PULLMAN – Muriel Oaks, dean of the WSU Center for Distance and Professional Education, will be part of a Washington D.C. panel developing proposed accreditation regulations under the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act.
 
“The committee will establish the rules that accreditors use to evaluate compliance of online programs,” Oaks said. “I serve on accrediting committees for other institutions, so I understand the importance of having rules that are easy to interpret and implement.”
 
The rules also cover such issues as operating procedures, due process and accreditation team members.
 
Oaks and other committee members will work on a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (NPRM). After the U.S. Department of Education develops proposed regulations, it is required to collaborate with those most affected by the changes. These representatives must come to consensus on the regulatory language which will be used in the NPRM. If they can’t agree, the department reconsiders the regulations. The NPRM is published in the Federal Register along with a request for public comments. The department considers those comments as well and then publishes the final regulations.
 
The agenda includes HEOA Section 495(1)(A), which requires that accrediting agencies ensure online education programs “have processes to establish” that the student who registers is the same student who completes the course.
 
In July 2008, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggested the provision would require “Orwellian” invasions into students’ privacy, including fingerprint readers, Web cameras and keystroke analyzers.
 
However, that interpretation was rebutted in October 2008 by Steve Worona, director of policy and networking programs for Educause, a nonprofit education association that promotes information technology. He cited the HEOA Conference Report, an explanatory statement issued by House and Senate managers:
 
“The Conferees expect institutions that offer distance education to have security mechanisms in place, such as identification numbers or other pass code information required to be used each time the student participates in class time or coursework on-line. As new identification technologies are developed and become more sophisticated, less expensive and more mainstream, the Conferees anticipate that accrediting agencies or associations and institutions will consider their use in the future. The Conferees do not intend that institutions use or rely on any technology that interferes with the privacy of the student.”
 
WSU has long complied with the provision as interpreted by the conferees, Oaks said.
“We already use IDs and passwords,” she said. “While other institutions have instituted more stringent criteria, using technologies that entail significant cost to students and institutions, we aim to create rules that meet the legal criteria without creating an undue burden.”
 
The rules negotiation committee will hold sessions in March, April and May. Each session is expected to last three days.