The American higher education system is a complex structure. It is made up of rules and regulations that span across all levels of learning. Moreover, these regulatory frameworks often vary from state to state, creating a non-unilateral and complicated system, especially when it involves new breakthroughs and concepts in education. As a member of the academe, I cannot help but become a little frustrated with all the red tape in the world of higher education.
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Peter McPherson, head of the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities, concluded that these speckled standards create a “multicolored checkerboard of regulations,” and I agree. In effect, complications arise from the many blurred lines between state rules regarding online and distance education. There must be standardization, I believe, across all platforms catalyzed by the uprising of this new learning movement called massive online open courses or MOOCs.
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MOOCs, Mobile Computing, and How I Passed My Finance Class with Flying Colors
Two years ago, in 2012, I stumbled upon a Facebook advertisement about a free online course offering supposedly conducted by professors from Princeton and Harvard. Little did I know that I wasn’t just enrolling in a stock market class for the clueless, I was participating in what we now call a MOOC and the beta stages of what will be the most important breakthrough in 21st-century education.
Back then, I was still in my junior year at the University of Minnesota Crookston studying technology management. Looking into a career in the corporate industry, I thought that having a little bit of know-how about stocks wouldn’t hurt. After a total of 12 weeks, I earned a digital badge signifying my participation in the MOOC. As this was not a credit-granting class, I suspected that the significance of these digital merits was only cosmetic and would not be useful in real life.
[Learn more about how LinkedIn Gives Career Credit for MOOCs.]
But now that I think of it, there is more to MOOCs than meets the eye. It’s easy to dismiss them as just another turn-of-the-century gimmick. However, the levels of engagement and the significant numbers of students interested in this new mode of education mean that it can be profitable, and most likely sustainable.
Of course, this engagement has also been brought about by the rise of smartphones and mobile computing. Since iPhone and Android users have exponentially increased, new mobile innovations are being developed that can only push online learning more into the forefront. With today’s wireless Internet technology, users now experience faster download speeds in many different locations, allowing networks to fortify their sites globally for easier access to academic work.
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The proliferation of mobile computing has brought about even greater interest in distance education. According to the Instructional Technology Council’s New Initiative Committee, tablets are being used with great success in distance learning. The committee conducted a study that stated that faculty use computer tablets for creating presentations, downloading educational apps, and accessing online courses. Students do the same, and many also utilize the mobile device to access their online resources, communicate through apps such as Skype, and use social media for research. Personally, my Kindle Fire was everything I needed as I juggled my online and offline classes.
In the semester following my first MOOC, I was required to take a finance class to earn my degree. Having already familiarized myself with the basic concepts of economics and the stock market through the online course, I asked my advisor if there was a way to receive college credit for it (knowing that U.M. is a Princeton affiliate). To my dismay, state rules at the time prevented me from doing so. Despite that, I aced my college’s finance class thanks to my Princeton MOOC professor and 10,000 classmates from all over the world.
[Read: Top 10 Tips for Taking a MOOC]
The Blurred Lines of Education Regulation
Education regulations are formulated by the so-called “triad”—the US Department of Education, the accreditation institutions, and the different states. Each of them has their own rules that oversee MOOCs.
Logically, at least how I see it through a student’s lens, the federal government should not be able to regulate MOOCs because students are not given the right for financial assistance. This is a hurdle that trickles down to the issue of whether MOOCs were to become for-credit and for-pay. Because of the open nature of online learning and the crucial fact that many qualified online learners are not qualified for financial assistance, online education cannot be considered as an ethical education system. Laws exist that require nonprofit higher education institutions to provide loans and financial aid to all their students, and the absence of such financial assistance models in most online education portals is saddening. As it stands now, those who are more financially sound gain more access to distance learning, and that should not be the case. Different rules from different states make it virtually impossible to create a workable student aid framework.
[Online learners are eligible for scholarships.]
Accreditation is another issue. Because there is no general rule about the accreditation of extra-curricular academic endeavors, it is difficult to make some MOOCs equivalent to traditional college courses. According to an analysis on The Feed, ideas being pitched to remedy this problem include certifying courses “based on the content a student has learned rather than the time spent in a classroom,” but the fact remains that traditional universities and accreditation agencies have major control over the rules.
Individual state rules can also hinder online learning. In 2012, for example, Minnesota banned several Coursera classes from being conducted to anyone within the state. This poses questions about Internet and academic freedom, but it also raises the question of degree-granting units and licensing gray areas. In my university, some students live out-of-state where certain state rules prohibit them from enrolling in online courses. This has many disadvantages, especially when traditional for-credit courses actually append MOOCs in the class curriculum. Luckily, the decision to ban Coursera in Minnesota was quickly repealed after the commotion it stirred up on the Internet.
As students, there is little we can do for now. It all heavily depends on how the government and MOOC operators create a harmonious and ultimately beneficial balance. In my opinion, there has to be standardization across all states and agencies. Laws should also be created to protect the rights of online and distance learners, as well as to create rules on conduct, fees, accreditation, and other important elements surrounding MOOCs. Several MOOCs have recently been accredited, but until the business (and government) aspects of the new online learning environment get straightened out, the dream of low-cost, quality education for everyone may still lie further down the road. However, there are steps being taken, and I hope the next few years will see a much less cluttered online learning environment.
Allie Cooper is a regular contributor for Techie Doodlers. She covers wide-ranging industry news and controversies on Educational Technologies, Adult Higher Education, Online Learning, and MOOCs. Follow Allie on Twitter: @AllieCooper_18 and Google+.
Have you been affected by the red tape in higher education and online learning?