Online education is booming, but colleges risk losing quality, report says


Survey of over 300 US university officials shows many are planning long-term plans growth in online education, but few are systematically evaluating the quality of their mushrooming course listings.

According a recently published report on the survey results – by the non-profit group Quality Matters and Encoura’s Eduventures, a higher education market research firm – over 90% of “online principals” surveyed said they expected traditional-aged undergraduates to come to their campuses take classes in some sort of hybrid format by 2025. That’s a sharp departure from just three years ago, before the pandemic, when 20% of those undergraduates were taking blended courses.

The vast majority of college leaders in the survey – 96% – said they had adopted quality assurance standards guide this rapid metamorphosis. These standards advise faculty members on how to make online learning accessible, intuitive, and engaging. for students. This can mean setting expectations for offering regular and timely instructor feedback on assignments, clearly aligning activities with a course’s learning objectives, and posting transcripts of all video content.

But ultimately, there is no universal definition of what “quality” means, although experts note that there is extensive research on what quality teach and learn looks As. And as the authors of the report acknowledge, both the scope and teeth of college quality standards vary considerably.

Only 34% of survey respondents, for example, said their standards included analysis student learning outcomes, such as postgraduate internships and salaries.

That’s not necessarily surprising, given that “it’s still a frontier for an institution to collect ‘this kind of data,’ regardless of having standards around it,” said Richard Garrett, director of research at Eduventures and co-director of the report. But colleges, as well as faculty members looking to promote their courses in an increasingly saturated and competitive marketplace, have something to gain from demonstrating results.

“If a school finally says you should enroll in this program because it leads to a result,” he said, “but they don’t really understand that [outcome] … It’s a weakness.

Further reading

College officials who responded to the survey also differed widely on whether online courses should be evaluated. While the vast majority have quality standards, only a minority – 42% – said they always use them to assess new or heavily revised online courses. Quality assessment was overwhelmingly cited as a voluntary enterprise left to instructors or departments.

The report flagged this as a concern, noting that without assessments, colleges risk confused academic standards in their online courses and programs, and a missed opportunity to use their limited resources for remediation and student support efforts. intelligent and data-driven. “Without assessing whether adopted quality standards are being met,” the report states, “there is no real quality assurance plan in place.”

“The mandates are difficult”

As is often the case in higher education, however, there is considerable nuance at play.

Garrett and Bethany Simunich, the report’s other co-lead, said The Chronicle that the development and application of quality standards was an ongoing and often holistic process. Colleges may not have fully understood it yet, but they may be on their way.

“Quality has been a long-standing conversation on college and university campuses,” said Simunich, director of research and innovation at Quality Matters. “And that’s a conversation that’s grown tremendously during the pandemic.”

College Officials The Chronicle have spoken with say they are also labor friendly in partnership with faculty members, noting the risks of a rigid, top-down approach, especially in assessments.

This reluctance to impose mandates was reflected in other data points in the report. Professional development on the fundamentals of online quality assurance, for example, was optional in nearly half of the institutions surveyed.

“The mandates are difficult. …It’s better to get consensus, it’s better to get buy-in, it’s better for people to want your help, than to say they to have to have your help,” said Valerie Kelly, associate vice president of Kent State Online, which is part of Kent State University in Ohio. The number of online courses and programs, including certificates, at Kent State increased by 11% and 34%, respectively, between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 academic years.

It’s better for people to want your help than to say they need your help.

Resources are available for Kent State faculty members who seek them out, Kelly noted. The university places particular emphasis on strong design standards for online courses; some best practices include a simple navigation menu, a document outlining all assignment due dates, and an instructor bio on the course page.

Kelly said she also passes on examples to faculty members of the good that can come from working with her team. She recalled how a physics lab professor asked for help regarding the higher rate of online Ds, Fs, and withdrawals compared to the traditional in-person lab. After a review, the team found the answer: virtual lab students “had to source their own materials,” creating a barrier for those who lacked supplies in their dorms and couldn’t afford, or didn’t want, to buy them, Kelly said.

Resource Constraints

Nor does Carroll Community College in Maryland require faculty members to go through a checklist before starting a course — or to complete quality assessments.

In addition to concerns about overloading faculty members, it’s also a capacity issue, said Andrea Gravelle, director of digital learning. About half of the college’s 3,100 students were fully online in 2021-22, up from about a quarter before the pandemic. The entire Digital Learning and Media Services department has five people.

Still, Gravelle said, the college has clearly defined minimum expectations — a marriage of Quality Matters and State University of New York standards. Online Course Quality Assessment Rubric. She wants instructors to ask themselves: Is the published content good contents? (“If I see Wikipedia,” she says, “I’m going to start questioning things.”) Is every piece of content accessible to all students, including those who are blind, color-blind, or hard of hearing? Is the instructor visible to students by regularly posting announcements and posting to discussion forums? Do students have the opportunity to interact with their classmates, for example in group projects?

In the absence of mandates, Gravelle said 25% of faculty members at the college worked with his department to create new courses, while 30% did so to revise existing ones.

There is one exception: if an instructor wants a Certification Quality Matters for a course that requires rigorous external assessment, Gravelle said. It’s a business she encourages, but the process is slow, with six courses certified so far.

find the balance

Fort Lewis College in Colorado, on the other hand, strikes a balance between putting in place quality assurance safeguards and maintaining a high degree of autonomy for faculty members. It saw online course enrollment more than triple from fall 2019 to fall 2021.

Before instructors embark on their first online course, they complete a self-paced course — which can take anywhere from 12 to 25 hours — called Designing for Impact. If the class they plan to teach is already online, they then complete and submit a course self-assessment using the college quality standards rubric. The rubric emphasizes, among other things, providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate their learning (known as Universal design for learning frame). But if the course is newly online, instructors should collaborate with the Teaching and Learning Services team.

Fort Lewis also requires a “reassessment” of online courses every three years, which includes analysis of data such as grades, said Ayla Moore, instructional designer at Teaching & Learning Services. The instructors carry out this evaluation themselves.

The instructors are the experts,” Moore said. “They know the criteria; they know what works.

Moore added that his team frames assessments as critical “reflections” that will ultimately benefit both the instructor and the students, as opposed to scrutiny that can result in punishment or scrutiny.

“It’s not so much a ‘What’s wrong with the course?’ or ‘What did you do wrong?’ It’s ‘What are the students telling you here?’ said Moore. “We are still teaching in beta.”


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