreserved commitment to distance education as most failures occur because student support systems are not in place (Holt, 1989).

Holt predicts that state controlled accreditation will be established for political reasons rather than for the quality control, which he endorses. He predicts that state accreditation is here to stay since more credit programming is being brought in by satellite from other states. Holt warns that for accountability, state education personnel should be used in a guidance role, but distance educators should perform the evaluation.

An example of an accreditation policy that has been acknowledged as being ahead of its time is the 1985 Project ALLTEL,an acronym for Assessing Long Distance Learning Via Telecommunications. It was created to "get ahead of that giant wave" when accreditors and regulators alike found themselves unable to adequately respond to changes in the environment they were charged with regulating (Goldstein, 1991). Over a period of two years, a policy board, three task forces and a committee struggled to deal with the inextricably intertwined issues of the licensure and accreditation of telecommunications-based distance learning. One task force looked at the accreditation issues, a second look at the state authorization concerns, and a third considered the legal issues arising out of attempts to control and regulate this arena. The Project was an effort to bridge development in the use of technology in delivering higher education services with the traditional roles and responsibilities of state agencies, accrediting bodies and institutions. The object was to set in place reasonable policies to ensure the growth, development and quality of the technology.

Goldstein points out that most programs which have been developed to cross borders have been developed with an overabundance of caution and wonders if we have been spared the charlatans because the regulatory environment filtered them out because of the oppressive regulatory regime which was developed and few dared to challenge. If it is the latter, he states, then "what we are accomplishing is the denial of educational opportunity at precisely the time when this nation can least afford such impediments." One of the legal problems to consider is whether a provider of distance learning services via telecommunications can be barred by a state from bringing those services across its borders. Another legal question is whether the delivery of educational services via a particular modality be constrained to protect local, traditional institutions from perceived competition? Another question is at what point a technology-based distance learning service is sufficiently present in a state to give that state the right to control its conduct?

Goldstein also points out that one cannot ignore the issue of competitiveness among institutions reflecting a sense that the market is unlikely to support every school involved in distance education. Competition for students will increase as the children of the baby-boomers graduate. While the number of traditional college age students has been declining, college enrollments have not reflected the magnitude of the decline because of the increase in the number of adult students returning to college.

Reilly and Gulliver (1992) argue that the distance learning experience cannot necessarily be evaluated by the standard measures applied to traditional education such as seat time, amount of face-to-face contact with the instructor and the immediate availability of massive library collection and extensive laboratory facilities. "In fact, since measurement of these inputs has produced little empirical evidence of the effectiveness of conventional classroom learning, using them as the baseline to evaluate distance learning is problematic at best." When coupled with the different pedagogical assumptions implicit in distance education (Granger, 1990) and "it becomes clear that new evaluative criteria are needed for distance education" (Reilly and Gulliver,1992).

A symposium "Emerging Critical Issues in Distance Higher Education" resulted in a number of recommendations ranging from ensuring that quality in all education be measured on outcomes rather than inputs, to developing a set of principles of good practice for distance higher education, to establishing a research agenda that would inform policy development in distance learning (Granger 1991). The recommendation to develop principles of good practice is being implemented by a task group of educators, regulators and accreditors. Another of the symposium's central recommendations reaffirms the basic message of Project ALLTEL: Regulating and accrediting agencies should develop ways of cooperating among states and regions to facilitate approval while ensuring quality in distance education programs that cross state and regional accrediting lines, with a goal of advancing distance education while protecting the "consumer" (Regents College Institute for Distance Learning,1990).

Another result of the meeting was that participating states (Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia) agreed to use the review of distance learning institution in the institution's home state as part of the approval process in other states where the institution seeks to operate (Reilly & Gulliver, 1992). Other states are being encouraged to sign the agreement in which states would rely not only upon the home state review, but also upon additional reviews that may have been carried out by other states. This agreement does not entail automatic reciprocity of recognition and each state retains the right to make its own decision but does commit states to build upon the work of other states to minimize duplication of review processes. This avoids the chief impediment to the implementation of Project ALLTEL which called for receiving states to accept the decision of the state of origin.

If states agree to use a common information collection instrument for distance education institutions which is being circulated to all states and accrediting associations, this would reduce some of the duplication. Accrediting agencies are also being asked to use more fully states' approval of distance education programs for accreditation purposes. Reilly and Gulliver (1992) assert that for these steps to be effective "states must first accelerate their movement toward acting more like units of a nation and less like sovereign entities in their regulation of interstate distance higher education via telecommunications."

State education agencies are both gatekeepers and catalysts for distance education. Stringent teacher certification requirements may prevent skilled instructors from teaching electronically in areas experiencing teacher shortages. Varying state curriculum and textbook requirements make it difficult to share teaching between schools that could be linked. State leadership is critical to foster the efficient use of resources to meet educational needs. In the process of developing plans for distance learning, states have the opportunity to forge cooperation between agencies, encourage sharing of costs among users, and build new linkages between schools, higher education and the private sector. Federal and state regulations guiding the development of telecommunications infrastructure and services significantly affect distance education according to an OTA (Office of Technology Assessment) Report Brief (Nov. 1989). The nation's schools represent major markets for applications of technology and should be in a powerful position to influence telecommunications policy. Because of conflicting interests and fragmented telecommunications authority, educational needs may not be fully served. As distance learning expands, education has a growing stake in shaping future telecommunications policies.

According to the OTA, federal funding for distance education has been important but modest. The Star Schools Program, begun in 1988 to develop multi-state, multi-institutional K-12 distance education, has focused attention on distance learning, and spurred planning and development beyond the projects now under way. Programs at the National Telecommunications Information Administration and the Rural Electrification Administration support distance education by funding telecommunications technologies. Other programs provide limited support for curriculum development, special programming, technical assistance and research. Growth of distance learning can be expected to continue for some time with out increased federal involvement. A major commitment to expanding the nation's distance learning infrastructure will require a change in the federal role.

The growing interest in distance learning comes as calls for improving education increase. States, localities, the federal government and the private sector can plan, fund and implement distance education. Four factors (OTA, 1989)that will most affect the future are:

    1. Telecommunications policy. This affects costs, capacity and types of services available. Congress must review and shape policies to reflect the nation's educational needs.
    2. Research, evaluation and dissemination. With the dramatic proliferation of distance learning projects, many questions regarding effectiveness, methodology and design have been raised. Federally funded research can contribute to the understanding and improvement of distance education.
    3. Support for teachers. More emphasis should be placed on how to help prepare new teachers and encourage others to enter the profession. Funding for teacher preparation could support the use of distance learning technologies. Congress could encourage use of technologies to reach teachers who need to upgrade skills in fields such as math and science.
    4. Expanded infrastructure. National leadership could expand distance learning to communities without resources and extend the reach of installed systems. Congress could specify expenditures for distance education in current federal programs or make funds available through new programs. National leadership could focus investments toward the future, ensuring that today's distance learning efforts carry our educational system into the 21st century.

A national infrastructure, projected to be fiber optic cable, would provide enhanced broadband services to every business, home and school. A broadband backbone would have the ability to provide voice, data and video services. It holds great promise for education because such a system would give every student and teacher in the nation access to the same opportunities. With a fiber optic network, schools could access any library in the United States or the world. Students could browse through instructional texts, graphics and video on any subject, any school could have guest teachers from anywhere in the world via a two-way interactive audio and visual network.

Other legislation has been introduced for an educational satellite which is a cost-effective way to deliver instructional programming to a great number of schools and students. Satellite transmission provides a way to reach students no matter how remote. In today's satellite market the education sector is fragmented and commercial market practices leave educational institutions without low-cost, dependable and equitable access to services. For the most part, schools, school districts, state education agencies, colleges and universities all operate independently. A dedicated education satellite would ensure instructional programmers that they will be able to obtain affordable satellite transmission time without risk of preemption by commercial users. It would allow educators using the programming to have one dish focused on one satellite off of which they could receive at least 24 channels of instructional programming. In the legislation, the federal government's role is to take the risk from the private sector in order to encourage the development of a dedicated satellite system.

The National Education Telecommunications Organization (NETO) was formed after the EDSAT Institute held seven regional meetings in 1991. Through these meetings they recognized the need to aggregate the education market for distance learning and concluded that an education programming users organization was needed. Its board is committed to the goal of developing an integrated telecommunications system, dedicated to education with the first step of acquiring a dedicated satellite. Some have suggested that the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) could meet the infrastructure needs of the distance learning community but PBS and NETO have very different missions. PBS is in the business of broadcasting programming and acquires satellite time to deliver its own programming. In contrast, NETO's focus is on the distribution of distance learning, much of it live and interactive and will not generate programming. NETO's sole concern is the creation of an infrastructure which will distribute instructional programming created by others at an equitable price to all users. NETO will aggregate the market so that it will be of sufficient size, but the problem of being a short-term user still faces the education sector. Educators cannot enter into the five or ten-year commitments that satellite vendors look for in long-term users. This legislation solves that problem by offering federal loan guarantees to NETO so that they can, in turn, offer the satellite vendors the long-term commitment they need. Our legislation basically guarantees the vendor an anchor tenant. Without that guarantee, it is likely that even an aggregated education market would not be able to secure a long-term lease or purchase arrangement with a satellite vendor.

A dedicated satellite system will bring instructional programming which is not scattered across 12 to 15 satellites into one place in the sky. This co-location will allow educators to receive a variety of instructional programs without having to constantly reorient their satellite dish. Proponents of an educational satellite say that by making the investment in a dedicated system on the front end, distance learning costs will be reduced for educators at the state and local levels. Programmers will benefit because they will be able to market their programming to a wider audience and will be guaranteed reliable satellite time at an affordable rate that will be equal no matter how much is bought. Users will benefit because their investment in equipment to receive instructional programming may be reduced because of the technological advantages of focusing on one point in the sky.

Satellite technology can expand educational opportunity for students in areas with "teacher shortages in important subjects - such as foreign languages, math and science. We should capitalize on technology's potential for supplementing curriculum, without allowing it to, in any way, replace students' one-to-one interaction with teachers.

In addressing the role of technology, we must deal with the question of whether there should be a mix of technology and if so which media should be used? If only a single technology can be used, what technology would be the most appropriate? Selection tools and guidelines are available which can help to clarify the role of technology. Those which are recommended because of the national experts which participated in their formation appear in a later chapter (Lane, 1989, 1991).

from "A Technical Guide to Teleconferencing and Distance Learning," 3rd edition