• August 30, 2014

How Technology Can Improve Online Learning—and Learning in General

How Technology Can Improve Online Learning 1

David Plunkert for The Chronicle

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David Plunkert for The Chronicle

As president of a nonprofit, online university I am often asked about the quality of online learning. The answer is that the quality of education is largely independent of the mode of delivery. Other variables are far more important. There is high-quality online learning, and there is high-quality classroom learning, just as there is low-quality learning in both settings.

Several recent studies support this observation: A report from the American Enterprise Institute called "Diplomas and Dropouts" documented the wide disparity in graduation rates across 1,300 traditional colleges and universities, even between those with similar admissions criteria and students. The Washington Monthly's 2010 College Guide listed 50 "dropout factories"—all bricks-and-mortar institutions with graduation rates from 5 percent to 20 percent. A 2010 meta-analysis and review of online-learning studies, published by the U.S. Department of Education, concluded that online learning was as good as or slightly more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction.


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Since most online education is simply classroom instruction delivered through the Internet, it isn't surprising that the learning outcomes are roughly the same. Most colleges, including online institutions, have yet to find ways to use technology to really transform education. Most online courses are still taught in a virtual "classroom" by a professor or instructor, have a defined schedule for covering the curriculum, and are conducted over a set number of weeks. Rather than debating whether classroom education is better than online education, we should be looking for ways to use technology to improve the overall quality of higher education.

How should we measure quality? While retention and graduation rates are important metrics, placing too much emphasis on these factors may well backfire. Not long ago, in a meeting with their governor, the public-college presidents of one state told the governor that if he wanted higher graduation rates, they would simply raise admissions standards. Other colleges that face pressure to raise graduation rates may leave admissions standards in place but make the curriculum less rigorous. If the focus is on default rates for federal aid, colleges will simply not admit those who are less likely to repay loans (in many cases the very people financial aid was designed to help). Quality does not lend itself to government regulation because there is no simple metric.

Recent criticism of graduation rates in some online-learning programs fails to take into account the student population of these online institutions. Comparing graduation rates in online learning programs that serve primarily older, working adults to the rates at a college that enrolls 18- to 22-year-olds is not valid. In late September, Complete College America, a nonprofit group pushing for higher graduation rates, put out a comprehensive report showing that only 27 percent of full-time students age 25 or older at entry graduated with a bachelor's degree in six years. For older part-time students the number dropped to 10.6 percent (substantially lower percentages than for younger students, minority students, or low-income students). In other words, our traditional institutions typically aren't serving this population of older students any better than fully online institutions.

The same argument can be made for higher default rates on student loans for this population of students, whether in face-to-face or online programs: Those who don't graduate are less likely to pay back their loans.

Another quality issue raised for online-learning institutions is how they know when their students are "attending class," and how they measure the amount of time students spend studying. The same questions can be asked on campuses—especially for general-education classes with 100-plus students, where attendance is never taken (nor should it be, I believe). The most important aspect of this issue is the actual relevance of time in class: Can students gain the knowledge they need to be successful through other means? We will make great strides in quality when we define and measure learning outcomes independent of time.

Accreditation is sometimes used as a measure of quality. Even though accrediting organizations are beginning to shift their approach, too often they measure quality by looking at inputs—the degrees held by faculty members, faculty-student ratios, library resources, and even the curriculum itself (but rarely mastering that curriculum). The U.S. News & World Report rankings also measure inputs, among them exclusivity (the smaller the percentage of students admitted and the higher their SAT scores, the better); reputation among peers; and expenditures per student (the higher the spending and the lower faculty-student ratios, the better—which actually encourages less productivity and more limited access).

Our world-class research institutions are generally measured on the quality of their research and faculty, but most other colleges and universities, including online universities, are evaluated on the quality of teaching and learning. Accurate assessment of quality requires multiple measures—all of them measures of outputs rather than inputs.

At my institution, Western Governors University, quality begins by defining—in collaboration with industry councils—what graduates should know and be able to do. We call these skills competencies. Each of our 50 degree programs has a set of competencies. We then develop assessment tools (tests, performance tasks, projects, papers, etc.) to measure these competencies, and students must demonstrate they have mastered all of the competencies to graduate. The grading of competencies is separate from the teaching (Western Governors employs a team of graders) to avoid any conflict of interest, and exams are proctored. The competencies are then checked in several ways. Where possible, we utilize third-party assessments to measure learning. This includes licensure exams for teachers and nurses, information-technology certification exams for IT students, the Society for Human Resource Management exam for graduates in that field, and so on.

We then conduct annual third-party studies of both graduates and employers. We ask whether our graduates have all the competencies required for their jobs, how they compare with graduates of other universities, and how they rank as employees. We ask graduates and employers how satisfied they are and whether they would recommend Western Governors to others. Of course we measure retention and graduation rates; we actually report monthly on students who are on track for on-time graduation.

We also conduct a student satisfaction survey twice a year, and participate in the National Survey of Student Engagement annually, allowing us to make comparisons with other institutions. The combination of all these measures of quality allows us to evaluate how we are doing and where we can improve. The results are published in an annual report, available on our Web site.

The real question of quality in online learning is the question of quality in higher education. Quality is not just how many people graduate, but what those graduates know. Quality is also related to how long it takes, and how much it costs, to deliver that learning. The United States is falling behind the world in the percentage of adults with college degrees. By that measure of quality, all of higher education needs to improve. One of the keys to that improvement will be more effective use of technology. Technology has fundamentally changed the productivity of every industry in America except education. In nearly all of higher education, it is an add-on cost. We know that learners come to higher education knowing different things and that students each learn at different rates. By using the technology to teach—to deliver the content of a course—we are able to free students to study what they need to learn, and to do so at their own pace.

Learning becomes the constant and time becomes the variable, rather than holding time constant and letting the learning vary. In an online environment that truly takes advantage of technology, the faculty role may change from delivering content to mentoring students. By using technology to measure learning, we can actually determine what students know and can do, rather than how long they spend in class. Technology allows us to fundamentally change the model to individualize learning, and in so doing improve learning and reduce costs. At Western Governors, for example, the average time to graduation with a bachelor's degree is 30 months, and the university is self-sustaining on tuition of $5,800 a year for nearly all of our programs.

All education, whether delivered face-to-face or online, should be judged on the same basis: educational results. That is, is it high quality, effective, and affordable? All institutions, online and traditional, need to do a better job of measuring and improving quality. Our nation needs greater productivity and higher quality from all our institutions of higher education.

Robert W. Mendenhall is president of Western Governors University.

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