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ORLANDO -- The U.S. Department of Education will "within days" seek input on how to relax regulations governing federal financial aid for initiatives experimenting with alternative forms of measuring student learning, including competency-based education.

To avoid a top-down approach, the department will solicit recommendations from people within higher education on responsible ways to flex its authority.

“This is your chance to tell the Department of Education of the federal government exactly how to improve the federal student loan and student aid system to maximize learning and student success,” Hal Plotkin, a senior policy adviser to Under Secretary of Education Martha J. Kanter, told attendees Wednesday night at the annual Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning.

The department will exercise its authority under the existing “experimental sites” program to give colleges and universities more leeway to experiment with new educational approaches in a less regulated environment.

Plotkin said the department “can waive substantial sections of existing regulations that govern access to Title IV financial aid” for programs -- both residential and online -- that base student progress on “demonstrated levels of mastery rather than the tick of a semester or quarter clock.” The department will formally announce the initiative in the coming days, he said.

“Competency-based stuff would fit under that umbrella, but we don’t want to dictate how people might approach it -- and maybe people will have ideas for us that are innovative but in a different area,” Plotkin said.

The idea to expand the experimental sites program is not a new one. The proposal has gained traction in Congress, where some members of the U.S. House of Representatives have seen it as a way to circumvent higher education’s slow rate of change, but it has also been highlighted by parties within academe as an avenue for President Obama to achieve his plan to tie federal financial aid to student outcomes. Proponents of competency-based education have also called for the federal government to use experimental sites to research the effects of alternative assessment.

Plotkin’s teaser capped an ode to online education delivered as the closing keynote to the first day of the Sloan-C conference.

“There come these moments in technology and human history and sociology and the rest when all the pieces are finally on the table,” Plotkin said. “And in the field of online learning, we now have so many of those pieces on the table that many of us now see an accelerated era of new possibilities that will change the world in the most profound ways.”

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