Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt--the bread and butter of consultants, charlatans, and news organizations. There's plenty to go around in the new Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008. A colleague got my attention by forwarding an email flier from this group, which sells online seminars on higher ed. From the flier:
The buzz is that the HEOA requires very costly and very complex changes to online programs, and that it’s going to create major challenges for the people who run them.

In this case, the buzz is absolutely correct.

The HEOA is going to wreak havoc in online learning, particularly in the areas of academic integrity and student authentication.
Online courses are not a big part of our business currently at my home institutions, but we should probably think about summer classes delivered through distance learning. That project has been in the back of my mind, so I furrowed my brow at the language in the flier. Before shelling out $229 to see what this group has to say, I thought I'd see what the HEOA actually says. Here's the part about student authentication.
[T]he agency or association requires an institution that offers distance education or correspondence education to have processes through which the institution establishes that the student who registers in a distance education or correspondence education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the program and receives the academic credit. [Section 496]
So what kind of process is required to establish identity? I figured that Educause might be a good source for information on this. Indeed, they've written about it already here. I took the title of this article from their reference to "FUD" surrounding this issue. Apparently, some wild misconceptions were spawned by no less than the Chronicle. Educause quotes their article:
Tucked away in a 1,200-page bill now in Congress is a small paragraph that could lead distance-education institutions to require spy cameras in their students' homes.
This references the paragraph in the HEOA quoted above. As the Educause article explains, however there are two rather large considerations that obviate the more drastic assumptions being made, and hardly merit beating the drums for. First, the requirement is for accreditors, not schools, meaning that this requirement will likely become part of the accreditation list of 'to-do's next time it rolls around. More importantly, a conference report from the HEOA actually spells out what authentication means: currently it means having a unique ID and password. That's it. The North Central Association (accrediting agency) endorses that line here (pg 8-9)
The Joint Conference Committee of Congress and the U.S. Department of Education have confirmed that initially institutions may use simple efforts already in use at most institutions to verify the identity of their students. Such efforts may include the use of IDs and passwords. This amended policy reflects this current understanding; however, as time progresses, better processes for verifying the identify of students come into existence, and final regulations develop, this policy may need to be updated. The Commission hopes that the Department will follow closely to the language of the statute in its final regulation thus presumably allowing agencies and institutions some latitude in determining what method of verification best suits an institution’s mission and purposes. In the meantime, institutions should be examining more sophisticated approaches to verifying the identity of their students and making plans to incorporate such approaches in their distance and correspondence education.
You can find more analysis and opinion on this blog.

The larger lesson, I think, is to beware of the FUD. It's like stress for an individual. A little can loosen the bonds of established practice and prompt higher productivity. Too much can lock the system up and send you out shopping for snake oil.

Update: See this more recent post.

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