Mass High Tech - Criteria for demystifying quality in online education

Mass High Tech - Criteria for demystifying quality in online education

By David Gray

Competition for online students is hot among higher education providers looking to recruit traditional and nontraditional adult students. As more institutions offer online courses and programs, students are faced with an overwhelming array of choices.

Discerning the colleges and universities that provide high-quality online degrees that can influence future employment and promotion is a major issue for prospective online students, as well as corporations that support employee education.

Students considering online education (and their employers) first look for assurances that an online education experience will provide the same academic quality as a face-to-face experience.

The Sloan Consortium's 2003 Survey of Online Learning found that a majority of academic leaders (60 percent) believe learning outcomes for online education are equal to or superior to those of face-to-face instruction (from Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002 and 2003, http://olc.onlinelearningconsortium.org/publications/survey/sizing_the_opportunity2003).

Most students are seeking degrees granted by a respected institution that can show a history of quality and reliability. One important, tangible indicator of quality is a college or university's accreditation status. Other key indicators include:

  • A high-quality faculty
  • A cutting-edge curriculum that makes up the program and courses
  • A highly interactive experience with faculty and a community of learners among the students
  • Access to learning resources and support
  • A university or college with an excellent reputation
  • A program that is associated with prestigious organizations and consortia.

Comparing institutions on the basis of costs, technical needs and support, even accreditation, is relatively easy; getting at what will ultimately be the degree that gets recognized and potentially rewarded in the workplace is more challenging.

With more than 13,375 online education enrollments in 2003, UMassOnline offers a convenient way to access a UMass education. The University of Massachusetts system has a 140-year tradition of providing quality education. Massachusetts employers know that UMass is here to stay. They appreciate UMass' reputation for excellence and its willingness to create programs that are responsive to industry needs.

UMassOnline, working through its five campuses, instills elements of quality, reputation, accessibility and reliability into its online programs. The degrees offered are fully accredited, not just by the regional and state higher education accrediting bodies, but by the top-of-the-line professional program accreditation organizations (i.e., AACSB for the business programs).

Courses are taught by full-time faculty and/or well-qualified and experienced adjunct faculty who have proven teaching, practice, and research credentials. Faculty members teaching online for the UMass campuses are well-prepared for online course instruction, translating practices used in the classroom to online strategies. Instruction goes beyond PowerPoint slides of lecture materials, to the use of synchronous and asynchronous discussions, team learning experiences, responsive communication and feedback, and tests and measurement processes that meet accountability standards.

Both potential students and their employers should look carefully at online education providers. Will the programs and degrees offered stand the test of time? Do faculty members have strong credentials, reputable degrees, teaching experience, support for teaching online, and practical, workplace-relevant experience? Is the curriculum cutting-edge, are the learning experiences useful, do students have the opportunity to interact both with their professors as well as the other students? Are the programs and degrees recognized by professional organizations as well as by higher education accrediting groups? Answers to these questions provide the basis for in-depth examination and comparison of online education. Education dollars are precious knowing where best to spend them is an important decision.

David Gray is CEO of UMassOnline.

Date: 02/09/04

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