Educators Push Reforms to Broaden Distance Learning

A House subcommittee is reviewing legislation that would allow higher education institutions to expand their online distance-learning programs.

Proponents say the legislation will lead to greater cooperation between higher education and the information technology industry and spur much-needed growth in the IT work force.

Among its provisions, the Internet Equity and Education Act of 2001 (H.R. 1992) would remove restrictions that permit no more than 50 percent of an institution's courses to be conducted via distance education. These restrictions are mandated in the Higher Education Act of 1992, which the new legislation, sponsored by Rep. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., would amend.

While there is no counterpart legislation in the Senate, the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee is expected to address the issue this year.

"Distance education provides a tremendous opportunity to greatly expand access to post-secondary education to those who may otherwise be unable to participate," Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Education Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness said at a June 20 hearing on the issue. "It would be a shame to waste this potential because of outdated notions and regulations."

The proposed bill also relaxes the incentive compensation provision that makes it impossible to pay a bonus to any official engaged in admissions and financial aid.

Changing the incentive compensation provisions will make it possible to use standard business practices in paying third-party IT companies that are increasingly a part of student recruitment and admissions, Stanley Ikenberry, president of the American Council on Education, told the House subcommittee. The council represents 1,800 two- and four-year public and private colleges and universities and supports legislation to widen the use of IT in higher education.

"The World Wide Web provides an alternative means for the delivery of courses and services, and it provides learners with an extraordinary range of options," Ikenberry told the panel. "Distance education and on-campus instruction are converging, with online delivery systems being employed for distant commuting and residential students."

Distance education courses and enrollments are growing faster than the number of institutions that are offering them, he said. Thirty-five states have created virtual universities or other statewide organizations.

Sue McGorry, assistant professor of business at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., said stronger partnerships must be forged between the IT industry and academia. Increased distance learning and better use of online courses also will benefit those students planning to enter the IT field, she said in a June 20 interview.

"The continual evolution of technology creates a challenge for academicians in preparing students to develop and acquire new skills to adapt to change in industry," McGorry said. "Universities attempt to develop curriculum and internship programs that will meet the demands of industry."

The IT industry also could become more involved in working with educators to evaluate curriculums. Cooperation between academicians and industry in rating the curriculum would "provide academicians with the opportunity to interact with IT professionals to better identify skill sets that students must develop and to maintain currency in the IT field," she said.

Industry and academia also should work together to offer students more internships to provide continuous feedback so that academic programs can better meet industry needs, McGorry said. Mentor programs would offer students guidance throughout their academic careers as they transition to professionals in industry, she added.

The need for an expanding IT work force makes this legislation critical, said Omer Eaddles, executive vice president of ITT Educational Services Inc., which oversees operations for 70 IT technical institutes in 28 states with about 29,000 students, and provides career-focused, degree programs in technology areas.

"The business processes in all industries have some form of information component," Eaddles told panel members. "To ensure the nation remains competitive in the global economy, higher education institutions must respond to the increasing need for technology-literate workers in their program design."

Distance-learning programs can be designed around the specific needs of workers, retired baby boomers and disadvantaged or minority groups that are under-represented in the work force, he said.

While strongly supporting distance education, Ikenberry said educators are still learning how best to use it.

"There is still much to learn about student-learning outcomes, governance issues, intellectual property rights, economic feasibility and sustainability, quality, accountability and a host of other complex issues related to distance learning," he said.

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