Transparency in Online Education

Online courses, programs, degrees and institutions have been criticized as less than traditional classroom experiences since online learning first appeared. A few days ago, I posted an SNL parody about online degrees, but its not so far off from the real criticism those of us in education hear.

The study "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies" published by the Department of Education reinforces both sides in the online argument. You can download the 93 page report, but for right now I will point to two findings.

"Few rigorous research studies of the effectiveness of online learning for K–12 students have been published. A systematic search of the research literature from 1994 through 2006 found no experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies comparing the learning effects of online versus face-to-face instruction for K–12 students that provide sufficient data to compute an effect size. A subsequent search that expanded the time frame through July 2008 identified just five published studies meeting meta-analysis criteria..."

"Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. Learning outcomes for students who engaged in online learning exceeded those of students receiving face-to-face instruction..."
Transparency by Design is an initiative, conceived by the Presidents’ Forum, that has its stated mission "to assist adult learners in becoming educated consumers of higher education and lead universities and colleges toward greater accountability and transparency." Members are regionally accredited, adult-serving, distance education institutions. In 2008, the Initiative chose WCET to provide quality assurance on the standards of data reporting.

Last summer, WCET launched the website, College Choices for Adults, to provide adult learners information to better inform their decision-making process. Using program-level learning outcomes, measurements and results, that were more difficult to find online previously is part of that transparency. As the site grows, new data (progress rates and student satisfaction data) is added as well as new institutions and programs.

Transparency by Design institutional members pledge to uphold the "Principles of Good Practice for Higher Educational Institutions Serving Adults at a Distance" that were developed. Those principles contain many of the key concepts of transparency - disclosure, responsiveness, accountability etc.

Trying to promote transparency in higher education institutions delivering distance learning programs is certainly a good idea. Institutions might consider these principles even for a self-serving reason. Transparency to those you serve leads to greater trust in the integrity of the institution.

The current stories about the Toyota auto recalls just won't go away and the company is being hurt badly by them. But as new information emerges that they were not transparent about knowing that there were problems, their reputation falls even more. As I was preparing this post, the television news ran a story about Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda's testimony to Congress. Something he said in his prepared statement registered with me as a description of what may be wrong with many online programs right now. "We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that." Indeed...

In these tough economics times, many schools look at online courses as a way to grow programs and enrollment without additional buildings and classroom. Hiring additional adjuncts to teach those sections also keeps down the cost. But the rapid deployment and growth is often not supported.

Unfortunately, many of those adjuncts are not prepared. I don't mean they aren't prepared to teach the subject matter; they are not prepared to teach it ONLINE.

Ten years ago when I was much more deeply involved in online course design, I was asked to do some spying on a big, national online university. Actually, I was asked to apply to teach for them so that I could see firsthand what demands they would make, what the content would look like and how I would be compensated. The big revelation for me from that experience was that this "for-profit" was doing a much more stringent job of vetting and preparing instructors and courses than my own traditional university.

Instructors were required to take training and learn in an online environment before ever being allowed to teach in one. The courses were highly structured and far more media-rich than the text-based courses many colleges were offering at that time. There was very little "intellectual freedom" for the instructor - the course you were given was what you taught. Don't get creative. Still, there was continuity and consistency in those sections that does not always exist in online programs.

A recent post on The Chronicle of Higher Education site, "Community Colleges Explore National Collaboration to Fight For-Profit Marketing Machine," points at the inability of smaller colleges (like individual community colleges) to match the marketing budgets of the for-profit institutions.

I understand the need for a "marketing collaboration" led by the American Association of Community Colleges. It has been tried before. A pooling of resources had once created a distance learning effort called the International Community College that after four years of planning was never able to launch.

This new effort is pure marketing - purchasing “leads” on potential students from online portals or an online clearinghouse to showcase programs. For-profit institutions have taken away many traditional students, particularly community-college candidates looking for job advancement.

I would much rather see money being spent on better courses and better prepared faculty.

Here in New Jersey, the New Jersey Virtual Community College Consortium (NJVCCC) is a partnership of the state’s 19 community colleges that tried, with some success, to pool all their courses across the schools and allow a student to pick and choose online offerings to complete a degree. What has worked for them is cooperative purchasing, collaborative professional development opportunities and trying as a group to establish online course quality assurance and inter-institutional communication.

Transparency (or the lack thereof)

transparencyLooking through the posts to this blog, I realized that I have used the term "transparency" in one sense or another a number of times.

Transparency is a term that gets more and more attention these days in many fields. In one instance I was thinking of writing about it in the context of how companies operate, and in another post I was thinking about it in education.

Transparency, in those two domains, concerns openness, communication, and accountability. It is the metaphorical extension of the "true" meaning that we learned about a "transparent" object being one that can be seen through.

For a business, transparent procedures would include open meetings, financial disclosure statements, freedom of information (some legislated by the government), budgetary review, audits, etc.

Transparency requires policies, practices and procedures that allow it to be available to users/clients/students.

And I'm sure there will be more to come...

Would You Pay For A Free Education?

paymentA Nielsen survey out this month on paid Web site content asked those surveyed about what they will pay for (like news and entertainment) that you now get online for free.

They were not looking at the idea of getting "educated" (learning minus the degrees and certifications) online for free using open courseware and other resources - but maybe we can draw some parallels.

They surveyed 27,000 consumers (52 countries) and, not surprisingly, 85% prefer that free content remain free. Drilling down to specifics, the content they were more willing to consider paying for includes things they already pay for in some way like games, music, movies and video.

What are they least likely to want to pay for? User-generated content - the homegrown video, podcasts and writing (like this blog).

Of course, media companies are most interested in whether or not we will pay for news (including traditional formats like TV channels, newspapers and magazines that we are used to using that has been essentially free online. Content that has a cost to produce needs to make back that cost and a profit to survive.

The business models are not really determined yet. Payment models include subscriptions, individual transactions and, more recently, micropayments which got the best response in the survey (though only 52% favored it). And an easy-to-use payment system isn't here yet either.

I'm sure most cable/satellite subscribers would prefer a cheaper menu option that let them choose and pay for just the channels they watch. But, like buying a new car, "packages" that include the high and low demand items are what we have now.

Advertising has been the way to support media from newspapers to TV for as long as the mediums have existed. That won't go away too soon. Everyone is used to it. When I was a kid, watching TV on a set connected to an antenna on the roof, it certainly seemed free to me except for the electricity. I never thought of the commercials as a business model. When cable came, there were no commercials, but I paid more directly with a monthly bill. I actually might prefer the old model.

It is clear in the survey that users say they are not willing to have advertising AND pay a subscription - although that's what I do when I watch the commercials on CBS, NBC and others via a paid cable service.

We are used to paying for an education whether it's obvious like a college tuition or somewhat hidden in our local, county, state and Federal taxes. Does that mean the pay-to-learn model will survive? Or will the degree and certification model lose its stature as employers become willing to hire people who have the knowledge no matter where they obtained it?

A few other things that come out of the survey -

78% say that if they already pay for content (subscriptions or services), then its online content should be free. (Pay for the face-to-face course, get the online version free?)

71% believe that in order to justify a payment, the online content would need to be of a higher quality than what is available for free. (A standard I wish schools already demanded for their online courses.)

Most (62%) also feel that if they buy content, they own it and should be able to to copy or share. That never was accepted by the music industry, and I doubt that education would accept it either. Not that the music industry benefited from that hard line.

The Nielsen study is by no means the last word on the subject. And it remains to be seen if consumers are saying one thing but will wind up doing another.

The survey likely serves as confirmation of what most of us already knew. That’s because we’re all consumers as well, and most of us have an aversion to paying for stuff that we’ve usually gotten for free.

Read the Nielsen survey (PDF)

Apart from the Usual Parties Politic

Politics and education technology mix, in discussion, about as well as baking soda and vinegar but given the groundswell of faction of dubiously enlightened hot air in America, maybe its time to poke the CO2 volcano.

In New Jersey, where I work and live, the current state budget has been frozen  --even public school districts are not receiving the aid they had been promised (and had budgeted against) for the balance of this school year, as reported by the local ABC TV affiliate on February 11, 2010:

"To pay for the reduction in school aid, nearly all of the state's 581 school districts will be forced to dip into their surpluses - money that would otherwise have reduced homeowners' property taxes - and more than 100 districts will lose all state aid for the remainder of the year."

Higher Education, the pond in which my paycheck dollars swim, will be frozen to the tune of $62 million, and there is enough partisan gnashing of teeth about that to chew a $2 steak.

"I fear Gov. Christie’s plan to slash education aid will hurt our children and increase the crushing property tax burden facing our taxpayers, said Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex). “This would especially hit our hard-working middle-class and poor hard amid an ongoing recession.”

Reasonable people who can step back from the brink of loud-mouthed saber-rattling  should be able to see what is going on.  People in charge of the purse strings will make decisions in their best political interests to pursue an economic objective and people who feel the purse strings tighten will do what is in their best interests to prevent the choking-off of their funds.  Each side will tender well-spun reasons that prove that their position is correct and the other side is in league with the devil.  When the fog lifts and the 2 sides have climbed out of their political Purgatory, each will have some slice of the other's flesh and the fundamental causal problem will be sent back to Limbo without a resolution.

One voice that has risen to reject the usual political approach is Dr. William Fabricius, professor of psychology at Arizona State University.  Dr. Fabricius, at, writes:

"there is an unprecedented level of distrust and disillusionment regarding the current system. At least two aspects of the system are at the root of this distrust: the inability to achieve practical solutions to important problems, and the excessive influence of moneyed special interests."

Dr. Fabricius goes on to write:

"We are committed to finding practical, evidence-based solutions that are in the best interests of the whole country. Our candidates will not take campaign contributions from special interests. The candidates we select will be able to depend on our support and our votes, and will not be threatened by their money. The days when “The banks own the Senate” (Senator Durbin, IL) will be over."

Rather than publish a platform from which to gather like-minded supporters, Dr. Fabricius calls for reasonable and independently thoughtful people to contribute to the building of a party platform and to approach the state and national political quagmire with fresh independent thought.

There have been third party movements in the United States ever since the two-party system was established.  There is already one (and only one) modern third-party that is on the ballot in each state for every national election: that party is so sparingly reported in the media that most people don't know it exists.  Do we need another political party to challenge our nefarious status quo ?

Yes.  And probably much more than that.