Online education is one of the most highly regulated forms of education in the United States. The Office of Online Education provides leadership for the university in ensuring compliance with these laws and regulations and helps keep university faculty and staff informed of these requirements. In addition, the University Compliance Office maintains many helpful resources on its website, including summaries and links to trainings for various federal and state higher education compliance topics.
The following descriptions serve only as an introduction and focus just on those compliance areas which have special application for online and distance education. Federal law is emphasized in each description. However, as may be indicated below, there are often related state laws, accreditation requirements, and university policies that create additional requirements for compliance.
The consequences of noncompliance are very real. In addition to university fines and faculty or staff disciplinary action in certain cases, the following could be at stake:
- IU’s ability to award federal or state aid to students
- IU’s ability to best serve U.S. military members, veterans, and their families
- IU’s ability to deliver online courses and programs
- IU’s ability to have new courses and programs approved
There have been several recent examples of college and university online practices conflicting with compliance obligations:
- The U.S. Dep’t of Education’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) recommended that Western Governors University (WGU), which uses an unbundled faculty model for delivering online competency-based education, refund $713 million in federal financial aid after the IG found there to be an insufficient showing of regular and substantive interaction between instructors and students
- Article: Federal Audit Challenges Faculty Role at WGU
- Report: WGU Audit Report
- The IG recommended that St. Mary-of-the-Woods College refund $42 million in federal aid after the IG found there to be an insufficient showing of regular and substantive interaction between instructors and students in the college’s online course offerings
- The University of California, Berkeley removed online MOOCs after the Department of Justice found them to be inaccessible to students with disabilities
- Article: Berkeley Will Delete Online Content
- The Higher Learning Commission denied Scottsdale Community College’s approval request for 48 new online programs, citing concerns over a lack of standardization and oversight.
It’s important to note that monitoring for compliance is just the first step, and certainly not the last, in ensuring the quality of our online courses and programs.
Ensuring compliance and quality starts with our faculty.
A Quick Review of Key Online Education Regulations
Federal Student Aid and State Authorization
- IU must be authorized or exempt from seeking authorization in state where student is taking online courses for that student to be eligible for federal aid.
- IU must provide certain public and individual disclosures regarding state authorization, compliant procedures, licensure requirements, and adverse actions taken against the institution or programs.
- All IU campuses are members of SARA, a reciprocity agreement for state authorization that has its own policies and procedures that IU must comply with, including adherence to C-RAC guidelines for the evaluation of distance education.
- Learn more: IU Online State Authorization; NC SARA
Federal Student Aid Eligibility for Distance Education
- All online courses offered by IU campuses should meet the definition of “Distance Education,” 34 C.F.R. 600.2, to ensure individual campuses and programs do not lose Title IV student aid eligibility.
- Certificate programs comprised of “Correspondence Courses” cannot be paid for with federal student aid.
- If more than 50% of courses or students enrolled in courses are designated as “Correspondence,” the entire institution can lose Title IV eligibility.
- Having planned, instructor-initiated, regular-and-substantive interactions between instructors and all students will help ensure courses are considered “distance” rather than “correspondence.”
- Learn more: Information for Financial Aid Professionals (IFAP) Distance Education
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
- Course content must be “accessible,” such that a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use.
- Per IU policy, all IU webpages must comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, level AA, which includes captioning live and previously-recorded videos, providing alternative text on all images, and ensuring content is compatible with assistive technologies (in addition to several other standards).
- Learn more: IU Non-Discrimination Policies; WCAG 2.0 Introduction; Accessibility at IU
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
- FERPA prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of personally identifiable information contained in education records.
- In digital environments, personally identifiable information is particularly vulnerable to outside threats. However, security tools as well as information privacy and security training and resources are available through several IU offices, including IU’s Data Management Counsel and the Protect IU Initiative. Please also consider completing the online tutorial on data protection and privacy, available on IU Expand.
- Learn more: Family Policy Compliance Office; Office of Educational Technology
Military Service Members, Veterans, Military Family
- Under Presidential Executive Order 13607, active military service member, veteran, and family members of a current military service members or veterans are entitled to specific disclosures regarding cost, financial aid, typical borrowing practices, and institutional performance data. Each IU campus devotes staff and resources to aid service members, veterans, and military family.
- In addition to submitting a complaint through IU’s grievance procedures, students protected by this Executive Order may file complaints directly with Veteran Affairs or the Department of Defense. Complaints may be based on a variety of topics, including the cost of attendance, marketing practices, graduation rates, program quality, employment prospects, and course credit. IU Online describes a separate complaint process for service members, veterans, and military family.
- Learn more: Military One Source; “Principles of Excellence” Executive Order
Ways to Ensure Compliance
While the Office of Online Education is charged with providing leadership for the university’s online education compliance, ensuring compliance is a shared responsibility across many university units, campus administration, academic units, and individual faculty. We believe everyone plays a role in avoiding risk and liability. We offer several opportunities for university faculty and staff to learn about compliance issues, course design, and how to deliver coursework that meets the expectations and requirements of regulators and accreditors.
Secure and accessible technology is key to delivering digital education. UITS offers a suite of enterprise software provided to faculty and departments for low- or no-cost to support the delivery of online coursework. Faculty are strongly encouraged to use university-supported software for their classes. It is important for faculty and departments to understand the risks, liabilities, and costs they assume when incorporating non-approved technology into their classrooms.
For a list of the technology already supported and approved for use in online courses, please visit the UITS’s technology for instructor’s page . However, we understand that, to provide a world-class education, faculty may wish to incorporate technology that has yet to be reviewed for enterprise adoption and support. In these cases, we encourage you to reach out to eLearning Design and Services to explore potential solutions.
The online classroom presents opportunities and risks that face-to-face classrooms traditionally have not experienced. Because attendance and engagement is not obvious through a physical presence in a brick and mortar space, faculty and students can only be determined as present and active through regular, customized interactions that support the traditional content (lectures, exams, assignments, etc.). Thoughtful course design can support compliance through creating the spaces where faculty and students are drawn together for planned and sustained discussion, evolving debate and idea-sharing, and iterative individual and group feedback. Examples might include:
- Planned, regular instructor-initiated communication with individual students concerning course content through email, discussion forum, or other preferred medium
- Weekly instructor feedback tailored to a specific class’s performance on an assignment (as opposed to prepared feedback that could easily be delivered to any section of a particular course)
- Scaffolded assignments in which students have the opportunity to revise and resubmit assignments based on instructor’s feedback (which creates a space for student-faculty dialogue)
- Assignments in which students are expected to respond to contexts that are unique to their own experience and for which they receive instructor feedback customized to their output (e.g., Political Science students jointly create interview questions, then individually interview politicians in their own local area before comparing results with classmates in an effort to evaluate the impact of differing government behaviors, getting instructor input at each step)
Course design can also frustrate or foster accessibility. Allowing students some flexibility in how they will deliver evidence of their understanding, can decrease risk around accessibility. Allowing students to choose, for example, whether to submit a final paper or record a final talk or video presentation, allows students with differing needs to select the method that avoids any access barriers they may have due to a disability. In addition to reaching out to your Campus Center for Teaching and Learning to discuss accessibility strategies, we recommend viewing the Universal Design Learning (UDL) materials offered by the nonprofit education research and development organization CAST.
Addressing compliance concerns around engagement and accessibility generally leads to higher quality course design, including fewer student obstacles (technical or pedagogical), so it benefits the students, the university, and the instructor.
When in Doubt, Ask
What constitutes compliance in online education is constantly evolving. Even the information on this page may be a bit behind, and so it’s imperative that we stay in touch. If you have any questions regarding your courses or your academic programs, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Office of Online Education or your campus center for teaching and learning.