• October 20, 2014

The Next Admissions Challenge: Evaluating Online Education

Colleges pay admissions officials to predict the future, and that future is likely to include a revolution in the way many high-school students learn. As attendees of the National Association for College Admission Counseling heard here last week, online education is spreading rapidly among secondary schools, a trend that raises many questions for admissions officials.

On Friday, Brian Lekander, program manager for Star Schools, a distance-education initiative in the U.S. Education Department's Office of Innovation and Improvement, described the rise of virtual learning in elementary and secondary schools. Thirty-two states have virtual-school programs, and 70 percent of all school districts offer online and distance-learning programs, according to the Education Department. In 2008, two million secondary students were enrolled in online-learning programs or in "blended" programs, which include face-to-face and online instruction. In 2000, that enrollment was only 50,000 students.

"It's going to drastically change over time what classroom education looks like," Mr. Lekander said.

It will also pose a challenge to admissions officials, who will need to develop ways of evaluating online course work. After all, over time admissions officials have become familiar with the high schools that many of their applicants attend. Knowing what programs a high school offers and what kinds of students it serves provides crucial context for weighevaluating applicants' preparation. But the fast-increasing array of virtual programs poses a challenge. As a leader of one such program, Jan Keating, said at the conference: "How would you know when you see an online course on a transcript that it's a high-quality program?"

Ms. Keating is headmaster of the Education for Gifted Youth Online High School at Stanford University, which offers computer-based distance-learning courses to high-achieving students. More than 50,000 students from 35 countries have taken courses through the program. To help admissions officials understand how to assess the quality of online programs, Ms. Keating described what questions they should ask.

Does the program have a clear mission? What are the educational backgrounds of its instructors? Do the instructors ever have face time with students? Can the program's organizers provide information about student outcomes? And is it fully accredited?

Beyond evaluating curricula, admissions officials would also want to understand how students interact in online-learning programs. As David Mabe, assistant dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College, asked, "How do virtual high schools foster a sense of community?"

Ms. Keating described the social interactions of the students in her program. A lack of face-to-face contact, she said, does not prevent students from connecting intellectually—and it may have some key benefits: "You lose the physicality and awkwardness that occurs in high school."

Zach Chaffin, a former student in Stanford's online high school, described how the program had allowed him to interact with students from different places, who had different viewpoints, which prepared him for campus life. While studying in California, he became best friends with a fellow student in Hong Kong. "There actually was a totally legitimate social environment," he said.

Mr. Chaffin, now a sophomore at the Johns Hopkins University, said that online schooling requires a lot of "self-motivation," especially because it gives students more free time than they would have in a traditional high school. "In that sense, now that I'm in college," he said, "it was a really good experience."

Comments

1. umbahli - September 28, 2009 at 01:49 am

I'd be interested to know if anyone is looking at how to prepare students for an online high school education. Do traditional elementary schools prepare students to succeed at the hight school level? Do they prepare students to work independently? Are social interactions at early ages important to later developing online community?

Continuing Education CSU

2. berniel - September 28, 2009 at 08:47 am

California enacted legislation more than forty years ago that provides for the use of public funds for both classroom and non-classroom education in community colleges. Non-classroom based insctuction has been growing and improving for many years. The research is in.

All schools use classroom, blended and fully online programs now.
Registrars and admissions officers accept courses based on the accreditdation of the institution from which they come. They use course descriptions and grades. Differentiating the method of the instruction is irrelevant. Accreditation takes care of this. What is important is student learning and learning outcomes. Debates about online lerning today are similar to the resistance debates about using computers on campus in the 1960s, or using calculators when doing math. They are evolutionary steps as new ways replace old ways.

Bernard Luskin
CEO and Senior Provost
Global E-Learning
Touro College and University

3. primaryovertone - September 28, 2009 at 09:45 am

berniel,
I agree with you that other schools should not worry about differentiating between online and traditional classes when evaluating credits. It is important that the accreditors be vigilant to decide how they will measure quality in online education. I feel that there are quality and non-quality programs offered online and traditionally and both need to be evaluated and corrected where needed.

4. laurelin - September 28, 2009 at 11:16 am

I don't agree that online classes are necessarily our eventual evolution or automatically equivalent (or better). And I'm no technophobe or resister on general principles. And I hope accreditors do have their eyes on the issue. At the college level, there still isn't a good, inexpensive answer to validating who is actually doing the work in the class and to whether cheating is more prevalent in online classes (actual empirical data, not just student self-report or perceptions).

I do agree that learning outcomes should be the focus.

At our institution (small undergraduate AACSB-accredited business college), we are becoming concerned about equivalence in learning outcomes. In upper division classes, we are seeing students with wildly different levels of knowledge and skills that should have been mastered in prerequisite, lower-division core courses (or even in high school, when it comes to quantitative reasoning and written/oral communication skills). We are slicing and dicing our assessment data to see whether class format contributes to these differences.

Transfer credit from junior colleges may be part of that picture. We hadn't thought about high school online classes. But we are worried that online classes in general may have less rigor (be just correspondence courses) and/or have a more limited ability to stop cheating. Some faculty are now offering blended courses (students must take exams in person in a proctored environment), but that is not practical if students are widely dispersed geographically.

In trying to construct assurance of learning outcomes assessment, we must also consider whether the differences in outcomes are due to faculty teaching or to the structure of the curriculum rather than the class format (or we could just have a batch of students with wildly different base-line abilities).

I have an open mind, but I think the jury is still out on the equivalence between face-to-face and online classes in terms of outcomes assessment at the university level.

5. jesor - September 28, 2009 at 12:12 pm

I agree that it is best left to the accreditors to determine whether or not online secondary school work meets a certain standard. Additionally, I have trouble with the idea that admissions counselors "know" certain high schools to be better than others. Often times impressions of a school's quality are founded on little more than location, a brief recruitment visit, the demeanor of a couple of students, and an overall perception of wealth and/or prestige. This unfortunately helps to reinforce generational poverty and achievement gaps for certain groups and underrates high quality schools in tough neighborhoods.
I do however believe that a college should consider whether or not the type and style of curriculum that a student has engaged in thus far is similar to that offered by the college. My assumption is that a student who has had success with one type of curriculum will be more likely to do better in college than a student who was equally successful in a different style of curriculum.

6. kevinsmckenzie - September 28, 2009 at 02:16 pm

Jesor,

I respectfully disagree with your assertion that perceived quality can be surmised by such paltry factors. In my professional experience, it is the school's academic offerings, the performance of their students on various standardized tests, and the success of their graduates beyond their secondary education that can most accurately speak to a school's academic reputation. Outside of one district I encountered (where the perception was skewed due to the exorbitant salary paid to the faculty), I have yet to find any school where the wealth or prestige influenced their perceived quality, and know of several schools in "tough neighborhoods", or whose students come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds whom are known as excellent high schools.

7. kevinsmckenzie - September 28, 2009 at 02:16 pm

Jesor,

I respectfully disagree with your assertion that perceived quality can be surmised by such paltry factors. In my professional experience, it is the school's academic offerings, the performance of their students on various standardized tests, and the success of their graduates beyond their secondary education that can most accurately speak to a school's academic reputation. Outside of one district I encountered (where the perception was skewed due to the exorbitant salary paid to the faculty), I have yet to find any school where the wealth or prestige influenced their perceived quality, and know of several schools in "tough neighborhoods", or whose students come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds whom are known as excellent high schools.

8. babo1990 - September 28, 2009 at 02:53 pm

As a current professional in business taking online courses, there are indeed issues that must be addressed in order to determine the quality of the course. I recently took two auditing courses and two business law courses online from the College of DuPage, in Glen Ellyn, IL. These 4 courses were radically different for one main reason: the professor.

In my auditing courses, I had two different teachers. I changed for the second one because I wasn't pleased with the first. It turns out they were both the same. Neither of them spent any time with the online learners at all, even those that reached out for help. Since this was a refresher course for the CPA for me, I had a specific purpose in taking the class and was not in search of a particular grade. However, both teachers taught their online courses like they were a hobby: I'll get to it when I have time or am required to do it.

It was not uncommon to get assignments back more than a week and sometimes two weeks later. Considering you were doing a chapter a week, it is most beneficial that you get your work back quickly to understand what you are doing incorrectly.

Neither spent any time putting together side notes or classroom notes. They only sent us to the textbook website and directed us to the PowerPoint presentations. The quizzes were the multiple choice questions in the book. When we took the exams, we were not allowed to see what we got wrong as I was told "it is the Accounting Department's policy to not let out test information."

I understand that you don't want to give out the test questions because you are probably using a test bank. And if you give them out, that means you would probably have to create questions on your own. However, I never knew what I missed on the exam and I thought I did pretty well.

I could have just as easily picked up the book, bought the solutions manual online from an older edition and taught myself. Fortunately for me, there were several students who wanted extra help and I was given the opportunity to teach them, online.

As much as the accredition association will be able to help in terms of quality, they are not able to do anything about quality when the faculty could care less about the online teaching experience. As a student, I get tired of having little attention, excuses that my professor is teaching 5 courses this term and that they can't turnaround a paper within 2 to 3 weeks, yet require us to meet deadlines.

I personally have found that the online options are great for me. I wish I had these available when I was in college years ago. I like to work fast and at my own pace. I take the time I need on areas that I am poor and speed through those that are already ingrained. But having a poor professor in this setting makes it even worse as you don't have many options out there. You are disconnected from your fellow classmates and you certainly don't have a professor that cares.

Bascially, online education needs to police a few things, including the professors that teach them, the students so they don't cheat, the students so that it is actually the person who is taking the exam that is the same student in the class, the level of knowledge being taught and the interaction among the classmates and professor. There are a variety of ways of doing this.

As more and more professionals are finding it more convenient to take online courses for both personal and professional growth, it is up to the college to get onboard or be left behind. The traditional format of classroom only is disappearing with more blended formats happening. The online concept has come.

9. nbcglx - September 29, 2009 at 10:06 am

Online education, just like classroom education, is what you make of it. The quality and content of the program, and the experiences of the faculty, have a great influence on the program but the students ultimately will determine the success of it. This is no different than a typical face-to-face educational experience.

The youth of today learn in very different ways from their predecessors. Youth are very comfortable with technology and are very receptive to information delivered electronically. As I see it, online learning is not very different from home schooling, another growing trend in the U.S. that has delivered a lot of very high-caliber students that end up at very prestigious universities the world over.

Personally, I have achieved my Bachelor's degree via an online program and graduated Magna Cum Laude. I am currently pursuing a dual-degree Master's program, also online. The amount of discipline and self-motivation that it took to be able to do that was extraordinary. It was definitely more work than my previous face-to-face university experiences. The professors I was fortunate to work with were passionate about their work and they delighted in sparking very intellectual and inspiring conversation. The classes and classmates were always closely-knit and the communication was plentiful and constant. There is no reason that a high school-level online education has to be any different. In fact, I believe that because younger students have school as their primary responsibility, the online education experience should be even richer and more full. There are a lot of resources available via the Internet and certainly more than a brick-and-mortar school can offer. As long as the faculty and program content are of a high quality (just as a traditional school should be), there is no reason that online students would not achieve the same or better results as their physical classroom counterparts.

10. raymondmrose - September 29, 2009 at 03:07 pm

The US Dept of Ed released a study last month about online learning that reported online was at least as good as, if not better than on-ground instruction. So the real issue, as pointed out by nbcglx isn't if the instruction is online or on-gound it's what heppens in the course itself, and that's a function of course design and how the instructor facilitates the course.

My experience is that virtual high school programs put much more effort into online instructor and course design preparation than do many higher education programs. So, I'm not surprised when higher education folks question online education quality -- based on their experience with higher education online courses, but don't apply that experience to virtual high school programs.

11. raymondmrose - September 29, 2009 at 03:17 pm

Can we stop the discussion about is online education as good as on-ground? At least in K-12 the recent report by the US Dept of Ed answers that. Online is as good or better!

Now, lets focus on the real issue. Some online courses, just like some on-ground courses aren't very good. But, since just about every virtual education program at the high school level requires their course designers and course facilitators to have online professional development before they touch an online course, they have better preparation and better courses designed to reflect online pedagogy than I see in many higher education online programs.

Virtual education isn't a passing fad. It's here to stay. So let's focus on how to build courses on-ground or online that have the greatest impact on learning and benefit the greatest number of learners.

12. raymondmrose - September 29, 2009 at 03:19 pm

Can we stop the discussion about is online education as good as on-ground? At least in K-12 the recent report by the US Dept of Ed answers that. Online is as good or better!

Now, lets focus on the real issue. Some online courses, just like some on-ground courses aren't very good. But, since just about every virtual education program at the high school level requires their course designers and course facilitators to have online professional development before they touch an online course, they have better preparation and better courses designed to reflect online pedagogy than I see in many higher education online programs.

Virtual education isn't a passing fad. It's here to stay. So let's focus on how to build courses on-ground or online that have the greatest impact on learning and benefit the greatest number of learners.

13. mssmiley - September 29, 2009 at 04:48 pm

I have the highest degree of respect and confidence in the integrity of online education. I did half of my graduate work online and found the classes to be very engaging and challenging compared to in class instruction. The stigma attached to online learning does tremendous disservice to the great quality and outstanding professionals who dedicate their time and energy to this modern form of instructional delivery. My program was annually reviewed and instructors were held to the highest standards. Yes, there are some online programs that can be called into question, but on a whole, most online programs are high quality and meet national standards. My online experience was academically enriching and the quality of the instruction was peerless.

14. shortercollege - September 30, 2009 at 11:37 am

There seems to be an unquestioned assumption here that the traditional high school experience represents some sort of gold standard against which non-traditional efforts should be judged. Am I alone in my observation that bricks-and-mortar high schools don't do an adequate job of preparing students for college work? In my opinion, if online education is only _as good_ as the traditional variety, then it's in deep, deep trouble.

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