Academic leaders work to ensure quality in online education

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Opinions on online degrees are becoming more esteemed as online education gains traction among accredited universities and students increasingly migrate to the web for courses.

A 2013 study by Babson Survey Research Group shows online enrollment at 7.1 million student, which accounts for 33 percent of total higher education enrollments. Many have questioned the value of an online degree, but the study shows that learning outcomes for online education has increased over the years. Of the 2,800 chief academic officers and leaders surveyed, 74.1 percent learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to comparable face-to-face environments.

The University of Oregon has been slower than other universities in expanding its online education market. About 4,000 UO students took an online course between 2012-2013 in about 60 titles, according to Kassia Dellabough a Senior Program Manager from the UO’s Office of Academic Extension.  This spring, the University will be launching its first Massive Open Online Course designed to help educators more effectively teach English as a foreign language through its American English Institute. The UO also offers one other fully online degree, a masters in Applied Information Management.

According to officials, the university is looking to ensure quality above quantity in the courses it offers online.

Associate professor of anthropology Josh Snodgrass is the chair of undergraduate council, a body that reports and reviews on the quality of general education at UO. It is currently developing guidelines for support and oversight of online courses.

“I frankly am kind of skeptical of all online degree programs. They are often, in other places, done poorly,” Snodgrass, who believes online education is great in regards to accessibility, said. “There are examples out there that are done well but I think you have to be very careful and it’s really hard to do right.”

The undergraduate council has helped to craft guidelines for online learning around three points: communication, academic dishonesty and quality of interaction. They hope these guidelines will help to standardize and elevate rigor for online courses at the UO.

The group is also working on possibly adding an extra piece for the course evaluation process which would require online instructors to go through a university level process instead of through their department, which is the current procedure.

As an instructor for 11 years Robert Voelker-Morris understands the bad reputations online courses receive when students confuse convenience with ease. Voelker-Morris also serves as the teaching effectiveness program’s educational technology specialists and helps faculty who want to transition into an online platform develop their program. He has redesigned his own courses throughout the years to improve the experience for his students by establishing a strong presence, interaction and feedback loops.

“I think online learning, just like any kind of learning, is not for anyone,”  Voelker-Morris said.

“The University of Oregon has been thoughtful in its approach to online education. It is likely that more online education opportunities will be offered in the future as it fits with curriculum and the teaching needs of the university,”  a statement from Doug Blandy at Academic Affairs said.

Blandy points out that a majority of courses use a form of online education to assist in-class and in-laboratory interaction with faculty and students.

“Some departments are more involved than others,” Blandy said. “We are supporting efforts incrementally to focus on the quality of education over the delivery mechanism.”

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