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States Reconsidering Online Learning Regulations

State regulations that have been established to ensure that consumers are not taken advantage of are being revisited as online learning expands and becomes more prevalent.

Minnesota’s regulations recently brought the issue to the forefront when they informed Coursera that the Massive Open Online Course provider could not deliver courses to state residents.

The regulations allow states to quickly and easily investigate student allegations related to unqualified instructors and similar issues. It also allows the state oversight of administrative issues, such as whether institutions are financially viable.

“We know they’re in the state, we know they’re operating in the state, and we have some control so to speak over them if they do something that upsets a student or that is wrong,” George Roedler, manager of institutional registration and licensing in the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, told the Center for Digital Education’s Tanya Roscoria.

The state of Minnesota’s issue was not with Coursera itself, being a course-delivery mechanism. The state wanted all of Coursera’s partner universities, who were creating the course materials, to register in the state of Minnesota as distance education providers.

Of course, distance education regulation compliance is not as simple as filling out a form that can be sent to any state; each state has different requirements and fees and universities that universities and colleges must navigate in order to be allowed to deliver online programming.

However, the days of disparate, state-specific online learning regulations seem to be coming to an end. In August, a team of nine leads from state higher education offices, online universities and legislatures developed a working draft of a State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement that could standardize the regulation process.

In effect, the SARA would require colleges and universities to register in the state where their organization physically exists, and after going through that process and paying the necessary fees, institutions would have the capacity to serve students in all the states that adopt the agreement.

“What it would do is it would save schools money, would make things easier for them, would open up access to the students to more schools potentially if they all wanted to participate,” Roedler said. “From the state standpoint, it would mean other states would have less to do regulation-wise.”

The drafting team of the SARA expect the final version of the agreement to be completed by the end of this year and move it through the Legislature in 2013.