What are “Quality” Online Courses?

What are “Quality” Online Courses?
Burck Smith

Since 2008, StraighterLine has noted that online courses – because they require none of the expensive infrastructure of face-to-face courses – should be much, much cheaper than a college’s face-to-face courses. The growth of equivalent, but cheaper and unsubsidized, providers of online courses creates a problem for state and local policymakers.

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Equivalent But Cheaper

If equivalent but cheaper courses exist, but taxpayer money can only be used for expensive accredited providers, then taxpayer funds are being spent poorly. Slowly, policymakers are trying to address this. Last week the Department of Education announced that it was looking into ways in which alternative credit providers and programs might be brought into the federal government’s financial aid system. Another article listed some of those providers (including StraighterLine).

"If equivalent but cheaper courses exist, but taxpayer money can only be used for expensive accredited providers, then taxpayer funds are being spent poorly."

As state and local policymakers and regulators explore how to provide financial aid and Pell grants to less expensive online education providers, the issues that must be addressed for these and existing providers are thorny. The biggest issue requiring resolution is what is “quality”?

What is "Quality"?

Despite an abundance of state and federal regulation for colleges, there are no government-approved standards for a college’s courses. Accreditors evaluate colleges on metrics like financial health, faculty credentials, availability of support services and degree attainment rates – not the quality of their courses. Colleges accept other college’s credits in transfer based mostly on faith.

"Accreditors evaluate colleges on metrics like financial health, faculty credentials, availability of support services and degree attainment rates – not the quality of their courses."

The only course level quality standards that exist are voluntary 3rd party review processes used mostly by non-colleges. The best known of these are the American Council on Education’s Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit) and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission’s Approved Quality Curriculum (DEAC AQC) review process. To a certain extent, the College Board can fulfill such a function when it approves courses for Advanced Placement (AP) teaching. While such voluntary efforts provide assurances to prospective students, there is little objective guidance on delivering and continuously improving online courses at any level.

At StraighterLine, we’ve had to develop these ourselves. Here are some of the things we do.

Best-in-Class Courseware

First, we established a baseline of course elements that are well established throughout higher education. These include using best-in-class courseware from a mix of providers (McGraw-Hill, Rosetta Stone and Acrobatiq – formerly part of Carnegie Mellon University -- and others), live online tutoring services from SMARTHINKING, anti-plagiarism software from TurnitIn, online proctoring from ProctorU, psychometrically valid and reliable exams built by Council for Aid to Education (CAE), Moodle’s learning management system and more.

Low-Risk Pricing Model

Second, we built a pricing model that limits financial risk for students and better fits student online learning habits. For instance, because students have the freedom to move at their own pace when learning online, it makes sense to offer a subscription that can be cancelled or paused at any time.

"Because students have the freedom to move at their own pace when learning online, it makes sense to offer a subscription that can be cancelled or paused at any time."

Also, because students aren’t using expensive physical resources when they start an online class, students should be able to start for free to see if online learning is right for them. Colleges typically price their courses as a one-time, per-course tuition for online or face-to-face courses – mostly because federal financial aid is delivered in flat-rate pricing.

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Continuous Improvement

Third, once StraighterLine’s core course delivery and pricing structure was established in the late 2000’s, we implemented rigorous analytics and continuous improvement processes. For ongoing course evaluation, StraighterLine uses course completion percentages and the Net Promoter Score (NPS). NPS is a measure of consumer satisfaction used across a variety of industries. If you’ve ever answered the question “would you recommend this service to a friend” on a 1-10 scale, then you’ve answered a NPS survey.

Now, anytime we change an element of the student experience, we use course completion and NPS data to evaluate the impact of that change. Those changes that improve course completion rates and NPS scores are kept. Those that don’t are abandoned. We’ve learned that both course completion rates and NPS vary by time of the year and by types of students, so having a significant volume of historical data is critical to drawing accurate conclusions.

Using objective course completion and NPS data, StraighterLine can continuously improve the quality of its courses. For example, we run tests with different providers of courseware to find the ones that both improve course completion and have the highest NPS scores. Once established, we swap out the old provider with the new one. Because we license content from the best courseware provider rather than build it ourselves, we can be sure to have the best provider for any give subject.

"Using objective course completion and NPS data, StraighterLine can continuously improve the quality of its courses."

Another example is StraighterLine’s overhaul of “MyLine” – the student portal from which courses, grades, support, tutoring, transcripts and all other student experience elements are accessed – resulted in NPS score growth of 28% for the first six months of 2015. Using the same evaluative processes, we found that success coaches increased course completion rates for struggling students and we’re prototyping a pacing tool that is performing well in early tests (stay tuned!).

Will Colleges Agree to Common Course-Level Quality Standards?

Because colleges have never had to define or prove course quality, the Department of Education will have a tough time getting colleges to agree to common course-level quality standards that are applicable across all providers – whether a college or not. Rather than wait for government to resolve the issue, StraighterLine has pushed forward to define these standards on its own. In the end, we believe that “quality” will be best defined by the features and services that have proven to be useful to students at a price they can best afford.

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