WCET, WICHE cooperative for educational technologies (subsidiary of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education), released a survey report on the current state of online education.
Quality, Standards and Metrics for Improvement
Most promising of the results, is the fact that over 85% of schools have created “best practices” and “standards” to guide their online courses. Following course standards, either those set up by the US regional accrediting agencies, by state, or by schools internally, is essential for the future development of online courses. This sets a framework for experimentation so that the system can be continuously improved upon after each iteration.
However, 15% of schools have yet to adopt either best practices or standards. These schools are essentially flying blind and have elected to leave all issues of quality in the hands of the faculty. Basically, this is a very un-scientific way for a scientific institution to act.
Further troubling, WCET cites that large portions of schools do not calculate a completion rate for either online or on-campus education: only 65% of schools calculated an on-campus completion rate followed by 55% for online. Though a best practice and standard format is key to set a framework for improvement, metrics must also be collected to ensure that changes to the system are in fact an improvement, as opposed to a perceived improvement.
On the bright side, of those schools able to report completion rates, it was found that the variation between on-campus and online completion was only 3-5%. The factor is small, mostly due to the high completion rate from “online-only” schools. This factor suggests the quality of education online is on par with on-campus education. WCET also suggests that schools that offer both formats should take notes from those that focus only on online.
WCET stressed that online completion rates from the schools surveyed should not be confused with the completion rates of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Coursera, a leading competitor in the MOOC business, reports that only 1 in 20 students that sign up for a MOOC will complete it.
The report found that the courses produced by 83% of the schools were faculty driven. Of the schools surveyed, it was also found that 58% require that online faculty participate in faculty development before teaching. Furthermore, 53% of new online courses and 48% of existing online courses require a review process. This suggests a content quality on par with on-campus courses, but there is room for much improvement with respect to reviewing the material.
The personal touch is often regarded as lacking in online education. However, it actually seems that a large majority of schools were found to provide library and advising services to their students. It also seems that the majority offer tutors. However, only 30% of schools offered 24/7 technical support, which could be devastating for a student writing a test in the middle of the night.
Another drawback of online education is a lack of assistance to those with disabilities. For a system heralded as the way to educate those that would otherwise have no access, it is surprising that 16% of schools had no policy for those with disabilities, and 36% relied on the faculty alone to support these students.
When dealing with the rigidity often seen within a computer program, it is easy for a professor to just set a timer on an online test and assume that all is well. However, such a system may not be suitable for students with disabilities who may require more time or an unset time to complete the task.
It is also shocking that only 22% of schools offer some kind of tutorial to orient the students to the given online environment. Lacking such instruction can lead to improper submissions and a reduced functionality of the otherwise optimized system. It is not enough to assume all those taking courses will be technophiles able to learn and intuitively understand the system on the fly. You must teach the student to learn the teaching tool before you use said tool to teach.
One of the most important issues facing online education is cheating. Over 75% of schools implement a “student integrity” policy to curb dishonesty. However, 40% of schools will also take more drastic measures by using technology to authenticate that the user is whom they claim to be.
Personal experience has shown me, however, that such methods can create a “guilty until proven innocent” scenario; which can be an issue for those using the same machine, or the same network IP, while taking the same course.
Again we see that there is room for improvement in the online education world, though quality studies still suggest that they are on par with the on-campus world. Perhaps it is time the online and offline worlds work together, to step into a more educated future.