Online classrooms resetting education

Lawmakers are singing the praises of new online courses that are reducing costs and freeing students from the constraints of the classroom.

The increase in online courses has been particularly pronounced at colleges and universities, which are using new technology to attract non-traditional students who need the ability to juggle other responsibilities.

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“Online coursework provides another flexible alternative to the traditional college classroom setting, something that is particularly beneficial to non-traditional students who have family or career obligations,” said House Education and Workforce Chairman Ron Kline (R-Minn.).

“Instead of forcing students to deal with limited enrollment and high tuition, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, provide students the opportunity to take the courses they want, when they want — all from the comfort of home.”

The explosion of online courses is happening at universities large and small. The Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, is now offering the first fully online Master’s program in Computer Science using a MOOC platform.

“As the first in the world to try this approach, Georgia Tech intends to put real force behind the advancement of higher education through technology,” said Charles Isbell, a professor at Georgia Tech. “And the program’s ultra-low cost, combined with its availability to students anywhere in the world through the Internet, promises to expand the global population of trained computing professionals.”

Kline has said he wants to include provisions in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that would support states seeking to expand online courses, but he argues that some federal regulations could stand in the way.

The Department of Education (DOE) in 2010 set a federal definition of what constitutes a college credit hour. The administration said that move was necessary because some states weren’t protecting students with authorization requirements, which are mandatory for universities to receive federal student aid.

The regulations also require poor performing colleges to get DOE approval of any new programs they offer, including those offered online.

“I remain concerned some federal regulations advanced as part of the Obama administration’s package of ‘program integrity’ mandates could stand in the way of the higher education innovation students want and so desperately need,” Kline said.

“The heavy-handed Gainful Employment, State Authorization, and Credit Hour regulations will almost certainly prevent states and institutions from continuing to find new ways to offer students a quality education at a lower price.”

Kline’s committee has passed legislation — H.R. 2637, the Supporting Academic Freedom through Regulatory Relief Act — that would repeal these federal regulations, but the full House has yet to consider the bill. That measure could be incorporated into the House’s reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

“By lifting burdensome regulations and simplifying the current complex statutory framework, more institutions will have the opportunity to innovate and meet the changing needs of our students and economy,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who serves on the House Education and Workforce Committee. “I hope we can work together through the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to continue these efforts to limit federal overreach.”

Online courses aren’t just happening at the college level, as the virtual classroom is increasingly being used to educate elementary and secondary school students.

Richard Culatta, director of the Office of Educational Technology within the Department of Education, said Congress should invest in training to ensure that teachers use new technology effectively.

“When students can collaborate that’s exciting,” Culatta said. “If we’re really serious about preparing students for a global economy, it doesn’t make sense to not have students interact with other kids around the world before graduating. That’s what’s really going to make students ready for the future.”

President Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget included $200 million to help schools incorporate online technology into their classrooms.

Culatta said online courses are giving students in rural areas the opportunity to take courses that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them.

“What do you do in schools where you don’t have people to teach certain subjects?” Culatta said. “What do you do for those kids who are disadvantaged by the zip code they live in? We have to ensure everyone has access to quality learning.”

Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), who serves on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said 28 states have approved the use of virtual schools, with more than 500,000 elementary and secondary students enrolled either part time or full time in online classes in 2012.

“For children in rural areas, or whose schools otherwise aren’t able to fully support their education needs, virtual schools provide a critical opportunity to keep learning and stay on track for graduating fully prepared for college or the workforce,” Rokita said.