Ranking Online Education Programs

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.

One Response to “Ranking Online Education Programs”

  1. Adam Fluke says:

    As a person who attends a online program for a brick and mortar University, I wonder whether it is important to look at the institution as whole, or just the program when doing the rankings.

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