Negotiated Rulemaking Update on Distance Learning by Angelica Fisichella, MASFAA Government Relations Committee

During the third round of Neg Reg sessions, the focus was on distance education, with the distance learning committee providing a 100-page report to the full negotiated rulemaking committee. One of the changes in this report that could have an impact on financial aid was new criteria in determining “academic engagement”. The definition of “academic engagement” is particularly important to financial aid administrators when it comes to the return of Title IV funds and determining when a student has stopped attending a course.

The definition of “academic engagement” proposed by the subcommittee is similar to the definitions of “academic attendance” and “attendance at an academically-related activity” that is used in the current return of Title IV funds regulations; however, the new definition would better apply in terms of distance education. The subcommittee included several criteria for their proposed definition of “academic engagement” which included attending a synchronous class, physically or online with the opportunity for direct involvement; submitting an assignment; taking a test or exam; participating in a webinar or other computer-assisted instruction; participating in a study group or group project, or online discussions; and interacting with the instructor.

There was much discussion around the topic of “active participation”, what should be considered participating, and what it would mean for the student. Questions were raised such as, if a student is attending class but not actively engagements in discussions, should this student be penalized? There was so much time spent on these questions that it led to a separate debate about whether the definitions within distance education should be considered a subtopic of discussions, before getting the discussion back on track to the definitions themselves. Further debate focused on whether the definition for active engagement should including earning credentials, certificate, or other such recognitions.

Also up for the debate was the proposed definition for a clock hour, with negotiators questioning the use of the word “synchronous,” as some programs might require students to complete work away from the computer. The group also discussed the subcommittee’s decision to use the term “content expert” as opposed to faculty member in their proposed distance education definition, and it was explained that this term was used so that teaching assistants or others interacting with students would be included.

Some negotiators expressed frustration that the discussions during this session got off-track, and were concerned with too many topics being covered in one session. There will be time to continue these discussions, however, as a fourth (and final) NegReg session has been added for the first week in April.

MASFAA’s Government Relations Committee will continue to provide timely updates to the MASFAA membership as they become available.