Online educators want regulators to back off

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"There is a real disconnect between saying you want a more affordable degree and the fact that we have to foot the bill for more and more regulatory compliance,” he added.

Ebersole’s remarks came during a discussion on Capitol Hill hosted by the Congressional E-Learning Caucus. The caucus was launched last summer by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) along with 12 other members as a way to educate fellow lawmakers about online learning.

Online education advocates hoped for relief from regulation in a new version of the Higher Education Act, which lawmakers in the Senate have already begun to contemplate.

The current version of the legislation is set to expire at the end of next year. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has said he wants to get a draft bill together by early 2014.

Supporters of online learning say that the technology gives students from all walks of life access to education they might otherwise be able to participate in. Online learning allows working parents to study after their kids go to bed, they say, and from anywhere in the world.

It can also help reduce costs, supporters maintain.

“When I look at some of the issues in higher education relating to trying to contain the cost, it’s pretty obvious that the business model of higher education is fundamentally broken, and all anybody seems to do is copy the same business model over and over and over,” said Michael Staton, a partner at the education-focused venture capital firm Learn Capital.

With a combined $1 trillion in student debt in the country, that’s a cost that needs to be contained, added Jeff Davidson, the strategic initiatives manager at the Saylor Foundation, which aims to put out free online educational materials.

"We can't even open all the doors here," he said, referring to entrances closed at the Capitol by the government shutdown. "We can't do another trillion."

There are a slew of online learning methods that have sprung up in recent years, like massive open online courses (MOOCs), specific vocational courses and certification tests that let adults teach themselves and prove what they have learned.