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Pursuing Regulatory Compliance for Digital Instruction in Response to COVID-19: Policy Playbook

The spring 2020 term saw an unprecedented response to an unprecedented challenge as virtually every U.S. higher education institution offering face-to-face instruction rapidly switched to remote instruction, many in as little as one to two weeks.

Such a shift massively disrupted the lives of students, faculty, staff, and administrators alike as institutions worked to redesign courses and provide faculty with a crash course in teaching remotely. Institutions struggled to resolve challenges ranging from the technological to the pedagogical to the administrative. For faculty and academic administrators new to teaching online, this rapid shift was often overwhelming and disorienting as they tried to simultaneously master unfamiliar technology tools, federal and state regulations, online student support systems, and pedagogical approaches.

Institutions, especially those with little distance education infrastructure, focused their resources and efforts on meeting the pedagogical and technological challenges to the utmost extent possible as they sought to complete the term remotely. Addressing the complex web of federal, state, and accreditation regulations governing distance education was a secondary concern for many institutions, and even the schools knowledgeable of this regulatory landscape were hard pressed to keep up with the growing numbers of waivers and regulatory interpretations governing distance education issued by the Department of Education beginning on March 5, 2020.

Additionally, the rules change once faculty adopt teaching modalities that require more use of digital technologies. Moving into a digital format invokes new intellectual property and accessibility rules. Moving courses completely (or mostly) online introduces new requirements for instructional interaction and assuring a student’s identity for assessments. Faculty might not realize that making this transition is as if they have crossed an invisible state line and the laws have changed.

Regardless of whether institutions re-open for face-to-face instruction, navigating this regulatory landscape and educating faculty and staff on the importance of these regulations as a means of ensuring quality will be critical. Understanding and ensuring that institutions follow the associated regulations improves pedagogy, protects the institution from loss of financial aid eligibility and/or accreditation, and bolsters educational quality.

Institutions will not succeed at everything, but financial aid auditors and accrediting review teams always view not trying with greater disdain than they do when an institution tries and does not fully succeed. Regulatory compliance should be viewed as a journey that might never be completed as institutions respond to new regulatory changes.

By reading this Playbook and some of the cited resources, you will obtain a better understanding of the regulations. You will probably be able to identify the areas where you are doing well and where you are at risk. Each section provides links to actual regulations and Department guidance where available. Those documents, especially the Department guidance, can help you understand the issues and actions that need to be taken. Written for academic administrators new to online education, the Playbook can also be used to provide faculty with critical information on a range of distance education issues. Even administrators familiar with distance education may find this Playbook useful as a tool for educating the campus community and a handy compendium of regulations and resources.

Used in conjunction with Delivering High-Quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID-19: Faculty Playbook, instructors and administrators have an overview of the most critical pedagogical and regulatory concerns surrounding online education quality and student success.

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