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States Look to Share Online Courses for College Students

By guest blogger Matt Fleming

Representatives from 47 states met recently to discuss plans to establish an agreement that would streamline the process of universities offering distance learning across state lines, an idea that could have implications for K-12 virtual education.

The State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement would be based on voluntary participation of states and higher education institutions. But it is expected to be widely adopted, given the broad participation in developing it, predicted the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, which led the effort to establish the multi-state agreements.

The commission, the idea of which was spearheaded by many people, including Paul Lingenfelter of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, Peter McPherson of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, is aimed at finding a way to easily navigate the wide variety of state laws and regulations governing distance learning.

Currently, colleges and universities that offer online courses are typically required to comply with the regulations governing distance education in their states, and to pay fees for offering those classes. If those institutions want to offer online courses to students out of state, they must then comply with that state's regulations and pay its costs.

That can mean that offering online courses across states becomes cumbersome and costly.

"I think what we've got now is a multi-colored checkerboard of education," Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, told Education Week. "To have some baseline of regulation, agreed to by every state, will add efficiency and will facilitate what is now a nationwide activity."

It's likely some lessons from the multi-state reciprocity system will emerge for K-12 systems, particularly as states implement the Common Core State Standards and their related online assessments. For instance, K-12 virtual education advocates have said the widespread adoption of the common core could make it easier for more sharing of online courses among states.

But Russ Poulin, the deputy director of research and analysis for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Cooperative for Educational Technologies, says that implementing a reciprocity agreement in K-12 would require finding consensus among a diverse array of decisionmakers and interest groups across states, who may have competing interests.

Higher education and K-12 education are fundamentally different in their operations and this would create many more hurdles for schools and districts sharing online resources across states, Poulin said. He cited a number of potential barriers to creating a similar system in K-12:

• Licensing of teachers: There are some examples of reciprocity, but most states don't participate in any sort of reciprocal agreement;

• Many K-12 decisions about curriculum and online learning would be made at the local level, by individual school districts, which must also adhere to state policies, while higher education institutions have considerably more freedom to make most of their own decisions;

• There could be political issues, particularly with unions, if there are existing agreements for who can and cannot teach in schools, and those rules are circumvented by out-of-state teachers of distance education courses; and

"It doesn't mean it's impossible," said Poulin. "There are just lots of barriers."

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