Let’s Talk About Integrity in Online Learning


Kathleen S. Ives

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When U.S. Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton unveiled her $350 billion dollar higher education plan earlier this week, her comment that “We must bring integrity to online learning” touched off a strong response from our online learning community.

While her comment is not the most outrageous thing we’ve heard so far in this election season, it is a misrepresentation of what’s really happening in online education.

We suspect, rather than intending to paint online learning with the broad lack-of-integrity brush, Candidate Clinton was referring to the well-documented, unethical business practices that some organizations have employed to scam people badly in need of high-quality, flexible learning opportunities. These businesses and their contemptible practices are not representative of online education.

And although all online programs are not created equal, more institutions than ever are delivering high-quality online learning experiences. OLC is proud to be a cornerstone of that integrity and the underlying commitment to quality.

So we’re thankful to Candidate Clinton for getting us all talking and giving us this opportunity to discuss some of the facts that demonstrate the quality and integrity of online learning.

Fact 1: Quality in Online Programs Is Equal or Superior to Face-to-Face

In 2010, the US Department of Education published a meta-analysis focusing on the learning outcomes of online vs. face-to-face instruction. The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online classes performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.  

“The research on online learning clearly demonstrates its comparability to face-to-face learning,” says Dr. Kenneth Hartman, OLC Board Member, Eduventures Senior Fellow and past President of Drexel University Online. “Often those who have never taught online or who have never taken an online course, are at a tremendous disadvantage in evaluating the effectiveness of this much needed and desired method of instruction.”

Fact 2: Institutions Are Investing in Quality

A majority of U.S. higher education leaders (70.8%) see online learning as critical to their long-term strategy.

We know from the tremendous growth of the OLC Institute over the past 10 years, that quality is a top priority for higher education institutions and online learning professionals. As a result, they are investing in resources for a range of needs – to supplement internal online learning resources; augment existing programs; support ongoing faculty and professional development; and tap into best practice research and guidance – all to help ensure the quality of their online programs, which are so critical to their long-term strategies.

Because quality is so essential to the success of the online community, we’ve made quality the center of all we do at OLC. We developed our Quality Scorecard, to help institutions identify indicators of quality and measure progress towards them.

Fact 3: As Online Education Grows, Quality Is Driving the Marketplace

The number of higher education students taking at least one distance education course in 2014 was up 3.7 percent from the previous year (source: our 2014 survey of online learning). During this timeframe, online enrollment growth far exceeded that of overall higher education, accounting for nearly three-quarters of all U.S. higher education’s enrollment increases last year.

The truth is that quality is driving the market. Institutions have been diligently working on the best ways to integrate online into higher education. Integrity and a focus on quality is the differentiator that is weeding out lesser providers.

When it comes to talking about integrity in online learning, we have a lot to say. Let’s keep this discussion going.

If you’d like to ensure the quality of your online programs, the OLC Strategies for Improvement: Quality Scorecard workshop is for you. The OLC Quality Scorecard is a tool for online administrators to measure the quantifying elements of quality within online education programs in higher education.

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