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Ensuring Quality of Online Programs

Published Wednesday Oct 10, 2018

Author Melanie Plenda

A student working online at Southern NH University. Courtesy photo.

Southern NH University (SNHU) has 135,000 learners, the vast majority of whom earn their degrees online. SNHU employs a team of more than 70 people to study the data of every course the college offers using predictive analytics to know how students should be performing. In addition, every single section has an assigned master teacher to assess the quality of each online course they offer.

“We’ve gotten to a place with online learning that you really have some powerful tools available to you to ensure [quality instruction] is happening,” says Paul J. LeBlanc, president of SNHU, a private nonprofit with a campus in Hooksett.

And yet, SNHU still had a professor fail an online student’s project arguing Australia was a continent, not a country. It’s both.

The student knew that. The professor, apparently, did not.

One viral social media post later, LeBlanc says the whole episode allowed the school the opportunity to see where its systems had it right, and where it needed to be tweaked. And that, he says, is ultimately what their internal quality measures are there for.

For instance, even before the student took to social media in frustration, she had lodged a formal complaint, which LeBlanc says the school was in the process of investigating. What school officials learned, however, was that they should have alerted the student that the process was taking place.

Further, the school’s investigation resulted in the firing of the instructor, not because she made a mistake, and not because she was a bad instructor—LeBlanc notes her ratings and class outcomes were actually good—but because of the way she treated the student once the mistake was brought to her attention.

“We have a very strong students-first policy,” says LeBlanc. “So we fixed it. We put somebody else in.

We made everything good for the student.”

Further, LeBlanc says, as a result of the incident, the school adopted a new communications checklist that involves faster communication with a student who flags a problem and a “SWAT team” that can immediately take steps to remedy the situation.

Moreover, the student at the heart of the Australia uproar received a full refund.

Having quality control measures in place doesn’t mean there will never be mistakes, but it does give schools the tools to continue to improve online programming, experts say.

Students should research whether an institution offering online courses has such measures in place.

While online education options continue to expand, so do the stories of unscrupulous institutions popping up for the purpose of making a quick buck off of vulnerable students.

Little more than diploma mills churning out useless pieces of paper that represent a slapdash educational opportunity and offer no real job prospects, these few bad actors have managed to leave lingering doubts in the collective consciousness about burgeoning online degree programs. That said, NH has mostly escaped that stigma, and that’s due in large part to both the external and internal quality assurance measures and safeguards in place in this region, says Barbara Brittingham, president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the regional accreditation agency for colleges and universities in New England.

Bad Actors
First, a little background about online higher education. Distance learning is hardly new, but it has changed dramatically since the late 1990s. As with anything new, when online education was in its infancy there were some staunch critics.

“A lot of nonprofit Ed sort of looked down its collective nose at online,” Le-Blanc says. “And so it ceded that market space to the for-profits. And there were many of them in that market that were bad actors. They really did some damage to the world of online learning.”

The Obama administration attempted to crack down on some of the more predatory recruitment practices in the for-profit market. Those practices included going after vulnerable, minority and veteran populations with no real means of paying back loans and offering classes that didn’t provide a quality education.

Instead, low graduation and job placement rates and high student debt seemed intrinsic to some of these institutions. Some went under, like Corinthian Colleges, which was fined $1 billion for defrauding students through misleading job placement information, claiming it offered courses that it actually did not have in its curriculum, and illegal debt collection practices among other claims. Others adjusted to the new regulations. As of this writing, there is a move afoot by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to ease some of those regulations. It is unclear at this point what, if any, effect that will have for the online higher education space.

Continued Growth
With all that in the rear view mirror presumably, online education continues to grow, in terms of both course offerings and students interested in pursuing their education outside a classroom. “Right now we’re probably offering about 82 percent of our instruction online, so it continues to grow,” says Mark Rubinstein, president of Granite State College, a public college in Concord that is part of the University System of NH. “The median age of our students is 33. About 90 percent are working, and the vast majority of those are working full time,” he says. One in seven is in the military or a veteran, he says.

Rubinstein says that during the past 10 years, the growth in Granite State College’s online programming has mirrored, and perhaps exceeded, national trends.

A Granite State College student uses the school's web-based learning management system. Courtesy photo.

According to a 2017 study by Babson Survey Research Group, student enrollment in online courses increased for the 14th straight year in 2016. The study found that more than 30 percent of higher education students were taking at least one online course. Public institutions saw the most growth with 7.3 percent, private nonprofits experienced a 7.1 percent increase, while private for-profit institutions saw online enrollments decline by 4.5 percent, according to Babson.

The study also found that 52.8 percent of all students who took at least one online course also took a course on campus, and 56.1 percent of those who took only online courses reside in the same state as the institution at which they are enrolled. Further, the study found that the number of students studying on a campus has dropped nationally by more one million (1,173,805, or 6.4 percent) between 2012 and 2016.

Colleges in the region have seen similar growth in online activity. LeBlanc says that enrollment in SNHU’s online programs really started to grow in 2011. By the following year, SNHU ranked last among the 50 largest nonprofit providers of online degrees. By 2015 it was number four, and currently it ranks first, LeBlanc says.

“It continues to grow, though more moderately now,” he says. “Enrollment for adults is counter-cyclical, so as the economy improves, enrollments typically moderate.” That said, of SNHU’s total student population, 4,000 are on campus, 110,000 are strictly online and the rest are in hybrid or low-residency programs. LeBlanc declined to say how much revenue the school generates from online classes but says overall in FY2018 it is a $740 million institution, of which the bulk comes from online learners.

New England College, a private nonprofit in Henniker, has also seen explosive growth in the past several years. Online enrollment jumped 76 percent over the past six years, says Sherry Kollmann, associate vice president of strategic online and business partnership at New England College. By comparison, its on-campus enrollment increased only 28 percent in that same time period. To date, 51 percent of New England College’s 3,806 students are completely online, and 21 percent are in a hybrid model.

One of the benefits for the institution and students, Rubinstein says, is online classes allow these institutions to offer a wider variety. Since they can be held any day and time, they are not bound by meeting a minimum enrollment to fill a single section on a Tuesday night, for example.

There are steps an institution must take in NH before offering an online program. First, all private institutions that operate within NH fall under the oversight of the NH Department of Education (NHDOE), says Michael Seidel, director for the Division of Higher Education and administrator for the Higher Education Commission under the NHDOE. They all go through the same basic process and are held to the same standards regardless of the type of institution. Public higher education institutions in the University System of NH and the Community College System of NH are overseen by boards of trustees and regional accreditors.

The higher education commission meets three to five times annually to review applications for new programs and institutions as well as existing ones. “We review any new programs that a higher education institution wants to offer,” Seidel says.

In addition to state approval, schools can earn regional accreditation. Though this is a voluntary process—schools don’t have to be accredited and some choose not to be—unaccredited schools are not allowed to receive federal funding in the form of Pell grants, subsidized loans and Title IV money.

Regardless of the type of institution, the process and standards to be accredited are virtually the same. Although one main difference is that for-profit institutions are not allowed to have more than 90 percent of their revenue coming from federal funds. Brittingham says that most of the institutions the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education accredits are either public or nonprofit.

Brittingham explains that when accredited schools make a substantive change to programs or offer new initiatives, they must seek prior approval from the accreditor. That could include offering a degree where 50 percent or more of the credits are taught online. “They have to show, for example, how they prepare faculty to teach online, because that’s a little bit different,” Brittingham says. “They have to present a business plan or a pro forma of revenue and expenses because it can be expensive, and if the institution is small, the commission wants to make sure  it’s not going to destabilize the institution to do this. There is an emphasis on academic quality.”

Brittingham says that more often than not the first time an institution offers a degree program online, it’s one that the college or university already offers on campus. The institution must demonstrate how students are going to receive an equivalent experience online, that it has the technological capacity to do that and how the academic governance is going to oversee the quality of the program.

After an institution has been accredited, the commission will perform reviews at five and 10 years, though commissioners can ask for updates and reports at any time.

“Most of the substantive change requests for online programming are approved,” she says. “Institutions for which the programming is not approved the first time can provide new or additional information or make changes and resubmit a proposal.”

Another layer of quality assurance  comes in the form of the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (SARA). Rachael Stachowiak, program coordinator for SARA with the New England Board of Higher Education, explains that before SARA, an institution looking to operate across state lines would have to receive authorization from the state it wanted to operate in to ensure its activities were in compliance with the state’s rules and regulations. “Online courses are one component, but also things like hosting a server, advertising, recruitment activities, clinical placements or internships could require an extensive application, site visit and thousands upon thousands of dollars in fees for an institution,” Stachowiak says.

However, any state that joins SARA  agrees to abide by the definitions and standards of SARA and admit institutions that are already authorized in their own home state to operate in other member states.

“The beauty of SARA,” Stachowiak says, “is there are clear definitions as to what activities are covered, in addition to consistent processes and requirements for all members.”

In addition to these  external checks, many institutions that offer online degree programs also have their own internal checks in place. “We monitor every course 24/7,” LeBlanc of SNHU says. Additionally, “every single section has assigned a master teacher—someone who has taught that class before and has proven to be an excellent instructor. We pay them to go in and take a look at every course. We don’t just do a quantitative assessment, we actually do a qualitative assessment as well,” he says. “And an experienced teacher can go into an online course and determine pretty quickly if good things are happening there.” SNHU also monitors social media for complaints from students as well as internal message boards for each course.

Granite State College has layers of internal review that include course evaluations for each class, an annual student satisfaction survey, and “ongoing work in assessment of learning outcomes that informs course development and faculty development,” Rubinstein says.

New England College uses “subject matter experts” to develop online courses and align the program and course outcomes with industry standards, Kollman says. “Having this type of an advisory board for our programs fosters the necessary feedback loop to ensure relevant content from the experts working within their field,” Kollman says.  

They also have a governing structure that votes on the approval of programs and course development. 

Kollman says the college also takes pains to match the right instructor to a course.

What to Look For
But the proof, as they say, is always in the pudding. And just because a school has external and internal checks in place, that doesn’t mean students should be complacent. In fact, Brittingham says there are several steps students should take to make sure that the online program they are signing up for is everything it claims to be.

One aspect to take into account is whether the school is accredited, though both Seidel and Brittingham readily acknowledge that there are some unaccredited schools that do very well by their students. “The Center for Cartoon Studies on the New Hampshire-Vermont line offers a two-year MFA and I think it’s very good at what it does, and it has not chosen to be accredited,” Brittingham says. “But I would say that if a school is not accredited, you would want to look very carefully at it for sure.”

Many schools put their accreditation materials on their website, and students should read them, she says. It’s also important to look at online reviews and visit the physical campus if possible.

Brittingham also says students should ask the institution to put them in touch with other students and faculty in the program. “You scout it out in some of the same ways” you would an on-site program, she says. “Sometimes you can even take a course without enrolling in a degree program, and that could be a way to sample it.”

Another measure to look at is the job placement rate of an institution or a particular program as well as graduation rates. While these numbers are not perfect indicators of the quality of a program—placement numbers can be hard for an institution to capture, for example—they will give a student some further insight and questions to ask if these numbers are low.

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