Ranking Online Education Programs

November 22nd, 2011

From Judith McDaniel

I have just come back from an excellent conference, the Sloa-C International Conference on Online Learning: Online Learning, Teaching and Research in the New Media Ecology.  There were nearly 1500 of us in attendance–faculty, instructional designers, administrators, and instructional technology staff.  We had back to back workshops for three days that ranged from the technical to the philosophical.  Keynote addresses were about social media, open source resources, and more.  The tone of the conference impressed me–online education is here, it is here to stay, and it is high quality, innovative, diverse, and very very needed.

How is the rest of the educational world going to hear about what is happening in online education?

U.S. News & World Report announced in early summer 2011 that it was expanding its program of college ranking with a new category for online universities and programs.  The announcement from editor Brian Kelly sounded upbeat, non partisan, and helpful.  “Later this year, U.S.News & World Report will be publishing an expanded directory of online education programs with more detailed information including rankings and other searchable data.” (http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/college-rankings-blog/2011/06/29/us-news-to-collect-online-education-data ) The goal, says Kelly, is to help students make more “informed choices” about an online program. The survey questionnaires will be sent out next week [mid July] and will ask schools to provide information.  The questions in the survey, Kelly promised, “are based on academic and industry literature reviews, as well as consultation with numerous heads of online degree programs in multiple disciplines.”

My own experience with the U.S.News rankings is limited and specific. As my first year of law school drew to a close, I realized that I wanted to transfer to another school—for a variety of reasons, both personal and academic.  The school I was attending was ranked in the top 25 law schools in the country.  The school that attracted me, because of its location and its focus on international law, ranked more than 50 places lower. And yet when I told the Dean at the school I was currently attending that I was thinking about transferring and asked her about a reference, she was impressed that I had gotten into that school. When I told her that my new school ranked in the lower 50, not the top 25, she was astonished.  “They have such an outstanding reputation,” she said.  “Those ratings…” and she shrugged. Once I was established at the new school, I asked that Dean about the law school ratings.  “Well, there are a lot of criteria that we don’t do well in,” he said. “One is alumni donations, since nearly half of our students are international and go home when they graduate.  Donating to an alma mater is not really on their agendas.” Left unspoken was the question about what alumni donations could possibly have to do with the quality of a law school.

As with so many things, we have to take the good with the bad.  When it comes to ranking educational programs, transparency is good.  We should be able to ask questions of the collective educational endeavor and be able to measure programs and universities according to a variety of criteria, whether they are brick and mortar or online.

And the bad?  The U.S. News headline proclaims:  “U.S. News Seeks to Fill 3 Gaps in Online Education Data.” In the text of the article, these gaps become “deficiencies” in online education.  They are identified as:

  • that there is no national way to assess the quality of online education offerings,
  • that there is no standard definition of what constitutes an “online” degree or program, and
  • that there is no comprehensive listing of online programs.

This is all true, so where is the “bad”?

No mention is made of the several educational organizations that have been working toward collective definitions of what defines quality in online programs for several years. Nor is there any reference to the hundreds of journals and blogs that have also been holding community conversations to create these standards.  If the U.S.News effort was primarily to bring together the work that is being done in the field by educators and educational administrators, then I believe we might have a higher level of confidence in the results.

For example, in 2009, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) (http://www.wiche.edu/ ) and The Campus Computing Project (http://www.campuscomputing.net/ )  partnered to develop and conduct the first “Managing Online Education” survey. (http://wcet.wiche.edu/advance/managing-online-education-survey ) This initial report covered topics important to understanding the role of online education in higher education—

  • Factors that impede institutional efforts to expand online education
  • Reorganizing the management of online education
  • Faculty training as a major investment for online programs

In addition, WICHE has collected data on ADA compliance in online programs, the level of technical support for students in online programs and much more.

The Sloan Consortium—“a consortium of individuals, institutions, and organizations committed to quality online education” (Sloan-C)—has also conducted and published a number of surveys and reports about online education. The Sloan-C annual reports (http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/index.asp ) have become the standard for credible academic data and information about online education in the United States.

A number of conversations are taking place nationally about the U.S.News ranking effort. On the Linked-In group for Sloan-C, opinions were mixed. As far as I can tell, few participating in the conversation have ever looked at the rankings except as a parent trying to figure out where a child should apply. The conversation on Twitter is, of necessity, even more limited. But members of the WICHE group are asking questions among themselves and on other websites.  “I’m curious what delivery methods U.S. News will consider to be ‘online,” posted one educator. “Does this include both synchronous (such as live video conferencing, Adobe Connect) and asynchronous (such as archived video courses, self-paced learning modules)?” These and other criteria need to be established, but if they have been, U.S.News has not published that information.”  Others mentioned organizations that are collecting the information that U.S.News calls “deficient.” Methods of data collection, metric standardization—all of this will need to be considered before any “rankings” on online courses will be useful to consumers.

So will these new rankings be part of the good or part of the bad?  There are some rather big “ifs” to hurdle.

U.S. News’s efforts at analyzing and ranking new online programs will be good if:

  • the data collected enhances knowledge about online approaches to higher education;
  • gathering information into one searchable site provides comparative data on the effectiveness of online academic programs;
  • the publicity assists the public to better understand online learning and the opportunities it offers;
  • and then (perhaps) this collective effort will expand the market for adult students.

If the new rankings are simply perceived as another way for some institutions to enhance their revenue, then this effort will not benefit a public that needs and deserves this information.


October 3rd, 2011

Scoop.it logo



By Claude Almansi and Jan Schwartz

Scoop.it is a new application that is still in beta, although it’s fairly easy to get an invite to join.  Claude Almansi found the app, sent an email about it to a list serv, which prompted Jan Schwartz to join.  We’ve only been at it for a month or so, but already both of us have found some good information that we otherwise would have missed, and we are helping to spread the good work about education technology and change.

First, some information about Scoop.it that Claude dug up.  The web service was conceived in France, launched in December 2010 and its web site is in English.  It’s a social site for sharing news events and articles via subscription. Even if you don’t subscribe, Scoop.it can be used to look for information items selected by others on a given theme via its public search engine.  You do need to subscribe if you want to create and curate your own topic on a given theme or subject.

For example, Jan was particularly excited to find a blog written as a result of a live chat sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which talked about the topic of Cathy Davidson’s recent book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn. There were four panelists and 1500 participants on the chat and one of them, David Palumbo-Liu, wrote a blog about his experience, which was very different than Jan’s and so an interesting read for perspective.  She would not have found that blog if not for Scoop.it.

Claude curates a site for Multimedia Accessibility. Currently Jan is ‘scooping’ under the title Technology for Teaching and Learning . You can curate as many different topics as you like.

Just as in other social sites you can follow others and they can follow you. Each day an email comes in that suggests articles and blogs that are within your search fields.  (You can indicate pertinent keywords and Scoop.it will submit to you relevant information found by its search engines). The site allows you to read the material and, if you choose, you can re-scoop.it to help the article reach a wider audience.

Another way to increase content to your topic is to use the Scoop.it  bookmarklet to directly add the content of any web page you are browsing. It is very intuitive to use and the results are immediate.  When you re-scoop via the bookmarlet a side bar will pop up and show you what the scoop will look like and you then make the decision to scoop it, or not.  At this point you can also add your own text to the beginning of the article to introduce it. This community feature enhances the diffusion of topics and in addition, you can share with other social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

While most of this can be done with online book sharing services, Scoop.it is particularly user-friendly.  The two columns on the topic page easily resolve into one when viewed on a smartphone or listened to on a screen reader. Images and videos may also be inserted.  Especially noteworthy is that Scoop.it enhances the viewings of the items presented on the site.

By joining around the same time Claude and Jan have been able to try out different functions without embarrassing themselves with strangers.  For example, Claude recommended an article to Jan and Jan was sent an email letting her know.  She wondered what Claude would see if she either accepted or rejected the recommendation so we tried it both ways.  Either way the recommender receives an email.  It was nice to see first hand the email as it was received so we could be sure it was not offensive (the app is international so one may not be able to predict the cultural implications of an email).

You can find out more about Scoop.it by reading the Scoop.it blog , “Scoop.it: Curation Made Social” by Diana Rees, and two YouTube tutorials, Scoop.it with subtitles in Italian and French (so far)  and Exlpore the Scoop.it Community.

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