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Asynch Delivery and the LMS Still Dominate for Online Programs

While a recent research project examined enrollment patterns for online courses, a new survey is looking at broader questions related to online programs, this one based on responses from "chief online officers." Produced by Quality Matters and Eduventures, the "Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE)" offers a "baseline" examination of program development, quality measures and other structural issues.

Online Delivery Methods

Most institutions rely on asynchronous delivery for their fully online programs. In fact, 95 percent of larger programs (those with 2,500 or more online program students) are "wholly asynchronous" while 1.5 percent are mainly or completely synchronous. About three-quarters (73 percent) of mid-sized programs (schools with between 500 and 2,499 online program students) and 62 percent of smaller programs are fully asynchronous.

The asynchronous nature of this kind of education may explain why threaded discussions turned up as the most commonly named teaching and learning technique, mentioned by 27.4 percent of respondents, closely followed by practice-based learning, listed by 27.3 percent of survey participants.

The survey found that the most prevalent tool for online programs is the learning management system, where Blackboard and Instructure Canvas dominated. Audio- and videoconferencing come in a "distant second," according to the researchers. The primary brands that surfaced for those functions were Adobe Connect, Cisco WebEx, Zoom, Kaltura, Panopto, TechSmith Camtasia and Echo360.

While the LMS plays a significant role in online programming, the report pointed to a distinct lack of references to "much-hyped innovations," such as adaptive learning, competency-based education systems, simulation or game-based learning tools.

Course Development Practices

The primary online course development method in use varies by size of program. The research found that for "larger" programs, four in 10 require the use of instructional design support, three in 10 use a team approach for online course design and one in 10 outsources the work. Overall, some 80 percent of larger programs use instructional design expertise. The advantage is that those programs tend to show "greater consistency and quality of design" and do a better job of institutional branding for their online programs.

In the smallest programs, instructional design support is treated as a "faculty option" for 53 percent of institutions. Another 18 percent expect faculty to develop their online courses independently. For 13 percent of mid-sized programs, the faculty do their development work independently; another 64 percent may choose whether or not to bring in instructional design help.

The use of outsourcing for course design is rare. On average, fewer than a quarter of institutions have called on outside firms to develop their programs. Among the respondents for this first survey, "almost no partnerships" exist for community colleges; and only a handful of four-year institutions have them. Among those few who have service providers doing this work, the services most commonly mentioned were: marketing, enrollment management and learning management system (LMS) support. Private nonprofits also turned to external help for technical support and course design. In four-year institutions, student support and retention services are a big part of the outsourcing mix.

Measuring Quality

As one would expect with a survey co-developed with Quality Matters, questions about quality assurance and metrics made up a large part of the questionnaire. Nearly half of respondents (47 percent) said they have adopted quality metrics tied to faculty development and program design. Almost as many (45 percent) also have those for course design.

According to the researchers, online education draws "greater scrutiny and more rigorous quality standards" than typical face-to-face classes. As a result, online education is continually being improved in a way that more traditionally delivered education isn't.

Among the many possible quality metrics suggested by the researchers, the five adopted most frequently for internal monitoring were:

  • Student achievement of program objectives (83 percent);
  • Student retention and graduation rates (77 percent);
  • Program reputation (48 percent);
  • Faculty training (47 percent); and
  • Student engagement measures (41 percent).

The first two metrics are the same ones used by accreditors and regulators, followed by faculty credentials, faculty training and student engagement measures.

For two of the metrics in the list above, program reputation and student engagement, most respondents in public two-year and four-year schools noted that they probably don't have "adequate data" to figure out how well their online programs are performing. The same was true for many other types of metrics, such as external rankings, standardized test performance, post-graduation employment, graduate earnings, employer feedback and alumni feedback. Those data gaps should serve as a warning, the researchers suggested. "If pressure from the Department of Education, regional accreditors, major foundations and the general public to report meaningful student outcomes continues to grow, there may be trouble ahead for institutions that have neither paid sufficient attention to these measures nor have developed ... rationales to defend their performance."

The complete "2017 CHLOE Report," which is expected to be updated annually, is available on the Quality Matters website for registration here.

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