The Demise of the 50% Rule: Challenges and Opportunities

By Frank Tansey, Co-Editor

It didn’t take much, just a few paragraphs in the recently-passed federal budget bill, to eliminate the 50% rule. In case you don’t know, the 50% rule required colleges to deliver at least half of their courses in a classroom setting on a campus in order to qualify for federal financial aid programs. The 50% rule was designed as a response to diploma mills that provided little in the way of education as long as someone paid the bill. In many cases it was federal financial aid that footed the bill.

I can remember mentioning this issue in a 1998 keynote address at the AACRAO Technology Summit. At that time I noted that quality online content could drive changes in the 50% rule. In a number of conference discussions, I strongly urged that the accreditation process should play a major role in assuring that online courses were benchmarked against measurable standards of quality.

Now that the change has been enacted, I am left wondering whether quality content or effective lobbying is more responsible for such a significant change. There is no doubt in my mind that there are great examples of quality online learning to be found in colleges and universities. Since its inception, this newsletter has featured great case studies and thoughtful viewpoints illustrating the pursuit of quality.

Still, even with the explosion of online learning on campus, I am still struck with the fact that so many of our online courses are built around repurposed Word and PowerPoint documents. As my son Ryan indicated in an October 2004 viewpoint, “Most of my learning still depends on class attendance and class reading assignments.” We have made progress using class discussion boards and other collaboration tools, but the fact remains that, for many classes, seat time is essential to making the grade.

A March 1, 2006 New York Times article covering this change cited the influence of lobbyists in the elimination of the 50% regulation. Most of the lobbyists were associated with the for-profit institutions. Traditional institutions, even with rapidly growing online enrollments, were certainly not clamoring for such a change.

In this new entrepreneurial environment, colleges of all kinds have an opportunity to compete. Presently, we find traditional institutions relying on individual faculty to develop their courses. For-profit institutions generally follow a model of centrally-developed courses with faculty engaged to deliver the content as created. Falling somewhere in the middle are the course packs developed by the traditional publishers. Both types of institutions utilize course packs, but how the course pack is used may vary by institution type. None of the three course development models – the centrally developed model, the course-pack model, or the faculty-developed model – ensures quality, though all are capable of demonstrating the full potential of online courses.

I am left wondering what it will take to bring quality instructional design front-and-center in this newly competitive arena. Online education, despite its rapid growth, is as much a response to the demands for convenience as anything else. When coupled with student demands for ways to collaborate with their peers, it is infrastructure rather than instruction that is driving the growth of online education. Measurements of effectiveness are frequently based on small sample sizes, often citing outstanding examples rather than broad samplings of an institution’s offerings. The rescission of the 50% rule will make it difficult to keep the quality metric front-and-center. No institution will claim its online courses to be anything but the highest quality. In this new environment, will we advance online learning on the basis of ever-improving quality, or simply compete on the basis of the effective marketing of convenience to populations traditionally under-served by higher education?

In 1998, I was advocating for online education that could address a variety of learning styles. I was looking for courses that could adapt to a student’s needs when defined outcomes were not achieved . Online courses that could take advantage of well-conceived and executed shareable learning objects were cited as the future of online courses. I was looking for online content that could allow students to explore the best resources possible, guided by faculty who would design the learning experience and supplement these resources with their own resources, knowledge, and insights. Today I continue my search for these concepts broadly implemented in online courses.

Frank Tansey is the co-editor of this newsletter.

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