Community Colleges, Domestic, Education Quality, For-Profit, Institutions, Not-for-Profit, Policy, Private education, Public education, Required, Student Loans, University & College - Written by on Monday, December 5, 2011 8:00 - 0 Comments

GAO Report: More Research & Oversight of Distance Education Coming

via Flickr by NASA Goddard Photo and Video under CreativeCommons

The federal Government Accountability Office has released several scathing reports on the For-Profit college industry, designed to improve transparency and oversight. Now, it is turning its attention to distance education more broadly, calling for more research by the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Dept. of Education. Both agencies agreed to do so.

As the biggest provider of financial aid to students of postsecondary education to a tune of $134 billion via Title IV funds in 2010, the U.S. Department of Education has a serious interest in distance education.  That’s because close to half of the postsecondary schools in the U.S. offered distance education- as in courses online, by video or in some other capacity outside of the classroom in 2009 to 2010.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a study to understand the characteristics of distance education; its student demographics; how quality is assessed by schools and accreditation organizations; and how the Department of Education oversees the administration of financial aid in distance education. Here are some of the findings:

While distance education can use a variety of technologies, it has grown most rapidly online with the use of the Internet. Online distance education is currently being offered in various ways to students living on campus, away from a campus, and across state lines.

Students in distance education enroll mostly in public schools, and they represent a diverse population. While they tend to be older and female, and have family and work obligations, they also include students of all races, current and former members of the military, and those with disabilities. According to the most current Education data (2007-2008), students enrolled in distance education studied a range of subjects, such as business and health. 

Accrediting agencies and schools assess the academic quality of distance education in several ways, but accreditors reported some oversight challenges. Federal law and regulations do not require accrediting agencies to have separate standards for reviewing distance education.

School officials GAO interviewed reported using a range of design principles and student performance assessments to hold distance education to the same standards as face-to-face education. Some schools reported using specialized staff to translate face-to-face courses to the online environment, as well as standards developed by distance education experts to design their distance education courses.

[U.S. Department of] Education has increased its monitoring of distance education but lacks sufficient data to inform its oversight activities. Between 2011 and 2013, Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) will start collecting survey data on the extent to which schools offer distance education, as well as enrollment levels. However, the department’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), responsible for monitoring Title IV compliance, was not involved in the process of deciding what distance education information would be collected; therefore, it did not provide input on what types of data could be helpful in oversight. Further, FSA officials said they do not yet have a plan on how they will use the new data in monitoring. 

Click here for the full report


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