Finally, a 'Quality Scorecard' for Online Schools

Over three-quarters of academic leaders report that online colleges can provide an education as good as or better than actual classroom instruction, according to a 2010 Sloan Consortium report on distance education. But some 70 percent of faculty believe otherwise, describing online courses as "inferior" or "somewhat inferior to face-to-face."

The question is: Who's right?

The jury remains out on the quality of online programs. Wide disparities still exist among online programs, with some instructors mastering the art of web-based education and others just '[e-]mailing it in,' as one student put it. Driven by the conviction that some, but not all, online courses deliver a quality education, Dr. Kaye Shelton, author of "An Administrator's Guide to Online Education" and dean of online education at Dallas Baptist University, has created a tool called the Quality Scorecard. The standardized measure enables the comparison of online college programs across disciplines by assessing the schools on 70 online learning metrics. The tool was developed in consultation with a panel of 43 veteran online college administrators, and in conjunction with the Sloan Consortium, an organization dedicated to the advancement of online learning that represents more than 150 institutions.

The Quality Scorecard in action

The scorecard was originally conceived as a self-evaluation resource for higher education leaders--currently, it is applicable solely at the institutional level. With the Scorecard's debut in April 2011, college administrators can use it to troubleshoot and improve program quality.

"We believe the Quality Scorecard is a breakthrough tool for standardizing the industry and for enabling online learning institutions not only to measure and report on the quality of their programs, but to identify areas for improvement," said John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium.

The self-assessment process is rigorous and illuminating. Administrators go through the metrics and assemble evidence of each one; for example, a school might analyze its governance structure by examining committee minutes, viewing organizational charts and assessing reporting structures. The scorecard has real-world application for institutions wanting to improve services.

"I believe that it will be an invaluable tool for us to compare the quality of our online programs to our peers," said Maria Puzziferro, president of the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design, in Denver.

Students struggle to evaluate online schools

The Quality Scorecard could become a valuable tool for students shopping for the best educational experience online. Currently, students rely on a single factor to evaluate the quality of online institutions: accreditation.

"I looked for accreditation," said Ann Call, senior admissions counselor at a Northern California liberal arts college who earned an online MBA from Western Governors University. "The school I chose is accredited by four boards."

Online graduate Gary Witover selected his program, an online master's degree in strategic intelligence from a college in Virginia, on the same basis: "Quality… is a matter of accreditation."

However, accreditation does not go far in helping students sift through the vast array of prospective programs. First, accrediting bodies have lacked an effective template for analyzing quality in an online context, as they apply standards developed for traditional campus programs. Second, accreditation is a broad "thumbs up" endorsement that doesn't tell students much about the specific strengths and weaknesses of an institution.

The Quality Scorecard's metrics are designed specifically for the online format, and can therefore give accrediting bodies and students more reliable information about an online program's quality. The weighted categories include, in order of importance:

  • Support for students (24.3 percent)
  • Course development and instructional design (17.1 percent)
  • Evaluation and assessment (15.7 percent)
  • Course structure (11.4 percent)
  • Support for faculty (8.6 percent)
  • Technology support (8.6 percent)

Other factors include teaching and learning strategies, institutional support and student engagement.

"These are metrics that can be adopted by accrediting bodies that are struggling with how they might evaluate online programs," said Francis Mulgrew, president of Post University's online programs.

Looking ahead: A 'Best Online Colleges' report?

Students researching colleges are next in line as potential beneficiaries of the quality scorecard's analysis. Quality remains a top concern for students deciding where to invest their education dollar.

"It's important to check into the quality of the program. There are a million colleges--you definitely need to filter out the lame ones," said Witover.

In the future, the Quality Scorecard's rating system could potentially serve as an online-specific alternative to U.S. News & World Report's popular "Best Colleges" ranking.

Bourne said that while the tool "was not conceived as a U.S. News & World Report-like measuring stick for consumers … it is too early to tell how the scorecard might evolve."

If institutions make the results of their scorecard analysis available to the public, prospective students would be able to compare online programs. Key Quality Scorecard metrics that could be important for students evaluating schools include whether:

  • Technology is used as a tool to achieve learning outcomes in delivering course content.
  • Current and emerging technologies are evaluated and recommended for online teaching and learning.
  • Curriculum development is a core responsibility for faculty.
  • Opportunities and tools are provided to encourage student-student collaboration (web conferencing, chat functionality, etc.).
  • Instructors are prepared to teach distance education courses and the institution ensures faculty receive training, assistance and support.

A program's score along these and other metrics could tell prospective students how committed the institution is to its online program, and how much support they can expect to encounter in the virtual classroom.


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