Monday, August 1, 2016

Standards for Online Learning

Are you aware that there are regulatory standards to which online programs in educational institutions are held? From the federal government to national reciprocity agreements to regional accreditation agencies, universities that wish to offer online programming are held to a complex set of standards.

Distance Education vs. Correspondence as Defined by Federal Regulation

Federal law defines "distance education" and "correspondence" in section 600.2 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations as the following:

 Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously. The technologies may include: (1) The internet; (2) One-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite, or wireless communications devices; (3) Audio conferencing; or (4) Video cassettes, DVDs, and CD-ROMs, if the cassettes, DVDs, or CD-ROMs are used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (3) of this definition.

Correspondence course: (1) A course provided by an institution under which the institution provides instructional materials, by mail or electronic transmission, including examinations on the materials, to students who are separated from the instructor. Interaction between the instructor and student is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are typically self-paced. (2) If a course is part correspondence and part residential training, the Secretary considers the course to be a correspondence course. (3) A correspondence course is not distance education.

This distinction is important because according to Section 102 (a)(3)(B) of the U.S. Department of Education, an institution is not eligible to participate in the Title IV programs if 50% or more of its students were enrolled in correspondence courses during its latest complete award year. "So, if an institution of higher education wants to engage heavily in online learning, it behooves the institution to make sure it is truly providing 'distance education' and not 'correspondence courses' or else they risk losing federal financial aid" (Becker, 2016). The key is that there is "regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor" (DEA).

State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA)

Institutions that offer online courses and/or programs to out-of-state students must comply with consumer protection laws in the states where those out-of-state students reside. To avoid having 50 different laws, the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA) was formed. Currently there are 34 states participating in SARA.

SARA has established guidelines for the evaluation of distance education that were developed by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) in 2011. Those guidelines are a set of 9 principles that ensure that course design and delivery supports student to student and faculty to student interaction.

Each institution must indicate which states they are authorized to offer distance education courses in. For a list of the states that Idaho State University is authorized to serve visit the eISU page: eISU States Served.

Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education Principles

1. Online learning is appropriate to the institution's mission and purposes.
2. The institution's plans for developing, sustaining, and, if appropriate, expanding online learning offerings are integrated into its regular planning and evaluation process.
3. Online learning is incorporated into the institution's systems of governance and academic oversight.
4. Curricula for the institution's online learning offerings are coherent, cohesive, and comparable in academic rigor to programs offered in traditional instructional formats.
5. The institution evaluates the effectiveness of its online learning offerings, including the extent to which the online learning goals are achieved, and uses the results of it evaluations to enhance the attainment of the goals.
6. Faculty responsible for delivering the online learning curricula are evaluating the students' success in achieving the online learning goals are appropriately qualified and effectively supported.
7. The institution provides effective student and academic services to support students enrolled in online learning offerings.
8. The institution provides sufficient resources to support, and if appropriate, expand its online learning offerings.
9. The institution assures the integrity of its online offerings.


The federal regulations, state reciprocity agreement guidelines, and expectations of accrediting agencies provide a comprehensive set of standards, guidelines, principles, and expectations for distance learning. The requirements for student and instructor engagement are quite comprehensive.

Institutions of higher learning will be held accountable for the quality of their online offerings. Those who are negligent may face complaints and/or lawsuits like the one recently filed by students at George Washington University.


Becker, J. (2016, April 17). The rules of engagement for online learning. Retrieved from 

Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) (2011). Interregional guidelines for the evaluation of distance education. 

Eberhardt, R. (2016, April 13). Former students file class action lawsuit over quality of online program. The GW Hatchet.

U.S. Government Publishing Office (2016, June 27). Electronic code of federal regulations.