Quality Online Degree Programs

By: Sharon Greenslade

The number of online degree programs offered by universities, both within the United States and in other countries around the globe, has expanded remarkably from the year 2000 to 2005. Recent research [ Pond (2002), Twigg, (2001), Swail and Kampits (2001), Nielson (1997)] indicates that this rapid expansion has superceded our understanding of how to plan, organize, and evaluate these programs effectively. Currently available frameworks provide general guidelines for creating programs of high quality, but they are not specific enough to be of high value in comprehensively organizing and ensuring a quality online degree program. Hence, the development of a solid and comprehensive framework for benchmarking quality of online degree programs is critical to future program growth and expansion.

This discussion is organized around four core themes. First, the authors present the status of currently available quality assessment frameworks for assessing the quality of online degree programs. Second, emerging concepts for quality assessment are reviewed. Third, the authors propose a comprehensive and utilitarian program improvement model, and the model's core concepts, structure, and focus are discussed. Finally, areas for further research in quality improvement and assessment for online degree programs are outlined.

Current Status: The Need for a Review of Existing Quality Guidelines

Increased student demand for flexible education has created considerable interest among many private educational providers who want to capitalize on this emerging market of professionals wishing to maintain and update their skills in a rapidly changing economic and technological environment. With the rapid expansion of higher education generally, and distance education online degree programs in particular, concern for the educational quality of these programs has become an issue of paramount importance globally. Swail and Kampits (2001) observe, 'Absent accountability, quality assurance , and evaluation , distance learning increasingly attracts educational providers attuned to marketability and profit' (p. 38). Past approaches to assessing quality based on guidelines have focused primarily on evaluating inputs to the educational process, such as facilities, quality of teaching and research staff, volumes in the library, the preparation and quality of incoming students. This approach for measuring and ensuring quality can no longer be sufficient in an environment that demands institutional accountability for what students learn rather than what the institution teaches. Swail and Kampits (2001) also observe, 'Over the past three decades, accreditors (and the public) have supported the rapid rise of distance education with little attention to new benchmarks [ emphasis added] for evaluation and assessment'. Many countries are implementing major new quality assurance processes and requirements that require documentation of learning outcomes, the student experience, institutional planning processes, and proof of institutional financial stability.

Establishing appropriate updated standards and benchmarks for evaluating the quality and impact of online degree programs is now essential. Recently several organizations have proposed new guidelines for assessing the quality of these programs, but the resulting frameworks are still inadequate and incomplete.

To establish the status of currently available quality assessment tools the authors reviewed a number of presently used quality assessment guidelines. Specifically, the authors examined these guidelines with the goal of assessing how well the set of guidelines incorporate the following criteria suggested by literature review as being critical to establishing quality:

Ã?â‚?? To what extent do the program's teaching/learning materials and processes?

Ã?â‚?? Foster collaborative learning?

Ã?â‚?? Facilitate formation of learning communities?

Ã?â‚?? Facilitate social integration?

Ã?â‚?? Facilitate career integration?

Ã?â‚?? Impart the skills necessary to transfer knowledge to job performance?

Ã?â‚?? How flexible is the program in enabling learners to pursue education anywhere, anytime, at anypace?

Ã?â‚?? How does the program prepare participants to become successful lifelong learners?

Ã?â‚?? How well does the program address societal educational needs?

Ã?â‚?? Are program costs examined comprehensively from the perspective of the learner, in terms of time, access, and dollars, as well as from the perspective of the institution on these measures?

Ã?â‚?? Are employer requirements concerning the learning outcomes of online programs specifically listed in appropriate situations and contexts and included as a criterion of overall program quality?

Ã?â‚?? To what extent are requirements of governments incorporated as a critical element of quality?

Ã?â‚?? Are relevant cross-cultural challenges, choice of language of instruction, and meeting international standards and requirements for accreditation considered a key element of quality online programs?

Ã?â‚?? Do criteria incorporate performance evaluation criteria appropriate to the goals and processes of online learning, rather than using simplistic comparisons with what happens in face-2-face classrooms?

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