Education systems still challenged to keep pace with learning innovations

When we began working on our first Keeping Pace report back in 2004, our focus was on exploring the ways in which existing policy and accountability systems in K-12 education were not keeping up with online learning. State funding and accountability mechanisms were out of tune with new schools, creating instances in which good innovative schools were hindered, and other cases in which schools took advantage of loopholes and grey areas in education policy to game the system.

In 2017, some of the details have changed, but all too often the song remains the same. This is true not just in K-12 education. Over at e-Literate, blogger Phil Hill reminds us that post-secondary education faces similar challenges, with all-too-familiar results, in a post discussing an audit of Western Governors University (WGU).

WGU is a self-described “competency-based, student-focused, online, nonprofit university” designed for students “for whom a traditional university education simply won't do.” Its mission is “to improve quality and expand access to post-secondary educational opportunities by providing a means for individuals to learn independent of time or place and to earn competency-based degrees and other credentials that are credible to both academic institutions and employers.”

The problems described in the blog emerged when the U.S. Department of Education issued a finding that WGU should be considered a correspondence provider instead of a distance education provider, and the school should return more than $700 million in federal funding. This would have a devastating, if not fatal, impact on WGU. Most importantly, the ruling stems from the fact that the audit mechanisms appear not to be able to properly account for the way that WGU operates. Or, as Phil puts it, the finding results from the audit’s “hyper-literal translation of ambiguous regulations.”

The blog post goes into great detail, and is worth reading in full. For those seeking the TL;DR version, two key points emerge that relate to K-12 education. I’ll look at the first one here, and the second in a subsequent post.

The first key point is that “WGU has been at the forefront of breaking apart the traditional faculty role, instead using mentors, evaluators, and other interdependent roles.” The blog quotes the audit:

“Northwest Commission recognized Western Governors University’s student mentors, course mentors, evaluators, product managers, and council members as members of the school’s faculty. The accrediting agency also distinguished between the roles of student mentors and course mentors, characterizing student mentors as serving in academic advisory roles and course mentors serving in instructional roles.”

But the audit did not properly take this different and innovative use of people into account. According to the post, the auditors “used a binary role-based approach (you are an instructor or you are not) leading to conclusion that only course mentors and evaluators could be considered as instructors, however. The basis of this determination was an instructor must "provide instruction on course content" - clearly a content-dissemination view that rejects alternative pedagogies. And this interpretation… is not based on law, regulations, or commonly-accepted educational terminology.

This interpretation was one of the key points leading to the determination that WGU was a correspondence provider. But it seems clear that this is less an affirmative finding that WGU is a correspondence provider, and more of a default conclusion that the university doesn’t quite fit the distance education guidelines, as the department interprets those guidelines.

A somewhat analogous K12 case is unfolding in Ohio, as an audit of the ECOT online school has resulted in the state demanding that the school pay back much of the state funding it has received over a specific time. We haven’t yet delved into that case enough to be able to comment on the specifics and whether the state has a good case, but regardless of the outcome the audit and subsequent lawsuits paint a picture of confusion and ambiguity in the intersection of school operations and state funding mechanisms. More broadly, there are plenty of other cases in which state regulations hinder innovation and keep educators from determining modes of instruction based entirely on what is best for students. For example, state funding mechanisms are often tied to students being at a physical school; even in cases where the state supports online schools these schools are often funded at a lower level than physical schools. This approach is defended based on the belief that online learning is, or should be, less expensive than maintaining a physical school. Whether or not that view is accurate, it creates a situation in which instructional choices have major implications for funding levels, restricting the ability of teachers and school leaders to make choices that are based solely on what is best for their students.

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