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Regulating Distance Education

Regulating Distance Education
 

I’m about to issue some modest new rules about distance education at Mason. I’m always uncomfortable with additional bureaucratic moves, so I take this opportunity to explain a bit. Also, the issues are interesting, and somewhat unexpected.

We’re working hard to expand distance offerings. We’ve added a lot of courses, mainly at the Masters level and in undergraduate general ed, and some whole programs, and the process will continue. For the most part what we’ve added has won solid enrollment. We’re careful about planning and testing the courses, and we pay attention to assessment at every step. New programs like the Bachelor of Applied Science, aimed at certain kinds of community college grads, look like they’ll be really useful. I’m modestly pleased with a small initiative, the Mason Global Passport program, that will offer a suite of three global courses to undergraduates internationally. And the list of what’s happened and what’s in the works can easily be expanded.

In the process we’ve developed increased technical capacity, thanks to important collaborations from the IT side, and have an increasingly competent faculty in the distance arena.

But here’s the problem, or at least one of the problems, that occasions my regulatory itch. It turns out that some faculty, probably not many, are de facto converting courses to a largely distance mode on their own, sometimes without telling anyone including, sometimes, their potential student audience. We’ve had students complain that they signed up for a course, thinking it was going to operate in standard mode, only to discover once they came to the first session that there would be only three classroom meetings the whole semester.

This, I regret to say, is unacceptable. Fairly soon my colleagues and I will be crafting a fatwa that any course with more than 25% distance delivery must be formally registered, with the relevant department and with my office, before it can operate. This is not intended to discourage innovation or experimentation. It is not intended to force all faculty to go through a single procedure to develop distance offerings.

But I think something like this rule is necessary for three reasons. First, and pretty obviously, a course that is substantially on line must be so described in the schedule of classes: students absolutely deserve to know what kind of class they’re taking. Since many clearly welcome some distance options, this should not discourage expansion of the genre.

Second, we must know about de facto distance options for sensible classroom use. We must be able to multiple-book classrooms for courses that intend only a few conventional meetings per semester.

And third, we must have some notion of distance options in order to assure appropriate assessment. I am fully on board with the finding that many distance courses are at least as effective, educationally, as conventional offerings, but we do need to gain experience in assessment, and that requires an accurate tally.

Again, regulation is not meant to discourage experimentation and various kinds of hybrid combinations. It is not intended to be onerous, and certainly we can adjust the details as we gain experience. But I think this is the right step in response to a somewhat unexpected problem.