CCC shares readiness guidelines in preparation for online course audits

By Jeanette Wright

Changes may be coming to Clackamas Community College’s online course offerings. In light of recent audits by the Department of Education (DOE,) CCC is re-evaluating the standards for its online classes; these changes could affect which classes are eligible for federal financial aid.

CCC hasn’t been audited for the past 17 years, and “Audits of this nature are done randomly in order to assure that institutions are in compliance with policies regulating the use of Federal Financial Aid (Title IV) funds,” CCC’s vice president of instruction and student services David Plotkin stated in an email to CCC faculty last month.

Online classes are organized into two categories: distance learning courses and correspondence courses. Both are online, but are different in distinct ways, mainly concerning the difference is in the interaction between the students and the teachers.

DOE guidelines state that distance learning courses are meant to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the teacher, but in correspondence courses, it is expected that interaction with the instructor is limited, irregular and not substantive, and usually initiated by the student.

Correspondence courses are not eligible for federal financial aid, and some distance learning courses may not be, according to the DOE’s office of Federal Student Aid website.

Findings from an audit could affect which CCC classes are accredited as correspondence courses, and which are distance learning courses. Any changes could potentially affect CCC students, in the ability to easily obtain federal financial aid.

CCC is working with faculty to make sure all of its online course offerings meet distance learning standards. Bill Waters, CCC’s dean of curriculum, planning and research, said he thinks CCC should be prepared whether or not there is an audit on the horizon.

“I think there are many reasons why somebody might not be meeting our expectations, whether it has to do with the possibility of an audit, or just the quality that we expect,” Waters said. “And in the vast majority of cases, I think, regardless of the reason for it, once we work with faculty to help them understand a better way to teach their classes, they’re usually all for making the improvements.”

High-quality class assessments have been carried out for the past few years, for all the programs and courses offered, but especially the distance learning courses, Waters said.

“This is really about offering [the students] a good educational experience that’s of value to [students], and so all audits aside, we still need to make sure we’re doing the right thing in the classroom and online,” Waters said.

In 2005, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) began to make distinctions between the two kinds of online classes. NWCCU policies regarding correspondence education and distance learning state that both types are taught through course materials and exams provided by the school. The texts and tests are provided in various formats such as mail, or electronic transmission, and the students are separated from the instructor.

In 2012, St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana underwent a similar audit, and the DOE concluded that its online classes did not meet distance learning standards and categorized them as correspondence courses. According to the audit released in 2012, that meant that the previous five years of federal financial aid provided to students, which came to about $42 million, should be refunded to the state.

The instructional support and professional development department at CCC constantly offers sessions and workshops to help faculty become better at their jobs. Many faculty take advantage of those sessions to continue to improve their teaching.

“The improvements impact students by making their online courses more interesting, by enriching those online courses with the kinds of information that a faculty member can bring to a discussion board, for example,” Waters said.

As for CCC students’ receptivity to online courses, student Lara Blanco said she took a statistics course online and was happy with how the class was taught, even though she never met the professor or other classmates.

“We had groups, and, like, forums, a lot, where we would comment back and forth and stuff like that, so I think that it was helpful to see other people’s perspectives,” she said.

Blanco added that the discussion forums were helpful even with the math course.

“I thought that it was really beneficial to help see that there’s not just one way of thinking, even with math,” Blanco said.

CCC student Jasmine Gloden took an online student success class and never met the teacher or other classmates during the three-week course. Gloden participated in discussion forums, though.

“It was just, like, learning more about other people; it wasn’t necessarily like, ‘oh, I didn’t know this before and now I can apply this to my own studies’,” Gloden said.

Students learn more when teachers use active learning techniques and provide a good learning environment, Waters said. He defined a learning environment as somewhere students are interacting with each other and with a faculty member. Regardless of whether the learning environment is online or in-person, instructors must provide challenging and interesting information from multiple sources and in multiple ways for students to consider and use.

Plotkin’s email to CCC’s faculty included guidelines that ensure classes are properly classified as either a distance learning or correspondence courses, Waters said.

“Dr. Plotkin sent that information out as a timely reminder of things that we already know about the teaching environment,” Waters said. “I’m not worried that we would fail an audit. We take what we do here very seriously, and I believe we do a good job with it. It never hurts for us to sort of ‘double down’ and take one more look at how we’re doing things.”

Whether or not an audit happens, CCC will continue to regularly assess its performance and course offerings as it strives to be accountable to both its students and the government.

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Jeanette Wright