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Transparency and Online Education

In a recent Inside Online Learning Live Chat, I moderated a discussion about determining quality in online programs. How do you know that a program is of high quality before you enroll? What are the benchmarks and indicators students need to be aware of and actively research when choosing an online program? This live chat on Twitter produced a great list of quality indicators, and somewhere in the discussion one of the participants added a hashtag and the word transparency to a tweet – as in, "the university posts…[information]…for everyone to review #transparency."

Transparent – easy to see through, understand, or recognize; obvious.

Transparency is perhaps a buzzword, widely used these days in the contexts of government and higher education. How might it apply to online education? What does it mean to call for an institution to be more transparent?

It sounds like a simple enough request – ask universities to post information online, about accreditation, retention, student learning, graduate and new alumni placement, and associated costs – but it is often met with resistance and complications related to the administration of programs. How can you evaluate the elements of quality as a prospective student if all of the relevant information is kept behind locked doors?

A Continued Call for Openness

School administrators, legislators, public and private agencies, and students are all involved in the larger discussion about transparency in online education.

Inside Higher Education reported on a recent panel session at the Sloan-C/MERLOT Emerging Technologies for Online Learning conference held earlier this month in San Jose, California. The panel included representatives from for-profit institutions discussing both the need and their willingness to be more open with data they are collecting about what makes students successful in online academic programs.

Last year the U.S. Department of Education called for more transparency in accreditation, a process that has long been criticized for being outdated and in need of revision.

New initiatives are working to make information relevant to program quality and student success more apparent and accessible for prospective students.

  • Predictive Analytics Reporting Framework Project: A grant recently awarded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to a group of institutions, led by the WCET, funds this initiative to analyze student data across six public and for-profit institutions. The project is looking for factors that influence retention and program completion, as well as insight about demographics and instructional strategies as factors of student success.
  • Transparency by Design: Another WCET initiative, this project collects information about program-level learning outcomes and reviews it for quality assurance. Institutions volunteer to participate and currently 20 colleges and universities are involved. This project makes this information available to prospective students through the College Choices for Adults website.
  • Cost Estimates: The U.S. Department of Education recently launched a new site, the College Affordability and Transparency Center, to help students compare costs of programs. A new requirement for many schools to post net price calculators on their websites will also take effect in October of this year, making the cost of attending school a little more transparent. 

While for-profit institutions are most often on the spotlight where conversations about transparency are concerned, they are not alone in either receiving criticism or responding to the call. Traditional institutions of higher education are also voluntarily joining these initiatives and providing information to prospective students.

Realizing the Benefits and Challenges Ahead

Both students and higher education institutions will encounter the pros and cons associated with transparent operations as the movement toward openness evolves. Colleges and universities, particularly in the for-profit sector, have concerns about making processes and data more transparent to the public. There is a lot of competition among schools and programs as they recruit students. And some of the systems used and curricula developed may be proprietary in nature and problematic for public release by publicly held higher education institutions/corporations.

Collecting, Analyzing and Sharing Data

Online delivery formats allow for the collection of a lot of data about student use of course materials, achievement of learning objectives, and time spent on learning tasks. Feedback from both students and instructors on all aspects of a course is also often collected in the form of an end-of-term survey. All of this data can be used to make decisions about revisions to courses, programs, and support services offered. As an example, curriculum designers can modify a course, maybe change an assignment format, and generate reports that compare how students performed against a specific learning objective before and after the assignment change.

Collecting this massive amount of information and analyzing it takes time and skill, and sharing it openly can impact both market position (competition) and expose proprietary details that affect competition. Collection techniques and the quality of the data collected will also impact how it is interpreted. This process may draw additional criticism and lead to additional calls for openness along the way.

Student Success and Transparency

What do you, as a prospective online student, stand to gain from a more transparent institution?

  • Improved learning environments and processes. Through careful analysis of student learning outcomes across institutions that are using different approaches to achieve similar learning objectives, best or leading practices may be identified. These techniques can then be replicated to improve retention, completion, delivery methods, and ultimately, your learning.
  • More informed choices. When information related to quality and student outcomes is made available publicly, prospective students can evaluate it as part of their decision-making process when choosing an online program. Having the information required to assess the potential quality of a program can be empowering, allowing you to make the best possible decisions about your education.
  • Effective partnerships. As institutions begin to share information about what works within their learning environments and with their student populations, this collaborative approach could mean shared efforts and resources across sectors – for-profit and non-profit, as well as private corporations. This collaboration has the potential to lead to more effective processes and expanded options and support for students.

Ask Questions

What can you do in the meantime, while the discussions continue and new policies and procedures are developed? As a prospective student exploring your options for online learning, you can reach out – ask questions of admissions personnel, instructors, and other advisors. Ask universities to make information available about their accreditation status, retention and completion rates with students, student learning outcomes and measurement, graduate and new alumni placement, and associated costs.

July 19th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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