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About the Observatory

The Observatory was launched to serve as a vehicle to help inform University of Massachusetts faculty, staff and students about what is happening in online learning. The topics we “observe” will be identified, investigated, and presented by participants in the community.  Although started at UMass, The Observatory is open to sector-wide participation. The Observatory is open to a number of methods for informing and improving practice through developing and sharing better understandings of trends and policies.

UMassOnline is seen within its community as having expertise in distance and online education. We provide a host of services that help the University of Massachusetts and the UMass Campuses provide high quality educational programming and support. Like other similar organizations we are the only formal entity throughout the University whose exclusive focus is on Online learning. As is frequently the case, this means that the Campuses have their attention on many other aspects of the University (i.e. town-gown relationships, athletics, grounds keeping, security, management of physical plant, etc.) and may miss events, trends, and topics that are important to their online learning activities, or they may not necessarily see how it impacts online learning, distance education, adult education, etc. The Observatory represents a vehicle to deliver a suite of information services and a forum for discussion and exploration.

Why Would We take Leadership in Starting the Observatory?

  • Delivering important information to UMass Campuses: You can see the "Back Story" section above, but I bet that most Universities would have the same back story and needs.
  • Enhancing opportunities for engagement in important practical issues: Providing a forum for individuals to investigate, write about, and dialogue on important issues impacting parts of the sector. 
  • Community formation: As there are many issues that extend beyond institutional walls the Observatory should be a catalyst for cross campus, institution, sector, and other divisions community formation.
  • Enhancing understanding of pertinent issues and their relationships in a high access low barrier environment: If a number of issues and trends are discussed and some in depth understanding is developed, there is a good chance that the interconnections between issues, and trends will be connected. This will help all of us develop a better understanding or what is happening and make better decisions about what we do. It will also support a more interdisciplinary community adding variety to the environment and perhaps more sophistication.

The Observatory's Primary Purpose is to...

The Observatory's primary purpose is to help inform higher education practitioners on important events, trends, and policies in online learning that may impact practitioners and organizations that practice online learning. In doing so, the Observatory will support decision making.

Current Activities and Services

Policy and Practice

Higher Education Act, State Authorization Revisions

During the past few months UMassOnline started engaging with state agencies, UMass campuses, and the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education to address/prepare for the Higher Education Act (HEA) revisions that impact state authorization for serving online learners in states other than Massachusetts. All of the assets created and resources collected are openly available for public use.

The resources included here are based on inquiries to 50 states and US territories. We have received feedback from 47 states and at least one territory. We have been managing the process through an open space here in the Observatory on Policy and Practice in Online Learning. The next phase of the process is to acquire information from campuses about their online activities in other states and territories. We have structured a survey that has been forwarded to each of our campus contacts to gather the information needed to determine next steps for us in each state. Although the US Department of Education has set a compliance deadline of July 1, 2014, the deadline of July 1, 2011 still stands for showing documented evidence of pursuing state authorization in "good faith." It may be important to note that individual states are not obliged to recognize any deadline and may require authorization immediately.


Speakers Series

The Speakers Series is one of the outreach efforts hosted by the Observatory on Policy and Practice in Online Learning. The intent of the Speakers Series is to contribute to the development of a broad community of people and organizations who are interested in distance and online education. The series provides a low barrier forum for discussion, generate open resources, and serve to catalyze a learning community.

The Speakers Series is free and open access. If you have interest in participating in the series, helping out, or have a recommendation for a potential speaker, please feel free to provide a comment on this page and we can work together. Although the presentations to date have occurred in a face-to-face forum, we anticipate expanding the series to include other channels. If you are interested in learning more about the Speakers Series, please click through the “Speakers Series” link above and while there, please feel free to register to be on the Speakers Series mailing list to stay up to date on activities.

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