Two (More) Battles Brewing

Online education in California and the future of Inclusive Access

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While the holiday break was welcome for most of us, 2024 is shaping up to be as eventful in EdTech as was 2023.

We’ve covered many of the existential battles in EdTech, including regulatory guidance over OPMs, but there are two additional battles shaping up that could have great impact.

UC: Standing Athwart History, Yelling Stop

The University of California, with its 10 campuses and 300,000+ students, is one of the largest and most prestigious in the world. Ask them, they’ll tell you.

There is a conflict emerging between the Faculty Senate and Administrators over the role - or more specifically, rejection of a role - of online education for undergraduates. Last year, the senate voted to “close a loophole” and explicitly disallow fully-online programs for undergraduates, instead requiring a presence on campus each term. This decision was driven by a 2022 senate study arguing for the changes.

This study was preceded by a 2020 task force report. The point is that the UC Faculty Senate has been debating this subject for years, culminating in last year’s decision.

Today’s Inside Higher Ed covers the pushback from system administrators who are questioning this decision and whether the senate should be able to make that broad declaration.

Early last year, the University of California Academic Senate changed the system’s policies to essentially ban students from earning a fully online bachelor’s degree from any of its 10 campuses. The decision drew both internal and external criticism that the university was ignoring the potential benefits of virtual learning—and troubled some UC administrators and regents who believe the governing board must have a say in changing the institution’s degree offerings.

Late in 2023, faculty leaders and administrators at the university hatched a compromise: a 20-member presidential task force to look into the efficacy of online degree programs and evaluate instructional modalities. University leaders characterized the committee as a way to “provide for high-quality in-person, hybrid and online offerings for students, including innovations that promote engagement and learning no matter where students are located.”

While at its core the tension at UC is over the quality of online education, it is also noteworthy for what it says about the balance of power and authority in shared governance at an institution that takes that value more seriously than most. In questioning the action of the Academic Senate to bar online degrees, regents clearly believe that decisions on which academic programs the university offers, and how they are delivered, falls under the regents’ authority.

Read the whole IHE article - it covers the background and multiple quotes on what the current dispute is about. While we don’t know the resolution yet, I will offer three notes.

  • While the dispute ostensibly centers on quality of online instruction, note that the changes from the senate do not call out specific metrics or processes to ensure that quality in the online modality. Instead, the senate essentially bans online undergraduate education, effectively making the argument that they have already determined that online education cannot provide quality.

  • There are plenty of letters to the task force and senate arguing that this policy would preclude reaching the increasing number of students who are looking for a fully-online option - you know, expanding access - the policy ignores the implications.

  • I believe the Faculty Senate has the right and obligation to have a strong role in academic standards and the definition of offered programs, but this solution by the senate instead relies on unilateral strategic decisions that are in reality much more focused on power and shared governance. You will not find useful definitions or guidance on what quality online education should mean, or even the cited term of “UC quality” that encompasses face-to-face and hybrid modalities.

The End of Inclusive Access?

There is an interesting thread on the CCCOER community (h/t Stephen Downes) about the negotiated rulemaking started this week and how the US Department of Education (ED) has drafted an initial position paper that would effectively kill, or fundamentally change, the Inclusive Access and Equitable Access models favored by academic publishers. The thread is based on an email describing the changes.

In preparation for the U.S. Dept. of Education’s negotiated rulemaking beginning Monday, Jan. 8th, to review the current education code on Cash Management, which allows for institutions to charge student accounts for course materials as part of tuition and fees (also known as Inclusive Access, Equitable Access, First Day, Complete, AutoAccess, etc.), the Dept. release proposed language which essentially eliminates the ability for institutions to continue to run these programs as is. Instead, the proposed language would only allow for a similar program when institutions demonstrate a health or safety reason for including books and supplies in tuition and fees or if the institution is the only option for students to access the supplies or course materials.

The actual ED position paper can be found here.

What makes this thread interesting is that one of the proponents (or possibly one of the authors) of the ED policy position, Nicole Allen, responded to the thread with useful descriptions. I strongly believe that her descriptions are not just accurate, but endorsed and coordinated, so they are worth considering.

SPARC has been monitoring this new development and happy to share more background. The Department of Education has started a negotiated rulemaking process to review several areas of higher ed regulations, including a section called "Cash Management." This section includes the provision adopted in 2016 permitting institutions to include the cost of books and supplies in tuition and fees without student authorization, which opened the door to the proliferation of the inclusive access textbook billing model. 

As one of its updates to the Cash Management regulation, the Department has proposed eliminating the books and supplies provision due to concerns over transparency and student choice—concerns which have long been echoed by student and consumer advocates. SPARC is supportive of the Department’s proposal and included it as our primary recommendation in the 2023 public comment period. While the proposal would not actually eliminate inclusive access programs, it would impact how many are currently implemented. For example, programs may shift to being opt-in (rather than opt-out) so that course materials aren’t automatically billed without student authorization.  

Here is the Department’s description of the proposed change:

“Eliminate the provision allowing institutions to include the cost of books and supplies as part of tuition and fees (§ 668.164(c) and (m)). Current regulations permit schools to automatically charge students for books and supplies as part of tuition and fees, without student authorization, even when the materials can be obtained from a source other than the institution. The regulations permit these charges if the school has a contract with a third-party publisher or retailer, offers the books “below competitive market rates,” and gives students a way to opt out, so long as the student can obtain the books and supplies by the seventh day of the payment period. The Department is concerned that lack of disclosure and transparency limits students' ability to find less expensive materials or assess if their school is offering the most affordable arrangement. Under the proposal, we would maintain the allowance for including books and supplies in tuition and fees when institutions demonstrate there is a compelling health or safety reason, or if the institution is the only option for students to access the books or supplies.”

Monday’s hearing is only the beginning of a long process that will play out over many months. SPARC will be in attendance at the hearing and will keep the community informed of opportunities to weigh in. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or hear additional discussion about this on your campuses.

Nicole is right that this is the beginning of a long process, but we clearly know ED’s position and that of its aligned activist groups.

Where I disagree is that should this policy change be adopted, that it would simply require changes such as moving from opt-out to opt-in. The entire business model behind IA/EA would be undermined, and at best become a shell of itself.

It could be that the end result of the negotiated rulemaking process will be a set of changes (such as opt-out to opt-in) that will keep IA/EA in place, but that is not the starting position.

Keep watching both of these developments.

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