On December 7, 2016 West Chester University (WCU) became a participant in the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA). If you are an out-of-state online student, this is most likely very good news for you, as SARA allows WCU to offer online programs to students in 48 different states/districts.

A Little Background

Back in 2010, the United States Department of Education tried to pass a regulation that would require institutions to be authorized to operate in any state that students resided, in order to offer federal financial aid. The regulation was canned by a federal court ruling in 2011. Although the federal regulation is unenforceable, institutions must still adhere to state regulations.

The Problem

Each state has its own set of regulations, and not all states regulate the same activities. Common activities that are regulated include:

  • Advertising and recruiting that is targeted to residents outside of the institution’s home state.
  • Internships, Clinical Placements, and Field Experience taking place outside of the institution’s home state.
  • Offering online programs to residents outside of the institution’s home state.
  • Faculty, or staff, working for the university outside of the institution’s home state.

Trying to track regulations state-by-state created a TON of work for institutions. With that in mind, plus the burden of cost associated with obtaining state authorizations, it was clear that a better solution was needed. This is how SARA was born.

What exactly IS SARA?

SARA is an agreement among member states, districts and territories which establishes a uniform set of guidelines and regulations to adhere to. It is intended to make it easier for students to take online courses offered by out-of-state institutions, and it is one-hundred percent voluntary for states AND institutions to join SARA.

The map below shows WCU’s status with State Authorization. The green states are SARA states, which means that WCU can conduct activities in the state so long as they are within SARA regulations. The yellow states are not yet part of SARA, however WCU is currently exempted from obtaining authorization in those states. The red territory is not yet part of SARA, and WCU has not sought out authorization to conduct activities there.


What is, and is not, covered by SARA?

Any activity conducted in a SARA state that DOES NOT trigger a physical presence is covered by SARA. SARA’s Physical Presence Standard can be found here. The most important things to know are that WCU can offer online programs to out-of-state students, advertise to out-of-state students, operate limited field experiences, and have faculty/academic personnel residing in SARA States.

While SARA does alleviate a lot of the work that goes into tracking state authorizations, it does not cover programs that lead to a professional license. We state on our website that if you are considering an academic program that leads to a professional license in your state, you should first seek guidance from the appropriate licensing agency in your home state BEFORE beginning the academic program located outside of your state.

Hands on Science Labs for Online Students- We can do that!

“How do you provide an authentic laboratory experience for science students in online education?” the associate dean asked me during our new staff orientation.  Knowing that this was a very common question posed by science faculty, I paused for a moment before mentioning the only answer I knew at the time, that there were a number of computer programs and websites available that would simulate various science laboratory experiments. The associate dean listened politely then said, “Those do have some value, but it still isn’t the same as a real lab experience.”  Recognizing that the dean was right and not knowing any better, I let the point drop and we moved on to other topics.

Fast-forward a year later and now I would say the associate dean is only partially right.  Here is why. For introductory online science courses there are options to use:

  1. Home kitchen labs which make use of everyday materials found in your kitchen to conduct simple experiments that still provide the hands-on experience.  These experiments are limited to what students can find in a kitchen and must remain relatively safe to conduct in a home setting.
  2. Commercial lab kits which can be sent directly to a student and contain everything students need to safely conduct a number of laboratory experiments just as they might in a regular face-to-face on campus lab course.  These kits offer the ability to do more than kitchen labs, but are still limited to experiments that can be done safely in a home setting.
  3. Remote controlled robot based labs where students from off-site control robots which manipulate the experiment materials in an on-site laboratory.  This type of lab allows students to participate in slightly more complex and hazardous experiments without needing to be on campus. This type of remote lab costs more then the other two options and can sometimes require additional training in how to use the robots.

If you were paying attention, you may have noticed what I described is for introductory science courses.  At this time, there are not yet great solutions available for the more complex and advanced scientific experiments conducted in upper level laboratory courses.  Virtual reality tools hold some promise to eventually be a possible solution; however, they need to become more affordable and realistic before they will be a viable solution.

So where does this leave us?  If you are a science faculty who is interested in developing an online science course, but has been stuck on the laboratory component, come talk to us here in the Office of Distance Education.  As this article has demonstrated, there are solutions available.  We are eager to work with you to find the right mix of laboratory options among those listed here and other possibilities to develop an online laboratory course that does provide an authentic laboratory experience for science students.



Three Alternatives to PowerPoint

Whether you’re preparing for your next lecture, or presenting your most recent assignment to your classmates, there is a good chance that you are going to to want to prepare a slideshow. PowerPoint has become a staple in presentation software, and it’s not hard to see why. The program is fairly easy to use, widely available, and has enough tools to make your presentation as simple or complex as you please. There is no doubt that PowerPoint will get the job done, however using the same software over and over again can grow boring. Here are three alternatives to PowerPoint that you can consider the next time you need put together a presentation:



  1. Prezi

Prezi is a webtool that can be used to create dynamic presentations. I like to think of it more as a journey than a slideshow. You create a “big picture” which serves as the first “slide”. This gives the audience a sneak peek of what the presentation will be about, and the progression it will take. You can then zoom into certain spots of the picture to highlight key points. Unlike a traditional slideshow, you can choose to make the presentation linear, circular, or something entirely different. Prezi provides a host of pre-made templates, or you can start with a blank canvas and create something new. Prezis can be shared with other people by providing them with a link. You can also embed Prezi presentations directly into a webpage, blog post, or discussion board. Basic features of Prezi are free, but users have access to more with a monthly subscription. Check out the video (created by the Prezi Team) below to learn the basics of Prezi.



  1. Google Slides

Google Slides is a web-based application available through Google Drive. Although Google Slides has a very similar setup to PowerPoint, I like the fact that it is integrated to Google Drive (Check out this post where I talk about some of the things I like about Google Drive). You can create slideshows utilizing most of the same features found in PowerPoint, and Google Drive makes collaborating and sharing a cinch. Working on a group presentation? You can give editing power to members of your group. Presentations can be shared by providing the audience with a link, or you can embed the presentation in an online medium of your choosing. The Google Slides app can be installed on your computer, tablet, or smartphone for free, making it easy for you to edit on the go. Learn how to get started with Google Slides here.



  1. Haiku Deck

Haiku Deck provides you the essentials needed to create a sleek and simple slideshow. Have you ever sat through a presentation where the presenter just reads a bunch of words verbatim off of their slides? Annoying, right? Haiku Deck discourages their users from doing this by providing layout options that work best with clear, succinct points. One resource available in this tool, which I really enjoy, is access to a library of royalty-free photos that you can incorporate in your presentation. It takes away the hassle of scouring the web for images. Haiku Deck also allows users to create graphs and charts with ease. Like Prezi and Google Slides, Haiku Deck presentations can be shared by providing your audience with a link, or they can be embedded to your blog, course, website, etc. Users can create three presentations for free, or an unlimited number of presentations for a monthly fee. Explore the Haiku Deck Gallery here.


Fostering Engagement with Social Media


Social media has a lot going for it as an educational tool: nearly everyone has some type of social media account, it’s easy to create an account if you don’t have one, social media makes it easy for people to connect, collaborate, and share, and social media platforms are optimized for mobile devices. In short, social media makes it easy for people to engage.  Faculty want to engage their students; students want to be engaged. Social media inherently engages. So how can you harness the power of social media to foster engagement in your course? Let’s look to Facebook and Twitter for examples.


The groups feature in Facebook is an excellent tool for connecting faculty and students. Groups can be public, private, or secret depending on the privacy level desired. The groups feature allows for file sharing, polls, as well as the commenting and reaction features that we all know and love. Examples include an instructor making a group for the class to ask questions and connect with each other, share thoughts, applicable articles,

twitter feed
WCU Online Twitter feed embedded on a WCU D2L homepage

and news events. Students can make groups to collaborate for group projects or connect over similar interests.



How much can you accomplish in 140 characters? A lot. Establishing a course hashtag by combining the course code and section number (e.g. #PHI12502) is a quick and easy way for faculty and students to start connecting over course topics. Liking and re-tweeting people and organizations in the field being studied can connect students to important names and current research. Faculty at West Chester University can even embed their personal twitter feed or a hashtag based feed as a widget on their course homepage.

These are just a few ideas for using social media in your class but the options are endless. I’ve heard of using Pinterest and Instagram for scavenger hunts and Snapchat for storytelling.

Have you used social media in your course? Tell us about it in the comments!

Want to try using social media in your course but you’re not sure how to get started? Contact us! We’d love to help.



UDL and Technology

According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.

UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.

It is important when designing your curriculum that you meet the needs of all learners, whether you are using technology or not. However, technology is a power tool that has enabled UDL to be a lot easier. You should note that these technologies should not be the only way to implement UDL principles into your curricula.

Effective uses of technologies can play an important role within the instructional outcome. It is important that you successfully use these technologies because some technology can have the same accessibility issues as using a method without technology.

In conclusion, technology is not the same as UDL, but it does play a valuable role in assisting with curriculum design and its implementation and conceptualization.

Getting the Soil Right

How does a faculty member benefit from working with an instructional designer?

Working with an instructional designer gives you access to a vast array of distance education knowledge and expertise.  In a typical month a designer will work with an average of 20 faculty across the University,

  • seeing the activities they use,
  • the tools they incorporate,
  • the challenges they face,
  • and the solutions we develop.

If you work with an instructional designer, you gain easy access to the expertise and knowledge of all of those individuals.  You also gain access to the knowledge and expertise that instructional designers acquire when they attend learning events, like the 2016 D2L Fusion conference, which I just attended this past week.

In the spirit of connection and information sharing, I tried to encapsulate the value of this experience for you, the reader of this blog.  At first I took the analytical approach:

  • 1 moose selfie
  • 2 days of conference
  • 4 general sessions attended
  • 9 breakout sessions attended
  • 100 tweets (yes I counted my #d2lfusion hashtag tweets)
  • 1000 + attendees to interact with
  • way too much coffee

But numbers really don’t do the conference justice.  Next, I considered some of the questions raised and answered through the breakout sessions.

Why online education?

As Jon Becker (@jonbecker) said during his presentation on Connected Learning, “Because the internet is awesome.”  While true, he went further arguing that it enables Connected Learning with the instructional and design benefits like renewable assignments and the ability to cultivate wonder in students.

Why should I care about Universal Design in Learning (UDL)?

Because as Tom Tobin (@ThomasJTobin) said, “UDL is access no matter what the circumstances.”  He encouraged faculty to think about +1.  Add just one more way for the students to access the information or be engaged or demonstrate their understanding.

Why use gamification principles?

Because when done right, it can inspire enjoyment, engagement, and experimentation through the creation of challenge, choices, and consequences.  (Gamification presenters enjoyed their alliteration.)  Said another way, gamified courses create feedback loops where students get to keep trying to overcome learning challenges, receiving feedback each time they fail, until finally they reach mastery and succeed.

Yet questions didn’t capture the value of the conference either.  Finally, I considered the conferences broadest themes.

D2L used the theme “We Love the Way You Teach,” during the conference, but I prefer the message delivered from the two keynote speakers, Sir Ken Robinson and Angela Maiers.  While they each took a different tact, the core of both messages was the same.   Ken and Angela believe that every life matters.  That each person has unique gifts and talents that deserve to be in this world. That the role of an educator, of a teacher, is to help students recognize their value and bring it out into the world.

As Sir Ken Robinson was articulating his idea of human worth he argued that we need to change our educational system from one that is industrialized, focused on output and yield to one that is organic, that celebrates diversity and encourages mutual support and protection.  As he discussed his idea of organic education, he made an analogy to organic farming saying, “If you get the soil right, the plant will be fine.  It will flourish.” For some reason, that idea of “getting the soil right” stuck with me.

As educators, how do we get the “soil” right, so our students will flourish?  What makes up the “soil” in education?  Is that “soil” different in an online educational environment?

I don’t have easy answers to those questions, but I do know that we here at the Office of Distance Education are committed to getting the “soil” right when it comes to distance education. I also know that getting the soil right is impossible without you, the faculty.    We need you.  You matter to us.  So connect with us and benefit from easy access to expertise.

We make better “soil” together.

Five Reasons to Use Google Drive as a Student

You may be familiar with Dropbox or iCloud, but as far as cloud storage goes, Google Drive is by far my favorite provider. Here are five reasons why:

  1. You can create documents right from the drive.

Google Drive is equipped with applications that allow users to create documents directly inside the drive. A few examples of the applications available include Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides. Many cloud services require you to create a document using software on your computer before uploading it to the cloud. Google Drive cuts out this extra step. Additionally, if you prefer to create documents using something like MicrosoftGoogleDrive Word or Excel, you have the option to save those documents directly to the drive. All you need to do is install the Google Drive App onto your device. This will create a Google Drive folder on your device, which will automatically sync up with the online version of Google Drive. Any documents that you save into the folder will be automatically sent to the cloud, and any changes that you make to those documents in the folder will be automatically updated in Google Drive.

  1. You can access your files from anywhere.

You might prefer to create your documents using a desktop computer, but use a tablet when you’re on the go. If your files are stored in Google Drive you can transition between devices seamlessly, as it’s available on multiple platforms. This takes the worry out of losing another flash drive or not being able to find that one email that has information you need out of the thousands you receive.

  1. It’s attached to your other Google accounts.

You probably already have a YouTube or Gmail account, which means you already have access to Google Drive. Why not use what you already have? Additionally, if you use Gmail you have the option to save things directly from your email to Google Drive. Your days of hunting through countless email to find the document that your classmate sent you to contribute to your group project are over!

  1. It’s great for collaboration.

Group projects can be daunting if you do not have the correct tools at your disposal, and this is especially true in an online setting. Sending the same PowerPoint presentation back and forth with your groupmates dozens of times can clog up your inbox and cause confusion. Google Drive allows you to share documents with other people and facilitates collaboration. You can create your presentation right in the Drive, and then give editing power to people in your group. It will even show you which part each person contributes or makes changes to. This will allow you to keep your project in one place, and reduce the clutter of your inbox.

  1. It’s FREE!!!!

College is expensive. Between tuition, books, and other day-to-day expenses, having to pay for a service can make or break your decision to use it. Luckily, Google Drive provides users with up to 15GB of storage space for FREE!! If 15GB isn’t enough space for you, there is also an option to upgrade to 100GB for the low cost of $1.99 per month. That’s less expensive than getting one latte at Starbucks!