Quality Assurance in Online Education

Quality Assurance in Online Education

If you have considered obtaining an online degree, one of the questions you may have is about the quality of online schools. You are making a significant investment in your education, so you should consider how quality is determined and how it is monitored. Accreditation is one of the first aspects of quality assurance you’ll find.

Quality control measures used for online schools include (1) a governmental agency that monitors financial responsibility, (2) industry standards that are promoted, (3) a quality program that many schools participate in, and (4) the internal quality control procedures that online schools implement to maintain strong educational standards. Learning about each of these things will give you a better idea of just how you can ensure that your online school of choice is maintaining a high-quality educational experience.

1. Accreditation of online schools

Institutional accreditation lets you know that the school has been reviewed for quality and accountability from a financial, program, instructional, and facilities perspective. It is important to note that while the U.S. Department of Education is involved in the process of developing educational laws and policies, it is not involved in the accreditation process. Instead, accreditation is handled by non-governmental agencies. Online schools that offer a traditional degree program will typically seek regional accreditation and schools that offer career programs and non-traditional degree programs will seek national accreditation. For example, the University of Phoenix has received regional accreditation because traditional degree programs are offered.

The following outlines the basic structure of regional accreditation for colleges and universities, including online schools: the Council for Higher Education Accreditation oversees the overall process of accreditation, but schools receive accreditation from a regional agency, which includes the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

As an example, the Higher Learning Commission presently oversees the voluntary accreditation process of 1,000 colleges and universities. This organization is responsible for a 19-state region, which includes Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Their mission statement indicates that accreditation is “serving the common good by assuring and advancing the quality of higher learning.” For this reason, when researching online schools, be sure that the school you choose is accredited.

2. Government Accountability Office

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports to Congress and is responsible for conducting financial audits. But that’s not all. The U.S. GAO also examines the financial practices of online schools because students can apply for financial aid and the GAO strives to ensure that students are protected in their investment. In fact, the U.S. GAO recently reported that from 2009 to 2010,”for-profit colleges received almost $32 billion in grants and loans provided to students under federal student aid programs.” The largest source of funding is through the Title IV program, and the U.S. Department of Education requested the GAO to monitor and report on distance education schools and programs for financial accountability.

This type of investigation into the financial practices of for-profit colleges, many of which are the nation’s biggest online schools, can protect students. For example, the U.S. GAO conducted an undercover investigation of 15 online schools and concluded that seven were found to have questionable practices related to enrollment and financial aid programs. As a result, the Higher Learning Commission plans to conduct a further investigation of some of these schools, although the names of the schools have never been publically identified by the GAO.

The Higher Learning Commission has also acknowledged that their organization has experienced difficulty keeping up with the fast-paced growth of online schools, but that it is diligently working on this issue. What this means to you is that as a potential online student, online schools are now aware that they must be responsible for maintaining financially sound practices with regards to how your student loans are processed.

3. Industry standards

In addition to the publicly recognized standards of accreditation and financial responsibility, it is also important to know that there are industry standards that are being utilized by online schools. For example, one of the largest associations devoted to the development of quality standards for online schools is the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), a non-profit organization. Institutional members of the Sloan-C can purchase a publication titled the Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Programs, which provides a measurement tool for online schools to assess their programs and utilize during the design and development of their courses.

In addition to publishing numerous quality assurance tools, the Sloan Consortium presents annual awards for Excellence in Online Education. The award categories include Outstanding Online Program, Excellence in Faculty Development for Online Teaching, Excellence in Online Teaching, and Outstanding Achievement in Online Education by an Individual. Sloan-C also hosts workshops that offer professional opportunities for online educators.

4. Quality assurance program

Many online schools are taking the issue of quality assurance further with membership in a program called Quality Mattersâ„¢ (QM). This program has been nationally recognized because it is based upon a faculty peer-reviewed system. When an online school requests a QM audit, a Quality Mattersâ„¢ Rubric is utilized to assess eight measures of quality: Course Overview and Introduction, Learning Objectives (Competencies), Assessment and Measurement, Instructional Materials, Learner Interaction and Engagement,  Course Technology, Learner Support, and Accessibility. The rubric is theory-driven and grounded in a strong literature review, and the implementation is faculty-driven because faculty peers are conducting the reviews.

Another association devoted to the development of effective online learning practices, the EDUCAUSE Learning initiative, has found that the QM model is an example of a best practice for online schools to follow. It has been reported that hundreds of schools have adopted the Quality Mattersâ„¢ program, including Ashford University Online and the University of the Rockies. The standards adopted through the use of the QM model have been noted for increasing student satisfaction with schools and courses.

The Quality Matters Program (QM) recently announced the following:
“¢    Cengage Learning received a Quality Matters certification mark, which indicates their courses meet the quality criteria outlined in the QM rubric.
“¢    Blackboard, Inc. became a subscriber to the QMâ„¢ program and will promote the use of the rubric with all customers who utilize the Blackboard online classroom learning management system.
“¢    Ashford University received recognition for demonstrating a positive outcome and Capella University for its integration of the QMâ„¢ model.

5. Internal quality control measures

Finally, online schools also have their own internal measures of quality control and monitor faculty performance and student outcomes through programs such as faculty peer reviews, teaching measurements, and online training. For example, an online university that I teach for has established a minimum measure that must be met each term, which is calculated from end-of-course student surveys. Students utilize a rating scale of one through five for each of the criteria and instructors are required to maintain a 4.8 overall average rating to remain an adjunct faculty member. In addition, most online universities require adjunct instructors to complete professional development activities annually, which may include online training workshops and classes or publishing scholarly articles.

The issue of quality and financial accountability for online schools is addressed through strict accreditation requirements and financial standards. But that tells only part of the story. The quality of your online education is further determined by the quality assurance measures that the schools put into place. Many follow the industry standards outlined by the Sloan Consortium and others have implemented the Quality Mattersâ„¢ program. But all in all, almost every online school has procedures in place for faculty development, and that further extends quality from an organization-wide perspective to the classroom environment you’ll have as an online student. When you choose the right online education, you are very likely to find that you will have a high-quality experience.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Ocean/Corbis

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