Counting Down 2011: Top Trends in Online Education

Counting Down 2011: Top Trends in Online Education

This year has seen several prominent trends that have turned the spotlight on online schools. There were questions raised concerning how these schools can provide quality and relevant education during these economically challenging times, and the problems students face when they graduate and cannot pay back their loans. There were ongoing investigations related to problems with recruiting practices and plagiarism, and yet, throughout 2011, enrollment in online courses continued to expand. In fact, the 2011 Survey of Online Learning found that there was a 10% growth rate and “the number of students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 6 million.“ And despite all of the challenges faced this year, there was also a bright side – the advances in the use of technology to enhance the online learning experience.

Online Education and a Challenging Economy

The challenges faced by online schools this year raised questions about whether online students were receiving a “high-quality” education. This is a realistic question to ask because students are often seeking education to prepare for new careers or career advancement, improve marketability, or find a new job. The good news is that the issue of quality is taken seriously by online schools and many have implemented quality assurance measures that encompass instructional methods and ongoing faculty development.

Online instructors provide a real-world perspective and are often hired because of their education and experience, and one of the subject areas that continues to provide relevant education for the workforce is business. The most popular online business degrees include business management, business administration, and accounting. These degree programs provide general and specific knowledge that may not guarantee a job or a specific income; however, it does provide students with knowledge and skill sets that give them an edge within a competitive marketplace.

As Brian Moran, interim president of the Association of Private Sector College and Universities noted: “This is a difficult economy with a need for career education,” and “the for-profit colleges serve a niche that traditional higher education does not emphasize.“ In other words, online schools are meeting the needs of working adults.

For-Profits Under Investigation

This year, many for-profit (online) schools were under investigation. The investigation began in 2010 when the U.S. Department of Education requested the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to monitor for-profit schools for financial accountability. The findings pointed to questionable recruiting practices and in 2011, the Higher Learning Commission announced further investigation (of some) of these schools. The end result was increased protection for students, which translates into schools working harder to keep you more informed about the financial commitment you make when you begin an online degree program.

Online schools did not take the investigations lightly. For example, one of the schools that responded was Alta College, which indicated that its admissions officers were retrained. Kaplan University, which is owned by the Washington Post Company, began a system that provided students with a 28-day grace period to try out a class, after which if students decided to quit, they would not have to pay the tuition fee. The school has maintained this program, despite a steady decline in overall revenue.

In another related development, a June news report indicated that the University of Phoenix settled a lawsuit ($67.5 million) with the U.S. government about the compensation methods for recruiters. The parent company Apollo Group Inc. “emphasized that the settlement did not acknowledge any wrongdoing or include an admission of liability,“ and “the company said that, under the terms of the deal, it has been released from further criminal or civil exposure related to the specified conduct.“ The University of Phoenix has experienced a steady decline in enrollment of approximately 40% throughout the year.

Increased Student Loan Default Rate

There has also been a great deal of attention placed on online schools because of the student loan default rate, though this was not just limited to for-profit schools. The Washington Post reports a current loan default rate of 25%, and a September news report noted that the U.S. Department of Education put some of the blame on the slow job growth in our present economy.

For-profit schools came into the picture after concerns about the amount of financial aid received by these schools, along with the number of low-income students that are enrolled, surfaced. Essentially, low-income students are less likely to graduate, which in turn leads to a greater student loan default rate. Former students of Kaplan University even created a virtual petition form titled “Tell Kaplan and the Washington Post: Stop Cashing in on Low-Income Students,“ which has collected more than 50,000 signatures to date. The goal of the petition is to create change within the industry by starting with one online university, forcing for-profit schools to reconsider its acceptance of lower-income students.

A result of these issues was the development of a Task Force or set of standards that for-profit schools are to follow. Called the Foundation for Educational Success, this task force released New Standards of Responsible Conduct and Transparency for Higher Education. The standards address five key areas, including Enrollment, Disclosure, Financial Aid, Student Readiness, and Career and Job Services. They advocate a 21-day trial period for online classes, and this is the first step that Kaplan University took when they agreed to follow these standards on a university-wide basis.

Another development occurred in June, when the Education Department launched the Gainful Employment Rule, placing guidelines for program eligibility for federal financial aid according to three benchmarks: “a federal student loan repayment rate of at least 35 percent, a debt-to-income ratio of less than 12 percent or a debt-to-discretionary-income ratio of less than 30 percent.“ The goal of this ruling is to protect students and promote long-term accountability for online schools.

Plagiarism and High-Tech Cheating

Plagiarism issues were another trend this year. Once again, online schools were in the spotlight because the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that “staff at six of the 12 colleges that enrolled the investigators tolerated plagiarism or awarded credit for incomplete or shoddy work.“ What’s interesting about this statement is that the work of instructors at six schools has been used to generate a blanket statement about the quality of all online work. That’s difficult for me to accept as an online instructor, especially when I consider that there are thousands of online instructors working with thousands of online students every day. In addition, it leaves unanswered questions: What is the definition of incomplete or shoddy work? Was the plagiarism intentional or accidental (formatting mistakes)?

More importantly, plagiarism is an issue that is not unique to online schools. A report by the Pew Research Center indicated that there has been a steady increase in plagiarism over the past 10 years, and this was a survey of college presidents from both non-profit and for-profit schools. It’s important to note that all schools have policies in place regarding plagiarism and almost all provide access to plagiarism review services. For example, Turnitin is the leading plagiarism monitoring service, with access to a database of 14 billion pages. It is estimated that there are 10,000 institutions in 126 countries that use this service, with approximately 200,000 papers reviewed every day.

In other words, plagiarism is not a new issue and is not something that any school will tolerate. If plagiarism occurs, it is often the result of the paper not being monitored, which places responsibility first on the instructor. Online schools are particularly concerned about this issue and take swift action when an instructor submits a plagiarism incident. I have never tolerated plagiarism and do not know of any online school that does.

Technology and Social Networking

An ongoing trend for 2011 is the use of mobile technology. In 2010, the U.S. market for Mobile Learning products and services reached $958.7 million and the projected annual growth rate is 13.7%. For example, Smartphone usage has doubled this year, according to a recent study. Online schools are starting to utilize applications for mobile devices to allow access to the classrooms, referred to as m-learning.

In addition, podcasts are being used to supplement the delivery of lectures, and the use of digital textbooks (e-books) continues to grow. Schools are also implementing innovative approaches to online course materials, with one of the most popular services used this year being Toolwire Learnscapes©. There are course-specific interactive simulations that can be purchased and implemented, which allows students to interact with real-world computer-generated scenarios as a means of enhancing the process of learning. It’s similar to using an online game; however, it has an educational purpose.

Another ongoing trend this year is the use of social networking. It continues to have an impact on the learning environment, and used primarily as a means of building a community among students. While Facebook may come to mind first when talking about social network websites, recent research indicates that Twitter is being utilized more frequently by instructors and students because it offers a professional means of developing academic connections.

The trends this year have highlighted issues that will have a long-term impact on for-profit schools and online education. While there are a few schools that have been the focus of investigation, the impact is on the industry as a whole. For students, this means that there is a greater emphasis on financial responsibility and accountability for you and your school.

While other issues, such as recruiting and admissions practices, have questioned the motives and potential outcome for students who choose a particular program, the responsibility should also be yours. Before you decide to start a degree program, conduct research so you learn about your school, your financial obligations, and the potential career options for your education.

Online education is designed to meet the needs of adults with specific career goals, and the use of technology further enables a positive learning experience. This was a challenging year for online schools and as a result, there may be a shift in attitudes about the value of online education; however, the continued growth of enrollment in online courses indicates that students are utilizing this option to meet their educational needs.

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By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Ocean/Corbis

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