The 2006 National Survey of Student Engagement , released today, for the first time offers a close look at distance education, offering provocative new data suggesting that e-learners report higher levels of engagement, satisfaction and academic challenge than their on-campus peers.
Beyond the numbers, however, what institutions choose to do with the data promises to attract extra attention to this year’s report.
NSSE is one of the few standardized measures of academic effectiveness that most officials across a wide range of higher education institutions agree offers something of value.Yet NSSE does not release institution-specific data, leaving it to colleges to choose whether to publicize their numbers.
Colleges are under mounting pressure, however, to show in concrete, measurable ways that they are successfully educating students, fueled in part by the recent release of the report  from the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education , which emphasizes the need for the development of comparable measures of student learning. In the commission's report and in college-led efforts  to heed the commission's call, NSSE has been embraced as one way to do that. In this climate, will a greater number of colleges embrace transparency and release their results?
Anywhere between one-quarter and one-third of the institutions participating in NSSE choose to release some data, said George Kuh, NSSE’s director and a professor of higher education at Indiana University at Bloomington. But that number includes not only those institutions that release all of the data, but also those that pick and choose the statistics they’d like to share.
In the “Looking Ahead” section that concluded the 2006 report, the authors note that NSSE can “contribute to the higher education improvement and accountability agenda,” teaming with institutions to experiment with appropriate ways to publicize their NSSE data and developing common templates for colleges to use. The report cautions that the data released for accountability purposes should be accompanied by other indicators of student success, including persistence and graduation rates, degree/certificate completion rates and measurements of post-college endeavors.
“Has this become a kind of a watershed moment when everybody’s reporting? No. But I think what will happen as a result of the Commission on the Future of Higher Ed, Secretary (Margaret) Spelling’s workgroup, is that there is now more interest in figuring out how to do this,” Kuh said.
Charles Miller, chairman of the Spellings commission, said he understands that NSSE’s pledge not to release institutional data has encouraged colleges to participate -- helping the survey, first introduced in 1999, get off the ground and gain wide acceptance. But Miller said he thinks that at this point, any college that chooses to participate in NSSE should make its data public.
“Ultimately, the duty of the colleges that take public funds is to make that kind of data public. It’s not a secret that the people in the academy ought to have. What’s the purpose of it if it’s just for the academy? What about the people who want to get the most for their money?”
Participating public colleges are already obliged to provide the data upon request, but Miller said private institutions, which also rely heavily on public financial aid funds, should share that obligation.
Kuh said that some colleges’ reluctance to publicize the data stems from a number of factors, the primary reason being that they are not satisfied with the results and feel they might reflect poorly on the institution.
In addition, some college officials fear that the information, if publicized, may be misused, even conflated to create a rankings system. Furthermore, sharing the data would represent a shift in the cultural paradigm at some institutions used to keeping sensitive data to themselves, Kuh said.
“The great thing about NSSE and other measures like it is that it comes so close to the core of what colleges and universities are about -- teaching and learning. This is some of the most sensitive information that we have about colleges and universities,” Kuh said.
But Miller said the fact that the data get right to the heart of the matter is precisely why it should be publicized. “It measures what students get while they’re at school, right? If it does that, what’s the fear of publishing it?” Miller asked. “If someone would say, ‘It’s too hard to interpret,’ then that’s an insult to the public.” And if colleges are afraid of what their numbers would suggest, they shouldn’t participate in NSSE at all, Miller said.
However, Douglas Bennett, president of Earlham College in Indiana and chair of NSSE’s National Advisory Board, affirmed NSSE’s commitment to opening survey participation to all institutions without imposing any pressure that they should make their institutional results public. “As chair of the NSSE board, we believe strongly that institutions own their own data and what they do with it is up to them. There are a variety of considerations institutions are going to take into account as to whether or not they share their NSSE data,” Bennett said.
However, as president of Earlham, which releases all of its NSSE data and even releases its accreditation reports, Bennett said he thinks colleges, even private institutions, have a professional and moral obligation to demonstrate their effectiveness in response to accountability demands -- through NSSE or another means a college might deem appropriate.
This Year's Survey
The 2006 NSSE survey, which is based on data from 260,000 randomly-selected first-year and senior students at 523 four-year institutions(NSSE's companion survey, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement,  focuses on two-year colleges) looks much more deeply than previous iterations of the survey did into the performance of online students.
Distance learning students outperform or perform on par with on-campus students on measures including level of academic challenge; student-faculty interaction; enriching educational experiences; and higher-order, integrative and reflective learning; and gains in practical competence, personal and social development, and general education. They demonstrate lower levels of engagement when it comes to active and collaborative learning.
Karen Miller, a professor of education at the University of Louisville who studies online learning, said the results showing higher or equal levels of engagement among distance learning students make sense: “If you imagine yourself as an undergraduate in a fairly large class, you can sit in that class and feign engagement. You can nod and make eye contact; your mind can be a million miles away. But when you’re online, you’ve got to respond, you’ve got to key in your comments on the discussion board, you’ve got to take part in the group activities.
Plus, Miller added, typing is a more complex psycho-motor skill than speaking, requiring extra reflection. “You see what you have said, right in front of your eyes, and if you realize it’s kind of half-baked you can go back and correct it before you post it.”
Also, said Kuh, most of the distance learners surveyed were over the age of 25. "Seventy percent of them are adult learners. These folks are more focused; they’re better able to manage their time and so forth," said Kuh, who added that many of the concerns surrounding distance education focus on traditional-aged students who may not have mastered their time management skills.
Among other results from the 2006 NSSE survey:
- Those students who come to college less well-prepared academically or from historically underrepresented groups tend to benefit from engagement  in educationally purposeful activities even more than their peers do.
- First-year and senior students spend an average of about 13 to 14 hours per week preparing for classes, much less than what faculty members say is needed.
- Student engagement is positively correlated to grades and persistence between the first and second year of college.
- New students study fewer hours during their first year than they expected to when starting college.
- First-year students at research universities are more likely than students at other types of institutions to participate in a learning community.
- First-year students at liberal arts colleges participate in class discussions more often and view their faculty more positively than do students at other institutions.
- Seniors at master’s level colleges and universities give class presentations and work with their peers on problems in class more than students at other types of institutions do.