First Monday

Curtailing online education in the name of homeland security: The USA PATRIOT Act, SEVIS, and international students in the United States

Curtailing online education in the name of homeland security: The USA PATRIOT Act, SEVIS, and international students in the United States by Paul T. Jaeger and Gary Burnett

Online courses have become an important part of the academic offerings of many institutions of higher education in the United States. However, the homeland security laws and regulations enacted since September 2001, including the USA PATRIOT Act, have created serious limitations on the ability of international students studying in the United States to participate in online educational opportunities. Placing online education within the context of the mutually beneficial relationships between international students and the United States, this article examines the assumptions and the impacts of these regulations on the students and the institutions of higher education. This article explores the enrollment limitations in online courses for international students in terms of information policy and concepts of presence and identity in online environments, offering an examination of the implications of this issue for education and information in United States.


Introduction: The United States of America, immigrants, and visitors
International students in the United States
The USA PATRIOT Act and international students
Restrictions on the online education of international students
Identity and presence in online environments
Conclusion: The policy picture for education and information




Introduction: The United States of America, immigrants, and visitors

Whether one prefers to metaphorically conceive of the United States as a salad bowl or melting pot, its status as a nation comprised primarily of immigrants and their descendants is undeniable. As a diverse and fervently multicultural nation, the United States tends to celebrate its origins in "doughty wayfarers, the country they made, and the country they hoped to find" [1]. This diversity encourages both new immigrants and visitors to come to the United States every year. Almost 42 million people visited the United States in 2002, and the countries with the most visitors to the United States included Canada (13 million), Mexico (9.8 million), the United Kingdom (3.8 million), Japan (3.6 million), and Germany (1.2 million) (Hasson, 2003). Many people are drawn to the United States by its "protective power," "democratic ideas," and "lifestyle" [2]. The United States is host to the largest number, by a wide margin, of international scholars and students annually, with approximately half of the international students and scholars in the world being in the United States (Altbach, 2000). Visiting students and scholars are particularly important to colleges and universities in the United States.

Historically, the United States has been generous in allowing people from other nations to visit or to become residents (Gimpel and Edwards, 1999). However, this generosity has long been accompanied by a national debate over how to keep track of visitors to the United States (Otto, 2002). The events associated with the "war on terrorism" have only served to heighten the calls by some people, including by some members of the U.S. Congress, to severely restrict the entry of people from other nations into the United States (Treyster, 2003). If the U.S. Department of Justice has its way, all international visitors to the United States may soon have to provide biometric identification before being allowed to enter the country (Jones, 2003).

These sentiments were reflected in the text of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-56) and the strict restrictions that subsequent regulations place on international students and scholars. Many of the provisions in this Act ("USA PATRIOT Act") and the regulations resulting from it have very significant impacts on the lives of international students. Though students only make up two percent of visas issued, the new policies that have resulted from the USA PATRIOT Act require much more from international students than from any other visitors to the United States (Arnone, 2003a). Some of the provisions have sizeable ramifications for the actual educational programs of study for international students studying in the United States, including new limitations on the ability to enroll in online courses. The restrictions on taking online coursework are a particular problem for international students, who may have to take much longer to complete their degrees or who might be unable to complete degrees. Further, many schools in the United States may be unable to provide online education courses and programs if too many international students are prevented from enrolling in the programs, denying educational benefits to both international students and students from the United States.



International students in the United States

The presence of international students studying at American colleges and universities provides significant benefits to all parties involved. The United States attracts more international scholars and more international students to its institutions of higher education than any other nation (Nye, 2002). Large numbers of students who come to study in the United States are inspired by the open and democratic values that the nation is associated with (Vedrine, 2001). In many cases, students come to receive education in areas unavailable in their nations or to study at some of the leading programs in the world in their area of scholarship (Paden and Singer, 2003).

These students provide the colleges and universities with numerous benefits. Having international students and scholars studying in the United States contributes to a better understanding of, and regard for, the United States in other nations. "Foreign students and scholars, who constitute an exceptional reservoir of good will for our country, are perhaps our most undervalued foreign-policy asset" [3]. For example, "[m]ost of China’s leaders have a son or daughter educated in the United States who portray a realistic view of the United States that is often at odds with the caricatures in official Chinese propaganda" [4]. When international students return to their native lands, they bring back a better understanding of America and its ideals (Choi, 1995), which helps them "reinterpret their own culture and society" [5]. Current international leaders educated in the Untied States include U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan from Ghana, Kind Abdulah of Jordan, French President Jacques Chirac, and Mexican President Vicente Fox (Schultz, 2001).

International students and scholars bring diversity to campuses, provide contact with other cultures, fill perennially under-enrolled classes in the sciences that colleges might not otherwise be able to offer, and provide critical teaching and research, especially in the sciences (Johnson, 2003). International students and their families also provide an economic windfall to colleges and universities, contributing US$12 billion to the U.S. economy in 2002 (Johnson, 2003). The education of international students is even a method by which industrialized nations can help less developed nations (Christian, 2000).

The United States also can benefit when international students opt to remain in the United States when their education is complete. For example, 73 percent of students from the European Union who receive a Ph.D. in the fields of science and technology in the United States remain in the United States after completing their degrees (European Commission, 2003). As a result, the pool of researchers, academics, and scientists in the United States is substantially larger than it otherwise would be.

Overall, the international benefits the United States receives from the education of international students can be viewed as part of the United States’ strategic public diplomacy, which is the image that the nation wishes to convey about itself (Manheim, 1994). The USA PATRIOT Act and the related regulations, however, threaten this symbiotic relationship.



The USA PATRIOT Act and international students

The USA PATRIOT Act is hundreds of pages long and makes major alterations to scores of statutes and regulations. One of the multitude of areas addressed by the USA PATRIOT Act is international students studying in the United States. Prior to the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the early version of the system now known as the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) was legislated for, but not implemented by the federal government for nearly a decade (Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, 8 U.S.C. § 1372). "Technical delays, lack of financial support, political bickering, and institutional inertia at the INS and among colleges" prevented the early version of SEVIS from being implemented [6]. This inaction occurred despite the urging of the FBI Director, who described international students as a potential source of terrorists in 1994 (Treyster, 2003).

As a result of the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act and subsequent laws and regulations, SEVIS will monitor international students studying the United States (P.L. 107-56, § 416). Following the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, the expansive role for SEVIS was reinforced by the passage of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-173), which legislated the enhancement of SEVIS in line with the requirements of USA PATRIOT Act. The intent of the SEVIS program is to computerize the monitoring of students studying in the United States under three classes of visas, F, J, and M, which includes virtually every international student attending a college, university, professional school, or vocational school in the United States. Nearly 550,000 international students are affected by SEVIS (Otto, 2002). SEVIS is Internet-based, allowing schools to electronically file all the required information for students. The information collected by SEVIS includes name, address, enrollment, courses taken, degree program, field of study, and any disciplinary actions taken against the student. The duties of the Immigration and Naturalization Service have been folded into the new Department of Homeland Security, with SEVIS and the oversight of international students now being a function of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs, a law enforcement agency (Arnone, 2003b).

The regulations regarding the monitoring of international students that have been promulgated following the USA PATRIOT Act and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act create Byzantine requirements and restrictions for international students studying in the United States (see U.S. Department of Justice/Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2003). The requirements include very specific dictates on what information must be provided and when, how many course hours must be taken, and how those hours must be completed. These restrictions are a change in U.S. policy, as many universities previously treated international students as similar to out-of-state students (Altbach, 2000).

David Ward, President of the American Council on Education, noted that the new educational requirements from the USA PATRIOT Act and related regulations may permanently damage the United States’ reputation as the "destination of choice " for international students (Michael, 2003). Although the U.S. Department of State agreed in June 2003 to begin giving priority to students, professors, and researchers in visa interviews (Arnone, 2003c), these individuals will still face extensive questioning about their beliefs before they can have a chance to travel to the United States. Though stricter standards for any visitor to the United States to get a visa will affect many industries and areas of society (CNN, 2003a), institutions of higher education seem likely face significant impacts from the new policies. The National Association of Foreign Student Advisors estimates that 15-30 percent of international students who would have come to the United States will choose to study in Australia, Canada, or the United Kingdom as a result of SEVIS (Treyster, 2003). Colleges and universities in the United States have already seen "a massive decrease in the number of students from Muslim states, scores of foreign faculty being unable to teach courses, [and] scientific research projects becoming delayed or derailed" [7]. In the summer of 2003, enrollment by international students in language programs in the United States had dropped 30.5 percent from pre-USA PATRIOT Act levels (Young, 2003). Universities in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Middle East have seen an increase of up to five times as many applicants as pre-2001 levels, while some Australian universities are marketing themselves internationally as an alternative to the strict and unforgiving requirements that international students now face in the United States (Paden and Singer, 2003).

Ultimately, the loss of a large number of international students and scholars could cripple some departments of many schools, such as engineering, computing, and many of the hard sciences (Arnone, 2003a). These restrictions are also doing significant damage to many ongoing academic and scientific research projects. In the first few months of 2003, academic trips to the United States by thousands of international scholars were canceled or delayed for weeks or months (Bollag, 2003). These hindrances on students and scholars have hampered or completely derailed numerous major research projects, including work on HIV, the West Nile virus, leukemia, particle physics, meteorology, cancer, computer science, and theoretical physics, among many others (Gutterman, 2003).

The international students who are allowed into the United States are by no means past the difficulties. The SEVIS system has been highly problematic to implement and has numerous flaws, including the failure to properly review all documentation of universities and colleges that accept international students, to ensure that all schools certified to accept international students are actually schools, to properly train inspectors who will oversee the system, to establish review procedures, and to provide sufficient funding (U.S. Department of Justice, 2003). From the perspective of the colleges and universities, the software required to enter and update student records has been very problematic, full of bugs and producing many incorrect results, including forms printing at the wrong schools, the software rejecting large amounts of data or saving it as drafts rather than completed forms, and the system crashing frequently (Michel, 2003; Read, 2003). As a result of all these problems, it may take several hours to successfully enter a single page into the SEVIS software (Read, 2003).

Students entered into the system and in compliance with the requirements have even experienced dramatic problems. Dozens of college students have been arrested as they attempted to comply with the requirements of SEVIS (Hoover, 2003). Yashar Zendehdel of the University of Colorado, for example, was arrested when INS officials held him to the wrong standard for minimum course load requirements (Hoover, 2003). A student from Thailand attending Southeastern University in Washington D.C. was arrested when the SEVIS database incorrectly listed her as having dropped out of college, when she was in fact in full compliance with the requirements (Read, 2003). Along with these more obvious problems, SEVIS and USA PATRIOT Act regulations curtail many academic options for international students. One of these areas is a severe limitation on the ability to take online courses.



Restrictions on the online education of international students

The regulations that accompany SEVIS place very strict parameters on the number of courses that must be taken toward fulfilling a degree. Students must be enrolled in a certain minimum number of credits each semester or face deportation. Although there are methods to get a reduction of the required number of courses for a semester in cases such as personal tragedy, most international students will have to meet the required course load every semester. Part of the specific requirements for course schedules is the limitation placed on enrollment in online courses.

The regulations specify that, for international students attending a college or university, "no more than the equivalent of one class or three credits per session, term, semester, or trimester may be counted toward the full course of study requirement if the class is taken on-line or through distance education and does not require the student’s physical attendance" (U.S. Department of Justice/Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2002, § IX). For purposes of this requirement, an online or distance education course includes any class "offered principally through the use of television, audio, or computer transmission including open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, or satellite, audio conferencing, or computer conferencing" (U.S. Department of Justice/Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2002, § IX). Further, if a college or university student is enrolled in an international language program of study, no online courses may count toward the study requirement. For international students attending vocational education programs or English language education programs, no online courses may count toward the required full-time course load to comply with the requirements of SEVIS.

The regulations do note that students can opt to take more than the allowed one online course per semester, but those credits will not count toward the course load requirement for SEVIS. "A student currently pursuing a full course of study may add as many distance education or on-line courses as he or she wishes in addition to the courses counting toward the full course of study" (U.S. Department of Justice/Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2002, § IX). This means that students, in order to enroll in more than one online course per semester, would have be full-time students to comply with SEVIS and then add extra hours above the full course load. For most students, this option is not viable. It is difficult to imagine that overly many students would be able to go to college in a foreign country and take more than a full-time course load, especially when many of these students will have to use a language other than their native tongue in their studies. Further complicating this situation is that many colleges and universities have a limit on the number of credit hours that a student can take in a semester. As a result, many international students may not even have the option of taking more courses than the full-time course load required by SEVIS.

The regulations also suggest that if an international student wishes to take a program of study that is offered exclusively online, all the student needs to do is take the courses online in their native country. This breezy suggestion is not necessarily realistic for many international students who might want to enroll in online education programs in the United States. The infrastructure required to provide consistent access to and use of the Internet is far from universal in many countries and completely absent in many others (Bertot, 2003; Jaeger, in press; Jaeger and Thompson, in press; Norris, 2001; Yu, 2002). Potential students might lack any access to the Internet, have only limited access, or may not be able to afford the access in their own countries. For technological reasons alone, many international students may simply be unable to enroll in an online program in the United States from their native lands. Further, depending on the student’s nationality, there may be significant differences between the time when a course meets in the United States and the time in the international student’s country. Not many people could succeed in an education program if they had to attend online courses at four in the morning.

The USA PATRIOT Act and the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act say nothing about online education credits, so this requirement derives entirely from the regulations promulgated based on the Act. As such, the actual reasons for the online education restrictions for international students have never been explicitly stated. The lack of information is in keeping with other aspects of SEVIS. The Department of Homeland Security has been reluctant to explain the reasons for provisions related to SEVIS, and even decided to eliminate the face-to-face training sessions on campuses around the country that had been planned to explain the requirements (Arnone, 2003a).

The limitation on online courses will affect students at a great number of schools. Online classes are now a key element of education in the United States; 90 percent of public institutions of higher education and 40 percent of private institutions of higher education are now offering online programs (CNN, 2003b). The limitation on online courses represents a failure to account for several important functions online courses can play in the education process. One significant benefit of providing courses online is that materials can be made available to students in multiple languages much more easily and efficiently than in a regular classroom setting, helping international students to learn by providing information in the language they best understand (Hartley et al., 2000). Online courses can allow students at one university to be able to enroll in courses at another university that they might not otherwise be able to take (Olsen, 2003). Online courses also give students and researchers at multiple universities the opportunity to collaborate and learn together in a formal setting (Olsen, 2003).

There are also personal reasons that online courses may greatly benefit students who are physically near to the university offering the online courses. Many students, including international students, have personal barriers to attending classes on campus at certain times of the day, such as the need to care for children or the lack of access to transportation, that online courses can overcome by allowing the student to take the course from home (Carlson, 2003). In such circumstances, a student, regardless of where they are from, may only be able to take a necessary course online.

The provision of online courses to international students also presents an avenue for fulfilling some of the international functions of institutions of higher education. Universities are linked across international boundaries by a common history, a common knowledge base, and a common network of research (Altbach, 1987). Further, when they leave, international students and scholars carry the knowledge they gain in the United States across international borders (Altbach, 2000). The use of the Internet to provide courses broadens the ways in which the international network of students and scholars can be connected and collaborate. The World Wide Web has created many new methods by which knowledge can move between scholars across traditional physical and geographic boundaries. Students who take online courses when they come to the United States to study are participating in the international scholarly community that is linked by the World Wide Web.



Identity and presence in online environments

SThe SEVIS regulations do not provide any explicit rationale for the limitations it places on foreign students’ ability to take online courses. However, it seems likely that any possible rationale is based on a number of assumptions about the ways in which online courses are made available to students, and about the degree to which students can be considered to be "present," with stable and recognizable identities, while taking online classes. Questions related to both presence and identity in interactive online environments have long been central to Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) and virtual community research. Some of this research may help to situate discussions of online education within the broader context of CMC phenomena, and may do much to raise questions about the assumptions behind SEVIS.

Online classes, like other virtual environments, support only mediated social and instructional interactions; that is, while traditional classrooms require all participants — students and instructors alike — to be physically in attendance in the same space at the same time, online classes allow instruction to take place across spatial and — in some cases — temporal distances. The presumed fear motivating SEVIS is that foreign students may take advantage of such distance to misrepresent themselves, that the virtual classroom will allow them the undue ability to be students in outward show only, while actually spending their virtual classroom time in other pursuits.

Such fears seem misguided for several reasons. First, actual attendance in either face-to-face or online classes accounts only for a relatively small fraction of a students’ day-to-day activities. Even if a student takes three courses in a term, in-class time will typically account for only nine to twelve hours of time, allowing ample time for other activities. Second, the SEVIS regulations rest on the questionable assumption that students will inevitably engage only in negative pursuits when not in class, and that the brief period of time spent in a face-to-face class will somehow not only limit students’ ability to engage in outside activities, but also diminish the chances that such outside activities will be linked with terrorism. Finally, online classes can vary widely in their mode of delivery as well as in the demands they make on students’ time and engagement. For example, some courses may use a traditional correspondence-course model, delivering instruction through print or online materials and allowing assignments to be submitted at leisure. Such courses require little or no interaction between students and instructors. Conversely, courses may be scheduled to meet at specific times via chat-based technology, allowing students to participate from any geographic location, but requiring them to actively participate in interactive text-based discussions during specified class times. Other courses may be somewhere in between these two extremes, using asynchronous discussion forums for interaction, and requiring students to take an active role without specifying a specific day and time for such participation.

The SEVIS regulations rest on the questionable assumption that students will inevitably engage only in negative pursuits when not in class, and that the brief period of time spent in a face-to-face class will somehow not only limit students' ability to engage in outside activities, but also diminish the chances that such outside activities will be linked with terrorism.

Given such a range of frameworks for online classes, SEVIS’ one-size-fits-all approach at best misapprehends the potential for universities offering online courses and degree programs to monitor their students, and to create course structures that maximize requirements for student presence within online settings. Indeed, the three models outlined above are very different in terms of the level of student visibility and presence they require.

Within a CMC context, "presence" is a measure of the degree to which a mediated situation (such as an online class) provides participants with a sense that their mediated interactions are not mediated. Lombard and Ditton (1997) identified a number of dimensions for understanding the concept of presence in online environments. While they noted that other technologies, including virtual reality and state-of-the-art video conferencing, typically offer a greater sense of presence than either synchronous or asynchronous discussion forums, they also emphasized the power of written narrative and other textual forms to transport readers "to a different time and place" [8]. Further, two of the dimensions they outlined for assessing presence are particularly relevant for understanding text-based online courses:

  1. Presence as social richness, which is a measure of "the extent to which a medium is perceived a sociable, warm, sensitive, personal or intimate when it is used to interact with other people" [9]; and, Presence as social actor within medium, which is a measure of the degree to which the power of a particular personality is able to overcome the mediated nature of interaction, leading to the perception of that personality as a social actor in a mediated situation.

For Lombard and Ditton (1997), such elements of presence lead to a sense — or "illusion" — of presence within mediated situations. However, while true presence requires physical proximity, the potential for mediated environments to support true interaction between dispersed participants who are, despite the mediating technologies they use, present and recognizable to each other, is at the heart of their analysis. Thus, while presence within mediated environments may be problematic when compared to face-to-face situations, it is still an undeniable component of mediated interaction. Indeed, acknowledgement both of the online world’s powerful ability to provide "sociable, warm, sensitive, personal [and] intimate" settings for interaction [10] and of the capacity of individual participants to become strong social actors in CMC situations has been an important part of the literature examining virtual communities since Howard Rheingold published his groundbreaking book in 1993. This suggests, clearly, that online courses, if they are well designed and include carefully developed support for social and intellectual interaction, can be just as effective as face-to-face courses in establishing a strong sense of presence for all students.

Online courses, if they are well designed and include carefully developed support for social and intellectual interaction, can be just as effective as face-to-face courses in establishing a strong sense of presence for all students.

Liu (1999) proposed, further, that presence is particularly salient in those situations in which individuals use consistent online names and maintain a "sustained level of co-appearance" [11]. Thus, online classes, which, like face-to-face classes, are built around sustained co-appearance of both faculty and students, are much more likely to be able to establish and sustain student presence when they are designed so as to require that students use online names that are consistent (and that reflect their own names [12]) and to require regular and persistent participation from all.

Other theory-based approaches to studying online phenomena reinforce this understanding of the ability of online text-based environments to support a sense of presence and strong interaction among participants. Drawing on the philosophical hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur, for example, Burnett (2002) suggested that virtual communities become "real" and productive communities by taking advantage of the capacity of textual production and interpretation to create what Ricoeur [13] called the "mode of 'as if' ('as if you were there')." This analysis suggests, further, that the formal and discursive characteristics of text in interactive online environments allow participants to recognize each other as actors in a virtual place where a new kind of "proximity" is established. Indeed, an approach to interactive online environments rooted in hermeneutics and textual analysis suggests that such environments can fruitfully be thought of as legitimate (if virtual) places and that the kinds of interactions and activities that occur within them must be taken seriously as genuine exchanges between real people with recognizable identities (see also Burnett et al., 2002).

It has long been pointed out that, even in the offline world, the concept of a recognizable identity is, at best, problematic and, at worst, subject to radical shifts and transformations depending on context. Goffman (1959), for instance, argued that day-to-day life itself was constituted by ongoing performances through which individuals constructed identities suited to the specific situations in which they found themselves. Because CMC environments do not support many of the kinds of physical elements (including things like more-or-less stable appearance, dress, facial features, etc.) that are used in the face-to-face world to overcome such changes in identity performance, it is not surprising that most CMC research on issues related to identity construction has tended to focus on issues such as identity theft and/or user authentication (e.g. PressPass, 2002), deliberate misrepresentation of identity (e.g. Donath, 1999), the social construction of identity (e.g. Baker, 2001), and the inherent fluidity of online personae (e.g. Turkle, 1995).

It has long been pointed out that, even in the offline world, the concept of a recognizable identity is, at best, problematic and, at worst, subject to radical shifts and transformations depending on context.

However, as some of this research (Baker, 2001; see also Burnett et al., 2001) as well as Goffman’s (1959) analysis of social performance suggests, identity construction in a social environment — whether a CMC forum or a face-to-face setting — can be considered to be, to a great extent, a function of social interaction rather than as an inherently stable and given characteristic born into an individual. In other words, identity can be most usefully thought of as a socially constructed and sustained set of social roles, developed by an individual in collaboration with his or her social worlds, and in the context of the norms and expectations of those worlds.

Some early CMC research suggested that the lack of physical components of interaction (gestures, sound, etc.) and other social cues in group CMC situations had the potential to diminish an individual’s tendency to accept and internalize the influence of positive social norms, making them more susceptible to negative behaviors, both in their online interactions and elsewhere (see, e.g., Rice and Love, 1987; Sproull and Kiesler, 1986). However, more recent studies have found that negative behavior online has never been commonplace, and that the influence of a group’s social norms and behavioral expectations may become stronger in online settings than face-to-face (see, e.g., Walther, 1996). And a recent study by Burnett and Bonnici (in press) found that online communities use both explicit and implicit norms to manage behavior within the group.

Even in face-to-face classes, identity can be problematic, particularly if instructors are expected to definitively confirm that students are not only who they claim to be, but that they are, in fact, in attendance at all times. For one thing, it is not uncommon for college classes to enroll dozens — or hundreds — of students, who herd into large, anonymous lecture halls. In such situations, even when efforts are made to take attendance by requiring students to sign roll sheets, it is a simple matter for students to forge others’ signatures. Other, more reliable mechanisms for assessing attendance are either too time consuming — it would take most of a class session to call the roll in large lecture classes, for instance, leaving little time left over for instruction — or make unrealistic demands on an instructor’s ability to get to know large numbers of students by both sight and name. Further, while some universities provide photo rosters that can be used by instructors to identify students, it is not uncommon either for some students’ photos to be missing or for many students’ photos to be several years old, bearing little resemblance to those students’ current appearance. Under such circumstances, the socially-constructed norms of identity have little bearing on student behavior or performance, other than stipulating that they become one member of a very large and anonymous crowd. Clearly, if SEVIS requires students to attend such face-to-face classes instead of often smaller and more interactive online classes, it will have little beneficial impact on either student learning or on university’s ability to monitor student presence and activities.

Arguably, then, if one goal of education is to pass along a set of social norms and if, as noted above, international students carry a better understanding of American ideals with them when they return home (Altback, 2000; Choi, 1995; Johnson, 2003; Nye, 2002), participation in well-designed online courses may be particularly suited for such a goal, rather than being the danger SEVIS regulations appear to suggest.

SEVIS not only misapprehends the nature and potential threats of distance education, but also appears to assume that online course delivery is the only mechanism through which it is being delivered. However, while the trend in recent years has certainly been toward using the Internet as the primary support for distance courses, online delivery is only one option of many for universities providing distance courses — including paper-based correspondence courses and courses held at remote sites by traveling instructors. Despite such possible variety — with every option bringing its own set of challenges for confirming student presence and monitoring student activity — online distance education is, apparently, the only mode restricted by SEVIS regulations.

Indeed, even among universities using the Internet as the primary delivery mechanism for their distance courses, it is not uncommon for other approaches to be added to the mix, providing for increased face-to-face interactions and/or increased opportunities for confirming the presence of students in particular places at specific times. For example, the LEEP program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, while including a full range of online courses and interactions, has maintained a small, carefully monitored enrollment, and has, from the start, included required visits to campus for all students (Haythornthwaite et al., 2000). Florida State University’s (FSU) School of Information Studies, although it maintains a much larger program than the one at Illinois, has also built in a number of contact mechanisms for distance students. These include the use of former distance students as consultants, who provide technical and social support for students in different geographical regions and, on occasion, organize face-to-face get-togethers for students in their areas (for a full history of the FSU Information studies distance program, see Burnett et al., 2003). Further, most of the courses in FSU’s undergraduate "2+2" distance programs in information studies, computer science, criminology, nursing, and other areas, require students to travel to their local community colleges to take proctored exams, for which they must provide proof of identity. Clearly, SEVIS’ regulations and limitations recognize neither the presence nor the efficacy of such practices, and severely limit not only foreign students’ ability to participate in educational offerings, but also school’s ability to develop and sustain successful programs.



Conclusion: The policy picture for education and information

Following the events of September 11, 2001, the United States chose to significantly alter its foreign policies, dramatically changing many international interactions (Nye, 2003). In some ways, these policies reflect a reevaluation of the international role of democracy (Carothers, 2003). However, these policies also modify the rights of citizens of and visitors to the United States. The USA PATRIOT Act and other related pieces of legislation, such as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 that has been proposed by the U.S. Department of Justice, represent a revision of the rights and privileges of all individuals in the United States. Though these changes to the law should represent an attempt to balance protecting the security of the nation and to preserve the individual liberties of the populace, it is sometimes difficult to determine which side of the equation is being emphasized, due in large part to the secrecy of many of the provisions of these security laws (Jaeger et al., 2003).

The USA PATRIOT Act is the most recent manifestation of a historical tendency of the United States government to respond to threats to national security with an immediate legislative response (Kopel and Olsen, 1996). Such responses tend to appeal to patriotism and a very understandable wish to address a threat, but they may also "create a diversion from the real issues that must be resolved" [14]. Areas related to education and information have been particularly affected by these regulations, though the ultimate implications of these regulations have not always been clear. For example, the meaning of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (50 U.S.C. § 1801 et seq.), after being modified by the USA PATRIOT Act, has generated a tremendous volume of legal scholarship devoted to trying to understand how personal information about citizens and visitors can be collected and analyzed under the law (Bradley, 2002; Dowley, 2002; Etzioni, 2002; Evans, 2002; Henderson, 2002; Kerr, 2003; Mayer, 2002; Murphy, 2002; Osher, 2002; Rackow, 2002; Whitehead and Aden, 2002; Young, 2001).

All types of libraries in the United States have been placed in the awkward position of having any records or information that is retained about their patrons potentially become evidence against the patrons, though the libraries are forbidden by the USA PATRIOT Act from discussing any investigations in the library. Ultimately, the USA PATRIOT Act may even dramatically alter how the U.S. government provides information to its citizens (Jaeger et al., 2003). The restrictions on online education for international students studying the United States fall into this broad set of new limitations placed on activities related to information and education.

Institutions of higher education have both a duty to meet the goals of the society that created them and to promote academic freedom and integrity (Sanchez-Sosa and Lerner-Ferbes, 2002). With regard to online education and international students studying in the United States, the USA PATRIOT Act has created a situation that emphasizes security over academic freedom and the ability to provide educational opportunities to students through the World Wide Web. Given the many important roles that international students and scholars can play, from expanding research to promoting goodwill for the United States abroad, it seems short-sighted to limit the academic opportunities of international students who come to study in the United States. End of article


About the Authors

Paul T. Jaeger is Senior Research Associate and EBSCO Fellow at the Information Use Management and Policy Institute and is a doctoral student at Florida State University’s School of Information Studies. He has earned a Juris Doctor and master’s degrees in information studies and education. His research focuses on legal and policy issues related to information and education. His publications have addressed issues of e-government, information access, disability law and accessibility, privacy, education law, and Constitutional law. He is the primary author of Disability Matters: Legal and Pedagogical Issues of Disability in Education (Praeger, 2002).
Please direct comments to

Gary Burnett holds a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University and is an Assistant Professor at the School of Information Studies at Florida State University, where he teaches courses in the development and organization of online information resources. His research investigates the text-based information environments of virtual communities as well as the creation and maintenance of social norms within those communities. His work has been published in journals such as Information Research, Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, and Library Quarterly.



1. Yans-McLaughlin, 1998, p. 4.

2. Shaw, 2000, p. 253.

3. Johnson, 2003, p. B7.

4. Nye, 2002, p. 73.

5. Altbach, 2000, p. 140.

6. Arnone, 2003a, p. A33.

7. Paden and Singer, 2003, p. 10.

8. Lombard and Ditton, 1997, n.p.

9. Ibid.

10. Lombard and Ditton, 1997, n.p.

11. Other research (Chester and Gwynne, 1998) has suggested that there are also some benefits to online educational settings that carefully maintain anonymity for students. Such benefits can include support for students to take intellectual risks in ways that they may tend to avoid in situations where they can be easily identified and perhaps face social sanctions for challenging assumptions or providing critiques for others’ work. However, in the context of SEVIS regulations, it seems likely that courses which sustain a strong sense of social presence are more likely to pass muster.

12. It should be noted in passing that the WELL, one of the oldest and most stable commercial online communities has, from the beginning, institutionalized the requirement that, while participants can create their own online names (or "logins"), those names are directly linked to their real names. By forbidding anonymity, the WELL has created an environment in which individuals are known to each other, and in which individuals take responsibility for their own words and actions (see Hafner, 2001, for an extended discussion of the implications of this feature of the WELL).

13. Ricoeur, 1976, p. 35.

14. Emerson, 1984, pp. 685-686.



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Editorial history

Paper received 31 July 2003; accepted 7 August 2003.

Copyright ©2003, First Monday

Copyright ©2003, Paul T. Jaeger and Gary Burnett

Curtailing online education in the name of homeland security: The USA PATRIOT Act, SEVIS, and international students in the United States by Paul T. Jaeger and Gary Burnett
First Monday, Volume 8, Number 9 - 1 September 2003