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Colleges and universities that offer distance education are increasingly building their courses to conform with widely accepted best practices for all of higher education, but a study by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies shows many institutions fail to collect crucial data needed to track the effectiveness of programs.

The cooperative, founded by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, regularly polls its members to understand how institutions are providing distance education. Fairly or not, massive open online courses -- known for low completion rates -- have stolen the online education spotlight, and in response, this version of the “Managing Online Education” survey sought to explore the “mythology around completion rates for online courses,” among other topics.

Yet the “most troubling and, somewhat unexpected finding was the serious limitations in the availability of data regarding completion rates,” the report reads. A majority of responding institutions did not provide completion rates for either type of course -- 65 and 55 percent for online and on-campus courses, respectively.

Some respondents blamed the lack of data on course catalogs that don’t specify if a particular section of a course is online or not. Distance education providers have for years fought to eliminate the stigma of online courses’ implied lack of quality, and the shift toward an equal billing makes it difficult to distinguish between different forms of course delivery.

“If institutions wish to improve retention, they will need to collect these statistics,” the report reads. “It's hard to improve what is not measured.”

Russell Poulin, deputy director of research and analysis for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, offered another theory: What if institutions are intentionally withholding low completion rates?

Online course completion rates lagged on average 5 percentage points behind on-campus courses, based on data provided by respondents who reported both. Twelve institutions reported online course completion rates were more than 10 percentage points lower than those of on-campus courses, but another 12 reported either equal or higher rates; however, the survey warns against drawing conclusions because of the large number of non-responses.

While institutions may not be collecting enough data, 85 percent of them are at least adopting standards and best practices for online courses. With 58 percent of institutions reporting they have adopted them either fully or partially, the U.S. Regional Accrediting Standards rank the highest, followed by regionally developed standards at 49 percent -- which are often subscribed to by large public university systems.

An additional 15 percent of respondents said they have not adopted any standards, which usually cover learning outcomes, assessments and students support services, among others. That means they “are operating in the dark or have ceded all quality issues to the faculty,” the report reads. Instructors themselves may see that as an optimal situation, but Poulin said there are other stakeholders to consider.

“Online teaching really ends up being teamwork if it’s done well,” Poulin said. “You have to put in instructional design, you have to have tech support -- all those things -- in order to make it a successful course.”

Survey respondents included 240 members of the cooperative and university officials from 41 U.S. states, three Canadian territories and Puerto Rico, and slightly more than half, or 57 present, represent four-year institutions. The survey was conducted in spring 2013 in partnership with BCcampus, the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium and eCampusAlberta.

Only a handful of questions in the 2011 survey reappear in this year’s edition, making it difficult to track how the numbers have shifted. But of the topics covered in both surveys, the numbers haven’t changed significantly. If anything, they have gotten worse. In 2013, 19 percent of respondent said their institutions only offer technical support to online students between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays -- up from 12 percent in 2011 -- and 16 percent don’t have a policy in place to ensure the courses are accessible to students with disabilities -- down from 20 percent.

“That there are still institutions that are offering online courses and their tech support is only bankers’ hours is a bit mind-boggling,” Poulin said. On accessibility, he said faculty members need to be free to focus on subject matter, not instructional design. “They can’t be the ones who have to figure out what’s the best way to serve a deaf or blind person. That’s something where the institution needs to be stepping up and giving more support.”

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