Although the changes to the Return to Title IV procedures introduced in the Distance Education and Innovation Final Rule published September 2, 2020 (Final Rule), received a great deal of attention, updated regulations related to distance education introduced in the same rule are just as substantial. This article addresses changes related to accreditation requirements for distance education, the newly introduced term “academic engagement,” requirements to measure the completion of clock hours via distance education, and requirements for monitoring a student’s engagement and success in distance education courses. With the exception of accreditation requirements for distance education which can be subject to a COVID-19 related waiver, the changes covered in this article became effective July 1, 2021.

Changes to Accreditation Requirements for Distance Education

The COVID-19 pandemic led to many institutions offering online courses for the first time, a large number of which plan to continue many of those online offerings once the pandemic has ebbed. Per the Federal Register published December 11, 2020, institutions are currently permitted to offer distance education without state authorization through the end of the payment period that begins after the date on which the federally-declared national emergency ends. In addition, the Department is allowing accreditors to waive their distance education review requirements for institutions offering online programs in response to the pandemic (although some accreditors are now requiring that institutions seek approval to continue offering distance education despite the continued waiver). While institutions are widely aware of this COVID-19 related flexibility, they may not be aware of changes to the regular process to gain approval to provide Title IV funds to students participating in distance education.

On January 19, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education (Department) published an Electronic Announcement that explained how the August 31, 2020, rescission of a 2006 Dear Colleague Letter (GEN-06-17) affected the accreditation requirements for Title IV eligibility for distance education programs and coursework. Prior to the rescission of GEN-06-17, an institution was required to seek accreditor approval only if one or more of the following applied: more than 50% of its courses were offered via distance education; more than 50% of its students enrolled in distance education; or more than 50% of an educational program was offered via distance education. Due to the rescission of this guidance, the Department has clarified that accreditor approval of distance education is required even if only one course is offered through distance education.

Institutions that are not currently approved by their accreditor to offer distance education and that plan to offer distance education after the end of the national emergency are encouraged to reach out to their accreditor immediately to begin the process to request approval.  Once approved by the accreditor for distance education, the institution needs to log into the E-App and update the answer to Question 31 to “yes.”  The accreditor must be recognized by the Department to accredit institutions offering programs via distance education.

Although currently covered by the COVID-19 related waivers, institutions are also encouraged to ensure they have secured state authorization to offer distance education.

Academic Engagement and the Definition of an Academic Year

In the Final Rule, the Department has redefined the previously used terms “academic attendance” and “attendance at an academically-related activity” by stating that they must include “academic engagement.”  The term academic engagement is now referenced in the R2T4 regulations, definition of a clock hour for distance education, and the definition of an academic year for distance education purposes.

Essentially, academic engagement is an expanded and modernized definition of the previous activities under academic attendance that emphasizes interaction between the instructor and students in both physical and virtual classrooms. It also newly incorporates taking an assessment, participating in an interactive webinar, and participating in a group project.

Consistent with the previous definitions, academic engagement does not include non-academic activities, or merely logging into an online class or tutorial.

The Final Rule also includes new language that addresses the definition of an academic year as it relates to asynchronous course offerings. Specifically, it provides an alternative way for an institution offering asynchronous courses to measure a “week of instructional time” in the academic year.  In order to count a week as a “week of instructional time” under this new option for asynchronous courses, instructors should be available to provide academic engagement and support and the institution should expect students enrolled in asynchronous courses to perform activities that demonstrate academic engagement during the week.

Monitoring Student Engagement and Interaction in Distance Education

The Final Rule contains several significant updates to requirements that distance education courses provide regular and substantive interaction between the instructor and the student. Institutions need to ensure that their distance education courses are meeting these requirements as any course that does not meet these requirements will be considered a correspondence course, which has important implications for institutional Title IV eligibility.

For the first time, the final rule defines the term instructor in a distance education course and allows that there may be more than one instructor in a course. The definition of instructor defers to accrediting agency requirements for qualified instructors.

To be considered a distance education course, as opposed to a correspondence course, the institution must be able to demonstrate that the instructor engaged in at least two forms of substantive interaction during the course or competency. Additionally, the institution must provide the opportunity for substantive interactions on a predictable and scheduled basis. The rule defers to institutions in defining predictable and scheduled but does state that those interactions should be commensurate with the length of the course and the amount of content in the course or the competency. Finally, the institution must demonstrate that the instructor is monitoring the student’s academic engagement and success and is proactively engaging with students who are not being successful and is available upon the student’s request.

The regulations mention several activities that would meet the standard of substantive interaction, including:

  • Direct instruction;
  • Assessing a student’s work or providing feedback;
  • Providing course content information or responding to course content questions;
  • Facilitating a group discussion about course content;
  • Other instructional activities that were approved by the institution’s or programs’ accreditors.

Although it is relatively easy to document that each synchronous course has at least two forms of substantive interaction and that those interactions are predictable and scheduled, meeting these requirements in asynchronous courses may be more challenging. Institutions are encouraged to determine if their Learning Management System (LMS) can be used to record engagement between students and instructors in their distance education courses (though not necessarily “attendance”), or if a supplementary measure is needed to collect such data. Institutions should also consider how these requirements should be incorporated into syllabi, academic policies, and instructor contracts to ensure adequate data collection and compliance.

Changes to Clock Hours and Distance Education

Under the Final Rule, to be considered a clock hour completed through distance education the student’s engagement in the course must be actively monitored for the entire 50-60 minute period. Students cannot complete clock hours based on logging into a course or based on the institution’s estimate of the length of time a student needs to complete an assignment. A student’s homework or preparation for a course meeting cannot be counted as a clock hour. Although clock hours can be earned asynchronously via distance education, the school must be able to capture all activity demonstrating the student’s academic activities through that timeframe.

Institutions that are offering clock hour programs via distance education are encouraged to review their procedures for determining completion of clock hours and to determine if their LMS data is adequate for capturing that a student is interacting or otherwise academically engaged for each clock hour completed or if a supplementary measure is needed to collect this data.

Institutions are also encouraged to review the Electronic Announcement published May 25, 2021 regarding clock to credit hour conversion formulas that were included in the Final Rule and apply to all non-degree undergraduate educational programs offered in credit hours.  (This would include degree programs of less than two academic years.)

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