Quality, Online College

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

August 11, 2020

By Michael Dannenberg & James Murphy

What college professors did this past spring—moving courses online with no preparation—was nothing short of heroic. But it also was not very good.

Colleges need to aim higher this fall.

During the initial shift to online learning, the primary concern for administrators, rightly, was ensuring students could connect to instruction. But there is little point in connecting to instruction if it is bad.

Students and families rightly were deeply frustrated with the quality and price of ad-hoc online education last spring. One survey of high school and college students indicated the only option less popular than an online semester this coming fall is completely canceling it. Another survey found that over 90 percent of college students believe they should pay less tuition if only online learning options are available.

Due to the continued and in many places worsening threat of COVID-19, however, hundreds of colleges and universities are now planning for full or partial remote learning. Expect that number to grow over the next few weeks. Facing huge losses in public and private revenues, few colleges can afford to respond by cutting tuition. That means they need to get better at providing a remote product.

Given the dire financial state of most colleges and universities and the likelihood the nation will be living with coronavirus for some time to come, the next federal relief bill, now in negotiation in Washington, should do two things when it comes to online higher education: (1) it should provide funds earmarked specifically for improving online education at colleges forced to teach remotely, and (2) it should hold colleges accountable for the quality of that instruction.

It’s no surprise that instructional quality sagged last semester. Many professors had no experience teaching online, and they had little time to prepare for remote instruction. Plus, they had to deal with the added work, pressure, and anxiety that came with the pandemic, including childcare and homeschooling. Some got sick or cared for loved ones. Some mourned family and friends. And at the same time, they were helping students suffering many of the same problems.

Going forward we should recognize better online education will not happen without support from, and for, faculty. College faculty need professional development now and throughout this coming school year to adapt to an online format and design courses that are more than slide deck presentations and discussion boards.

Cutting back on class time, student assignments and exams may have been an act of kindness last semester, but it’s unacceptable this year. For this year and beyond, professors need support, training, and tools, such as remote proctoring technology, to make teaching more fruitful and student evaluation more possible, iterative, and secure.

The House Democrats’ Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, crafted by Education Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) among others, that passed in May and awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate provides funding for public and private colleges that can be used to acquire “technology and services directly related to the need for distance education and the training of faculty and staff to use such technology and services.” That’s good.

It also requires all colleges that accept COVID-19 relief funding to ensure regular and genuine substantive interaction between students and instructors. That’s also good.

Students would benefit more still from an even stronger commitment to improving teaching quality at the college level.

Stronger would be for at least some federal COVID-19 relief funds for higher education to be dedicated to improving remote learning by supporting course redesign, technology purchases, and professional development.

The National Center for Academic Transformation for years until the founder’s retirement assisted hundreds of colleges in redesigning traditional courses into blended online and in-person instructional delivery. The results? Better student outcomes and reduced cost as compared to traditional instruction. In other words, it can be done.

Stronger would be for the U.S. Department of Education to establish universal metrics that indicate the quality of online higher education courses and programs, including data on retention, successful course progression (e.g. earning passing grades in higher-level courses that are immediate successors to remote classes), and of course program completion — disaggregated by major racial and socioeconomic subgroups.

Finally, stronger would be to require colleges to report which programs go online, the demographics of those enrolled, and critically, their outcomes to accreditors. Accreditors should be required to make all that data and all other data they obtain on college quality available to the public.

Improving the quality of online education is the right and smart thing to do. If colleges are going to survive the pandemic, they need to assure students and families they are getting a quality education worth paying for.

Access without quality in higher education is just as big a rip-off as quality without access is an injustice.