How should we measure the quality of online learning?
When talking about the quality of online learning, many people try to compare it to the quality of classroom learning. And the result of comparison has been repeatedly reported that the quality of online learning is similar to (or even slightly better than) that of classroom learning is similar. A 2010 report published by the U.S. Department of Education is one example of those reports.
In fact, how we deliver may not matter. Most of online learning have similar ways of delivering content (lectures, reading material, assignments, class discussions and so on). So it may not be so surprising to see the quality of online learning is similar to that of offline learning.
How, then, do we measure the quality of online learning? In terms of what?
A president of a nonprofit, online university raised good questions and provided some good examples regarding measuring quality of learning issue in a recent special report published by Chronicles of Higher Education.
In the article, he said that many accrediting organizations or ranking systems such as the U.S. News & World Report rankings are doing wrong things by looking at inputs-the degrees held by faculty members, faculty-student ratios, library resources, expenditures per student and so on.
Of course, many research universities are measured by the quality of their research. But most other colleges including online universities are not focusing on research. According to the president, those universities who has focus on teaching and learning should be measured by outputs rather than inputs.
Outputs can include the popular measures such as the dropout rates or graduation rates. But, output should be related to what students know and what they are able to do. That is why the president's university, Western Governors University tries to measure students' learning outcomes-they call it as 'competencies'. Again it is what students should know and be able to do.
In the university, in order to graduate, students must demonstrate they have mastered all competencies through many assessment tools (tests, performance tasks, projects, papers, etc.). Where possible, they utilize third-party assessments such as licensure exams for teachers and nurses, IT certification exams for IT students, the Society for Human Resource Management exam for HR students, and so on.
And in addition, they ask graduates and their employers whether their graduates have competencies required for their jobs, and how employers are satisfied with their graduates and so on as another way of evaluating their quality of teaching and learning.
After reading this article, I got to agree with this author. The quality of learning should be measured in terms of output rather than input. And the output should include what students know and be able to do after their classes, not just how high the graduation rate or the dropout rate would be.
I think academic administrators should carefully consider developing assessment tools and systems like Western Governors University, not just leaving the important tasks in the hands of instructors.