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.


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