Good Intentions, Bad Legislation

When it comes to innovation, the TEACH Act will hurt students, write Terry W. Hartle and Jarret S. Cummings.

September 16, 2014

Amid great anticipation, Apple last week rolled out its latest products. All the fanfare and breathless media coverage serves to underscore the excitement innovative technologies generate across our society. This is especially true for higher education. Few other industries integrate technology so thoroughly into their work.

That is why higher education leaders are so concerned about legislation that would take decision-making about the use of technology to support learning out of the hands of campuses and turn it over to an obscure federal agency.

The TEACH (Technology, Equality and Accessibility in College and Higher Education) Act comes from the best of intentions. Its sponsors hope to improve how campuses meet the needs of students with disabilities, and to help give guidance to institutions struggling to reconcile their responsibilities to those students with the relentless pace of technological innovation. These are goals campuses strongly support.

As is so often the case in Washington, though, the devil is in the details. Our organizations, along with 19 other higher education groups representing nearly every American college and university, have serious concerns about what the TEACH Act would mean for higher education’s ability to use technology to advance learning.

In short, the legislation would actually prevent us from using new technology to better serve our students, including students with disabilities.

We shared these concerns with the advocacy group that favors this legislation, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), over a year and a half ago. Some supporters of the bill have wrongly implied that our opposition stems from something other than a desire for the best policy outcome for all students, including those with disabilities. This is not true. Nor do such assertions help students, or advance good policy.

Let us be very clear: we believe the federal government can play a valuable role in improving accessibility without inhibiting the use of technology to improve learning for all students. But that is not what the TEACH Act would do.

Rather than simply providing helpful, voluntary guidelines, the TEACH Act would effectively require colleges to only use technologies that meet guidelines created by a federal agency, or risk being sued.

This agency (the Access Board) has never directly addressed higher education technology issues before, and how it would tackle the incredible diversity of digital instructional materials and related technologies that campuses employ (everything from e-text books to dynamic weather simulators) is far from clear.

The key problem with this approach is that while technological innovations are being made every day, federal agencies do not move nearly that fast. The TEACH Act would require the federal guidelines to be updated every three years — a very long time in the technology world — and that’s the best-case scenario.

The reality is that the Access Board’s pace is far slower. The agency’s current technology guidelines for the federal government were last promulgated in 2000; it has been in the process of trying to “refresh” those guidelines for close to a decade.

What’s more, the TEACH Act would deny colleges and universities the flexibility provided in current law to meet students’ needs when full technological solutions are not yet available.

The bill would apply a new, extremely rigid standard for accessibility exclusively to colleges and universities that is distinct from the standard the nation as a whole, including the federal government, has long followed. Such an inflexible approach would limit, not enhance, our ability to serve persons with disabilities. 

With this in mind, could the process proposed in the TEACH Act even work? Or, as is more likely, would colleges and universities find themselves restricted to using technology that is years (or decades) behind the times, with no flexibility to adapt and better serve their students, including those with disabilities?

The bottom line: the bill as currently drafted would unambiguously inhibit the development and adoption of new learning technologies that would directly benefit students.

Colleges and universities lead the way in designing and developing accessible technologies, filling a vital gap where the private sector — including many publishers of textbooks and learning materials — has been largely unresponsive.

It is hard to imagine the impact on learning if colleges and universities are forced to wait years for the federal government to catch up with technology. 

We take our responsibilities to our students seriously, and part of that commitment is keeping pace with technology. Doing so can pose challenges for campuses trying to balance the possible benefits of emerging technologies with our responsibilities to our students.

But freezing the development and implementation of new learning technologies, as the TEACH Act would do, has serious consequences. Rather than helping students with disabilities, putting such a policy into law would ensure that all students are left behind as technology advances. We remain committed to finding an approach that will truly improve learning for everyone, and we hope others will join us.


Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of government and public affairs of the American Council on Education. Jarret S. Cummings is director of policy and external relations of EDUCAUSE.

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