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Considering Online Programs: Do You Know Quality When You See It?

Can academic quality be defined and measured? I've seen this question emerge recently in multiple venues ranging from community discussion boards to major news outlets. The quality of an online program is also being linked to its perceived value. Value is another word we're hearing a lot lately as the industry reacts to calls for proof of the value of higher education to a student today.

Online programs are new to the higher education arena and being "new" often comes with additional scrutiny. Add to that the media coverage of controversial practices and new requirements related to gainful employment, and the questions continue. There is a need for effective definitions and measurements students can use to make informed decisions about the selection of online programs.

Defining Quality

Before we can apply the word to online education, we must first figure out what we are trying to describe. A lot of definitions are available, but the one I think best captures the current conversation in higher education is "the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something." So in our consideration of online learning, we are looking for the degree of excellence of a program as compared to other, similar programs. 

Measuring Quality

Measuring quality is important in both traditional and online higher education programs, and there are many factors that may influence quality. Some of these factors, such as academic advising and faculty expertise, are important to all programs. Other factors may be more applicable to a specific delivery method, either online or face-to-face. The availability of 24/7 tech support is an example of a service that may be part of a quality evaluation for an online program, while the evaluation of residential halls and safety are more relevant to on-campus programs.

There are already a few ways in which you can evaluate the quality of an online program and judge its value as a way to meet your education and career goals. Each of these existing methods addresses a specific aspect of online education, and has it's own set of strengths and weaknesses, proponents and opponents. As you read through each one, think about how it may or may not be important to you as a measure of quality. Do these measures have value to you as you plan your education and career?


Accreditation, according to U.S. Department of Education, is a way "to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality." Criteria to measure acceptable levels of quality are established by national, regional, and specialized accrediting agencies that also review schools and programs against these criteria. Accreditation is widely accepted as a general measure both within the industry and by employers, but among accredited programs you'll find a wide range of courses, services, faculty expertise, etc.

It should be noted that there are active calls for an improved accrediting process. An article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education cites several forces behind this push including recent "attacks on the quality of college education." The link between accreditation and federal student aid is also listed as a factor, as well as the movement to increase the number of people completing higher education programs in the United States. There is an overall concern that students who are being encouraged to pursue higher education have quality experiences that prepare them for the future. Many also complain that the current process is outdated and confusing. There are arguments both for and against a more standardized process.

Student Learning

A recent study surveyed universities to see what types of assessments they are using at the program level to measure student learning. Student learning can be another measure of quality in education. Do students learn what they need to learn, or what they should be learning, in an academic program? This study found that most programs use a combination of learning assessments, and that different programs use different combinations. For example, education programs are using different sets of measures than medical programs, and arts and humanities programs. Some of the types of assessments described in the study include: different types of exams, including licensure; employer and alumni surveys; capstone courses; and student portfolios.

Return on Investment

Another way to evaluate quality may be in terms of measuring a program's return on investment (ROI). This is often addressed as a financial comparison of what the program costs a student to complete and the salary the student can expect to earn after graduation. Surveys of graduate salaries are becoming more common. Check out Payscale's 2010 report. When measuring ROI it’s also important to consider other investments the student makes, such as time, in the process of completing a degree. These investments are often personal and unique to each student.

College Rankings

Have you ever looked at a list of college rankings? These are very popular ways to describe the quality of schools and programs in direct comparison to each other. The U.S. News and The Princeton Review are perhaps two of the best-known sources of college ranking. Online programs are often included, but it is a good idea to search these lists for information specifically addressing online delivery. More informal ranking and rating systems also exist. Websites like the College Prowler allow students to provide feedback and "grade" schools and programs based on their personal experiences. All of these types of reviews have received criticism. With any ranking service or site, be sure to do your own evaluation about the source of the information posted and details about how reviews are conducted.

Ongoing Initiatives

A one-size-fits-all measure does not seem likely, but many groups are working on ways to evaluate and compare programs. While many of these emerging efforts to define quality are relevant in both online and traditional higher education, you'll find that several focus specifically on online delivery.

  • Learning Analytics Project: Through a recently awarded grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, WCET will be studying various sources of student data from six colleges and universities. The goal of the program is to initiate more extensive research into "the use of learning analytics to improve service to students."
  • Quality Scorecard: The Sloan Consortium announced its endorsement of a project called Quality Scorecard just two months ago. This project is designed for "measuring and quantifying elements of quality within online education programs in higher education." The scorecard includes 70 quality indicators in 9 categories.
  • Quality Matters: The Quality Matters program outlines five ways in which it strives to "promote and improve the quality of online education and student learning." This group has developed a rubric that includes 8 standards for evaluation and provides services to schools and programs designing courses with these standards in mind.
  • Rubric for Online Instruction: California State University, Chico developed a rubric to answer the question: "what does a high quality online course look like?" This rubric provides a guide for evaluation of six categories that cover design and delivery, learning assessment, learner support and faculty development. The rubric and supporting information are all available online with a Creative Commons license.
  • Tuning Process: The Lumina Foundation is working on a project linked to the Bologna Process, used in Europe to enhance quality assurance in higher education. The Tuning Process [video] is designed to "help define quality in higher education for a better educated workforce" in the United States. The project includes efforts to describe specific outcomes of a college education, encourage input (from students, faculty and employers), and define better transitions from school to work.

This is by no means a complete list of the efforts being undertaken, but the projects included here are a beginning. They will all contribute to our understanding and evaluation of quality in online programs.

The Discussion Continues

When choosing an online program you are looking for something that has a high level of quality. Finding ways to measure quality, ways that are widely agreed upon, is a challenging task. The results of current studies and practical efforts, and those that will follow, inform not only prospective students, but also higher education administrators and course developers who are striving to build better, more effective online learning experiences. What are your thoughts about quality and online education? What do you need to know when you are considering higher education opportunities?