Student participating in online classroom.

Like most crises, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a whipsaw effect. On one hand, it’s wildly disruptive and distracting, reordering our routines and upending every aspect of normal life. But sudden upheaval also brings the opportunity to challenge long-held assumptions about the status quo. It resets our priorities, strips away the non-essentials and forces us to focus—often on what’s right in front of us.

These days, for most of us involved in higher education, the thing right in front of us is online learning. With campuses all over the nation shut down and students hunkered down at home, online classes and videoconferences are suddenly the norm. For now, remote learning—which is mostly what most students are experiencing rather than true, high-quality distance education—has become the only type of college experience. And even after the coronavirus cloud lifts, it seems certain that education delivered online is sure to play a larger role than ever in learning beyond high school.

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Education started a negotiated rulemaking process to revisit a number of regulations related to distance education. Those proposed rules were recently published, and we at Lumina Foundation joined many others in the higher education community in submitting comments to the Education Department that we believe can inform the rulemaking process in positive and substantive ways.

These regulations, if structured well, can be a much-needed guide that helps colleges and universities comply with federal law while meeting crucial public policy and societal goals. In short, they can help assure that online programs serve students well by providing quality instruction and learning opportunities.

It is not controversial to say that quality varies widely among online education programs. It’s also clear, though perhaps uncomfortable to acknowledge, that some students—for instance, those who are Black, Hispanic, or Native American, or those from low-income families or families that lack college-going experience—are less likely than their more privileged peers to be enrolled in high-quality online programs.

Better regulations can—and should—help lessen those disparities. For example, the proposed new regulations require that online programs continue to provide what earlier rules described as “regular and substantive interaction” between instructors and students. That requirement is vital to ensuring quality and shouldn’t be altered or eroded.

Lumina’s comments to the department included other, more detailed suggestions that can help improve the new regulations—items concerning subscription models for online learning and programs that seek to award credit based on direct assessment of the competencies students acquire in the form of new knowledge, skills, and abilities, for instance.

Above all, we hope to see rules that mandate the use of accurate, comparable data to ensure better student outcomes. That effort is central to assuring the quality of our rapidly evolving system of learning beyond high school.

The focus on outcomes—on what students actually know and can do as a result of their learning—is essential. It will not only help us evaluate the impact and effectiveness of particular institutions and programs, it can ultimately shape our nation’s ability to grow the talent pool we need to meet today’s economic and social challenges.

The pandemic won’t be with us forever, but online learning will be. Why not make sure the rules governing distance education look forward, to the world as we want it? Why not ensure that they reflect, not just an emphasis on quality, but also a commitment to social equity—to fairness and just educational outcomes?

If we do that, the nation will be better prepared for the next crisis.

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