By Senior Analyst, Max Woolf
Online course quality is a must-have for competitive institutions. While the perception of online course quality is improving, it still has a long way to go to meet the quality standards of campus-based courses and programs. Eduventures’ Consumer Preferences Survey reveals a dramatic shift in the perception of online courses and programs over the last six years. In 2007, there was a stark contrast in student perception: 27% of adult learners viewed online courses as worse than campus-based education and only 1% viewed them as better than campus-based education. In 2013, however, there was relative parity as 8% of adult learners viewed online courses as worse than campus-based education and 7% viewed them as better than campus-based education. (See Figure 1)
Figure 1: Source: Eduventures 2007 and 2013 survey of adult learners. Figures based on respondents age 25-55 asked to describe the quality of online education compared to a campus-based experience.
This dramatic improvement at both ends of the spectrum doesn’t overcome the more negative perceptions of online learning among the majority in the middle. In 2013, less than one quarter of adult learners viewed online education as equal to on-campus education, and nearly half of respondents said that it depends based on the course or program. (See Figure 2)
Figure 2: Source: Eduventures 2013 survey of adult learners. Figures based on respondents age 25-55 asked to describe the quality of online education compared to a campus-based experience.
While consumer demand drives the expectation for quality, regional and national accreditation agencies enforce the requirement for quality on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education. In 2011 The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) developed the Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education, which provide nine hallmarks of quality for online programs related to institutional context and commitment, curriculum and instruction, faculty support, student support, and program evaluation. The expectation of these guidelines is that program quality, academic rigor, and support services are consistent across all modes of delivery. These guidelines are on top of all the other federal compliance standards, including equivalent online credit hour policies, accessibility and ADA requirements, state authorization and cross-border regulation requirements, and the demonstration of regular and substantive interactions between students and faculty.
In addition to consumers and accreditation agencies, employers are also driving the expectations and requirements for quality through online competency-based education models. Employers can not only hold institutions accountable to demonstrate high quality student-learning outcomes, but also explicitly measure the quality of online courses based on the performance of employees on specific tasks. Further adoption of online competency-based education models will continue to raise the bar for online course quality in the coming years.
Given this challenging online landscape defined by consumers, accreditation agencies, and now employers, online programs must develop a strategic yet tactical approach to ensuring ongoing course quality. Eduventures recommends you take the following steps to ensure your success online:
- Clarify your online vision: You must have a clear and consistent vision that demonstrates your institution’s unique approach to online learning for your students, faculty, and accreditors. Online course quality will be the direct result of the strength and clarity of your overall institutional strategy for online learning. Success starts with strong leadership from the President and Provost.
- Develop a robust online course quality review framework for continuous improvement: Faculty and staff will benefit tremendously from a shared set of guidelines and standards, from initial course development to ongoing course reviews. Providing a benchmark for quality created from nationally recognized industry best practices will not only ensure your institution is in compliance with federal regulations and regional accreditation standards, but also increase faculty engagement with online learning and support student success and retention.
- Prioritize the launch of new online programs to ensure course quality:Determining the right online programs to launch is crucial. These programs need to align your institutional strengths with market demand. This alignment will create an environment for quality online course offerings. Understanding your internal capacities as well as the external market realities requires a careful data-driven analysis to identify and prioritize the right online programs and set realistic enrollment targets for new program development.
- Assess potential partnership opportunities with institutional providers: In order to develop high-quality courses and student experiences, you may need to rely on a few strategically placed third-party institutional providers to augment your internal staff. Understanding your current organizational structures and operational model allows you to determine what investments need to be made with institutional partners. These relationships allow you to enhance course quality by focusing on the strengths of your faculty and staff, while at the same time mitigating some of the risks and costs associated with developing all of the components of online programs in-house.