ED issues final distance learning regs

U.S. Education Department (Photo: Matthew Dembicki)

The U.S. Education Department (ED) on Monday issued final rules that it says govern distance learning in higher education and promote educational innovation to better serve the needs of an increasingly diverse population of students.

While work on the Distance Learning and Innovation Regulation started more than a year ago, the COVID-19 national emergency underscores the need for students to have access to high-quality remote learning options, according to ED.

“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,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a press 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 “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a video call is not enough, and our outdated rules did not comport with 21st-century realities.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.”

According to the department, the final regulations:

  • Emphasize demonstrated learning over seat time.
  • Remove confusion over whether a course is eligible for Title IV aid by defining “regular and substantive” interaction between students and instructors.
  • Clarify and simplify the requirements for direct assessment programs, including how to determine equivalent credit hours.
  • Add a definition of “juvenile justice facility” to ensure that incarcerated students remain eligible for Pell grants.
  • Allow students enrolled in Title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA)-eligible foreign institutions to complete up to 25 percent of their programs at an eligible U.S. institution. “This provision is particularly important for students temporarily unable to attend courses abroad due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the department noted.
  • Encourage employer participation in developing educational programs.
  • Create a new, student-centric system for disbursing Title IV, HEA assistance to students in subscription-based programs.
  • Require prompt action by ED on applications to participate, or continue to participate, as an eligible institution in the HEA, Title IV program. In the past, these applications have been stalled for months or even years.
  • Allow clock hour programs, which often lead to state licensed occupations, to use innovative learning models.

The regulations will officially take effect July 1, 2021, but institutions can use the new flexibilities as soon as the regulation is officially published in the Federal Register, ED said.

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