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The U.S. Department of Education has released its final rule on distance learning, which it said would modernize regulations.

“The Department’s regulations regarding distance learning had not kept pace with advances in technology and they created tremendous uncertainty for institutions about what kinds of innovations were permissible, including innovations in team-approaches to instruction,” said a fact sheet about the rule, which will not go into effect until July 1, 2021.

The product of months of negotiations by a panel of experts, the final rule would among other things allow more flexibility to “emphasize demonstration of learning rather than seat time when measuring student outcomes,” the fact sheet said.

It was praised by Steve Gunderson, president of the for-profit college industry group Career Education Colleges and Universities. "This is a huge victory for veterans and others who have learned career skills during an earlier period of their life and now want to convert such knowledge into a recognized credential," he said.

While the department in March granted temporary waivers to give colleges more regulatory flexibility as they were forced by the pandemic to move classes online, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the new rule goes further.

“While we moved quickly at the start of the pandemic to provide temporary distance learning flexibilities for students, these new regulations provide a permanent upgrade to online and competency-based education,” DeVos said in a news release. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a video call is not enough, and our outdated rules did not comport with 21st-century realities. These regulations are a true ‘rethink’ of what is possible for students so that they can learn in the ways and places that work best for them.”

For instance, the rule allows for more asynchronous online delivery of courses, or portions of courses, in traditional “clock-hour” hands-on programs.

However, some experts, including Clare McCann, New America’s deputy director for federal higher education policy, raised concerns. “Picture a student in a phlebotomy program, gaining their instruction entirely online and without even learning it directly from a teacher but rather from a YouTube-like video they're watching. Is that the person you want drawing your blood?”

The biggest change is clarifying the term "regular and substantive" in the nation's main higher education law, said James Murphy, senior policy analyst with Education Reform Now. The federal Higher Education Act requires online programs receiving federal financial aid to include “regular and substantive interaction” between the instructor and students, but it doesn’t define the term, confusing institutions that want to create online programs

The new rule defines the interaction as meeting the standard if it satisfies at least two of five conditions: providing direct instruction; assessing or providing feedback on a student’s course work; providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency; facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or other instructional activities approved by the institution’s or program’s accrediting agency.

But Murphy worries the definition is a “pretty low bar.” The last requirement “leaves it up to the institution or agency to determine whether an activity is substantive,” he said. “Making room for innovation in distance learning is important, which is what this criterion is intended to do, but it should not also open the door to abuse.”