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Thought Leadership

Online Learning Will Soon Become Universal. Colleges Must Catch Up.

Cherie Mazer

Vice President of Learning Experience, Kaplan

A solution that expands employee pools and zeroes in on increasingly important job skills

The ascendancy of online learning is bound to transform nearly every facet of higher education. The latest research from Quality Matters™ and Eduventures® Research, the 2022 Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) 7 report, shows that nearly all chief online officers (COOs) at colleges and universities expect near universal adoption of online learning in the next few years. In fact, with students becoming more interested in online options, COOs expect that online learning will play a role in nearly all of their students’ courses of study as soon as 2025. The problem: Most say they’re not ready.

The challenges lie in a lack of sufficient infrastructure and resources in two key areas needed to support the anticipated growth: instructional design (ID) capacity and quality assurance (QA) measures. Only 10% of online leaders said their ID capacity met their present needs, and a mere 3% said it would meet future needs. And while 96% say their institutions have established QA standards for their online offerings, most online courses are not evaluated to ensure they meet those standards. The majority of COOs noted that evaluation was voluntary, with only 42% reporting always using QA standards to evaluate courses, and only 40% reporting using the standards for periodic review of existing online courses.

The tasks for institutions are clear, but completing them is complicated. For schools looking to meet online learning expectations, they should focus their efforts on the following.

Invest in instructional design expertise

First, schools need to expand their ID capacity. Instructional designers are needed to ensure the smooth execution of online learning — designing and developing courses, acclimating faculty and fully leveraging learning management systems. 

Over the past two years, institutions have increased the number of instructional designers by 20%. Still, they haven’t kept up with the pace of new online enrollments, and most institutions continue to underserve faculty in the course design and development process. The ideal ratio of instructional designers to faculty developing new courses would be 1:1. Where budgetary and labor market constraints make that unattainable, a robust professional development program in ID for faculty may have to fill the gaps.

Students are more concerned than ever with the return on their investment of time and money in an education.

Establish an evaluation process

As we hurtle toward near-universal adoption of online learning, institutions must take an iterative approach to course and program design, regularly measuring and improving quality. That means evaluating courses against QA standards either before or after development. In a world where asynchronous online learning programs and course elements persist, compared to face-to-face courses that last only as long as the session, we have an opportunity to evaluate the “course as a product” and iterate with an agile mindset toward improvement.  Quality assurance in practice could be the adoption and application of the Quality Matters™  or Online Learning Consortium OSCQR rubrics, or a set of guidelines developed by the university. Using a set of evidenced-based guidelines will provide a standard set of objectives to be met by the faculty. These tools may also provide a framework for consultation between faculty and the instructional designer.

It also means expanding the metrics those standards address. The CHLOE 7 Report found that nearly all institutions had QA standards for online course design, but only 34% had standards for student outcomes. As the cost of higher education and student debt factor increasingly into decision making around higher education, students are more concerned than ever with the return on their investment of time and money in an education. It’s important, then, that QA efforts place greater emphasis on outcomes than they do now.

Communicate QA efforts and outcomes 

Beyond time investment and resourcing constraints, universities also need to contend with attitudes and perception. Many faculty and administrators still view online learning as a temporary response to a global emergency rather than a critical next step in higher education’s evolution. In reality, in an increasingly borderless landscape for online higher education, universities that win in the competition for enrollment will be those that have strong online infrastructure in place. This includes buy-in from faculty who may have accepted the sudden switch to online as a temporary interruption but are skeptical that its quality can match or even exceed the in-person learning experience. 

Communication becomes key. Clear communication of not only QA standards, but evaluation efforts, as well as performance outcomes, is critical in ensuring the level of transparency and accountability that build confidence in a program’s quality design and teaching effectiveness. Online course design requires a partnership between faculty who are responsible for the academic objectives of their courses, the instructional designers who play an active role in crafting an engaging and effective online learning experience, and the administrators who ensure these meet QA standards. Evaluation of student satisfaction, course quality, and learning outcomes is critical in the continuous improvement of the learning experience.

There’s no question the pandemic accelerated the acceptance, adoption and demand for online learning. While colleges are better equipped to deliver online learning experiences today than two years ago, greater investment in instructional design, QA and evaluation are absolutely essential as colleges and universities adapt for the needs of today’s—and tomorrow’s—students.

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