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Liberty University

The most important tool for online programs is (no surprise) the learning management system.

In a new report released this week, 81 percent of online education administrators at 104 colleges and universities surveyed said the LMS is their institutions' most important online technology. Blackboard and Canvas were the two most mentioned LMS products, followed by Moodle, Brightspace and Sakai.

“We are struck by the fact the the LMS has become so central and fundamental,” said Richard Garrett, chief research officer for Eduventures, which conducted the survey with Quality Matters. 

Ron Legon, senior adviser for knowledge initiatives and executive director emeritus at Quality Matters, put it more directly: “The LMS … is absolutely critical to online learning.”

Quality Matters, which offers quality assurance programs for online courses, formed a partnership with the consulting and research group Eduventures to produce the Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) report. Legon and Garrett said their organizations plan to release the CHLOE report annually, and that the organizations will clarify and add questions in the coming years.

Also, few large public colleges and universities participated in the survey (reasons unknown), so more will be done to get reach their chief online officers, Legon said.   

(For Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the size and scope of online programs in the CHLOE report, click here.)

Teaching Practices

According to the report, 95 percent of online programs at surveyed institutions that have more than 2,500 online students are wholly asynchronous, compared with 62 percent of programs at colleges with fewer than 500 online students. Very few online programs in the survey, regardless of scale, are wholly or majority synchronous.

About one third of the chief online officers said face-to-face sessions played no role in their online programs; 18 percent said they were occasionally required and 16 percent said they were voluntary.

“It is my belief that almost any educational objective can be achieved in an online setting," Legon said. “I don’t think that the lack of face-to-face meetings hinders the learning process.”

Garrett, on the other hand, said "convenience [in online education] isn’t everything. Face to face should be used more strategically.”

Technologies and Tools

In terms of digital technologies, a distant second to the LMS was audio and video conferencing (products mentioned were Adobe Connect, WebEx, Zoom and LMS-related tools), video (Kaltura, Panopto) and lecture capture software (Camtasia, Echo 360).

Among the responses, there was “no sign of much-hyped innovations, the report said. Online labs, competency-based education, adaptive learning and gamification each accounted for less than 1 percent of the tools and techniques reported -- no matter the size or age of the institution's online program.

Garrett said it will be difficult for these tools to achieve widespread implementation because they are more complex than the LMS. “They are raising tough questions,” he said. “Who does teaching and learning, who builds the course? What’s hype, what’s real? It’s still in the experimental phase.”

But when a few institutions have success, others will follow, he added.

Lack of Standardization

According to the CHLOE report, online programs are not consistent from department to department or course to course. This was particularly true for institutions with 500 to 2,499 online students, where online programming has evolved but isn’t a coherent, institution-wide strategy, the report stated. Aided by scale, the larger online programs showed greater consistency.

Two-year institutions are most likely to have widespread variation in online course design because online learning spans a greater proportion of faculty members. But that’s least likely to happen at private non-profit institutions, the report noted.

Quality Assurance and Outcomes

Quality standards for online faculty development as well as course and program design were widely adopted by the institutions surveyed. Nearly 50 percent of the chief online officers who responded said their online programs have quality standards in place, and most others indicated plans to create such standards. Only 5 percent said they had no plans to adopt standards.

Meanwhile, more than one third of the officials said they had no plans to establish quality standards for support services. According to the report, this may reflect the respondents’ lack of oversight or control of support services, their lack of recognition that the services contribute to student and faculty success, or simply a lack of resources.

The CHLOE survey also showed that institutions strive to meet the quality expectations of accreditors and regulators. The only additional metric cited frequently enough to be included was employer feedback.

Finally, the report indicated that quality standards for student outcomes are developing and not widely adopted. "We are at a moment when there is not much data on how well online students do," Garrett said.

Online education remains subject to greater scrutiny and more rigorous quality standards than are typically applied to classroom-based education – but the report stated that there is little doubt that application of standards has spurred improvement in distance courses.

Pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, regional accreditors, major foundations and others for institutions to report meaningful student outcomes continues to grow, which the report authors said may spell trouble for those that haven't paid sufficient attention to these measures or haven't developed rationales to defend their online program performance.

“The challenge is can you make a case for quality in online?” Garrett said, adding could some universities such as  Southern New Hampshire, Liberty and Arizona State that have successfully scaled their online programs also have the best online programs.

"I’m looking for evidence that scale actually helps quality ... Might the biggest schools emerge with superior technology ecosystems, achieve transformative economies of scale, have the resources to invest in the highest quality course materials, develop best-in-class data management processes -- things that might make the student experience stronger," he said. "I don’t think that association is particularly clear right now, but it’s a fair question to ask." 

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