Monday, March 3, 2014

State of online education

Navigating online education requires an understanding of the current state and the future direction of online teaching and learning.” Kim & Bonk, 2006.


With the increased availability of web-based instruction, web-based learning environments (like BlackBoard, Moodle, etc.) and the growth in for-profit organizations in education, more and more instruction and assessments are occurring online. In higher education, a recent survey (Allen & Seaman, 2011) suggests that 77% of those surveyed in public universities agree with the statement “online education is critical to the long-term strategy of my institution” (p. 29). The same study reported online enrollment represents 31.3% of total enrollment in those institutions surveyed. 

Abundant growth is also occurring in the K-12 online education domain. Ambient Insights (2011) reports that over 4 million K-12 students, or 6% of the overall K-12 student population, enrolled in online learning courses in the 2010-2011 year. While there are many concerns about student success in virtual schools – e.g., a study by Miron, Horvitz & Gulosino (2011) reporting 37.6% graduation rates in 2011-2012 – for-profit corporations, like K-12, Inc., are moving quickly to provide alternatives to traditional K-12 public and charter schools.  

Some states are inviting for-profit institutions to offer online or blended classes that can replace K-12 in-class experiences. In the state of Michigan, for example, High School students are required to complete an “online experience” before they can graduate. These efforts, added to the growth in popularity of virtual schools, has led to an explosion in online training, courses, programs, and consulting services. In this blog, we will attempt to move beyond the hype and focus instead on what we know about effective methods, tools, and media for quality online education in higher educational and K-12 settings.   


As we explore standards, research, and organizations involved in online education, it is important to recognize the different assumptions made by stakeholders regarding basic concepts and outcomes. For example, what constitutes an “online course” or class is somewhat subjective. Some define online, virtual, or e-learning as “the majority of work completed online,” while others differentiate between online and “fully online,” where no on campus activities are required. Add to this the notion of hybrid, blended, or flipped classrooms, and the conversation gets even more complicated. Finally, there are online or blended courses or classes, online or blended programs, and online or blended degrees.

Allen & Searman (2011) provide a definition of an “online course” – at least 80% of course content delivered online - while the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) uses a more restrictive definition: no required on-campus activities. We refer to this as “fully online” on this blog to differentiate between mostly online and totally (100%) online. Next we will explore efforts to develop standards and criteria for evaluating the quality of online educational offerings.

Standards for online education

In the K-12 domain, standards for online instruction have been offered by several organizations. The National Educational Association (NEA) offers standards for teaching in both online and blended K-12 settings. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning provides another set of standards for online learning in K-12 settings. The iNACOL standards have gained widespread support and there are discussions in some states about requiring K-12 teachers to hold a credential, or at least complete required courses, if they wish to teach online or blended classes. 

In higher education, Quality Matters© (QM) provides a formal process for evaluating and improving online courses with a focus on peer-reviews (Legon & Runyon, 2007). QM incorporates the following elements in their evaluation criteria: course overview and introduction, learning objectives, assessment/measurement, instructional materials, learner interaction and engagement, technology, learner support and accessibility. QM has been adopted at our institution but so far, has not been a required element for online course or program development, approval or evaluation.

Another set of evaluation criteria for online programs in higher education comes from U.S. News & World Report (Brooks & Morse, 2014), and includes admission student selectivity (30%), student engagement (30%), faculty credentials & training (20%) and student services (20%). Student engagement includes graduation rate, best practices, program accreditation, class size, 1-year retention, and time to degree completion.

We have aligned our online university courses and programs with standards specified by the HLC, which accredits our university through the North Central Association. Our institution currently offers an M.Ed. degree in educational technology in both hybrid (mostly online) and fully online formats, and we will begin offering our first online graduate degree in online/blended instruction and assessment in the summer of 2014. In our experiences developing, teaching, and evaluating online education, our work has been informed and enriched by research focused on online education.


For those involved or interested in online education, it is important to consider the available research on effective online education when planning, developing, teaching or evaluating instruction. Online education as a scholarly domain includes an expanding base of knowledge and expertise that provides evidence-based ideas for effective instruction and assessment. 

For example, an article by Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt (2006) explores the history of college-level online education based on published research in the field; a study by DiPietro (2010) explores the instructional practices of K-12 virtual teachers; Ward, Peters & Shelley (2010) report on student and faculty perceptions of the quality of their online learning experiences; and Ester et al. (2009) examine the sense of community in a fully online graduate degree program. 

A prominent organization in online education is the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), which offers standards as well as training, support, and research targeted at K-12 and higher education institutions. The Quality Scorecard© includes a set of standards and criteria for developing and evaluating online instruction based on five pillars of quality. The Sloan-C website provides links to research on aspects of online education including those that influenced development and use of their instrument. Other helpful resources include the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) and the International E-learning Association (iELA) which both provides conferences, research, and other materials.  

While there are clearly political and financial factors that will influence online education as it evolves, there are also evidence-based sources that can and should shape online choices regarding instruction and assessment. Paying attention to what is already known about online education can help improve the quality and effectiveness of these offerings and will ultimately benefit stakeholders. Key questions that research can address include: what factors influence student success in online or blended learning settings? How can online or hybrid courses and programs be evaluated for quality and effectiveness? How appropriate are online or virtual schools for K-12 students? How assessable are blended or online instruction and assessments for those students with special needs or abilities? What opportunities do digital, web-based media and materials provide for students that allow them to extend or expand what is normally available in a traditional time-limited class setting?  

Immersing oneself in this research literature will hopefully ensure that online offerings are effective and meaningful for those who seek to benefit from online or blended/hybrid courses or programs. The future of online education looks especially bright if we continue exploring ways to teach and assess, learn from research in this domain and share our knowledge and experiences with stakeholders. We look forward to a rich and diverse conversation about online education on this blog! 

“More has been written about online education than is known.” Anonymous source.


Allen, I.E., & Seaman, J. (2011). Going the distance: Online education in the United States. Sloan Consortium. Retrieved from:

Ambient Insights (2011). 2011 Learning technology research taxonomy: Research methodology, buyer segmentation, product definitions, and licensing model. Monroe, WA: Author: Retrieved from

Blended learning: An NEA policy brief. National Education Association, Washington, DC. Retrieved from:

Brooks, E., & Morse, R. (2014, January 7). Methodology: Best Online Graduate Program Rankings. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from

DiPietro, M. (2010). Virtual school pedagogy: The instructional practices of K-12 virtual school teachers. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 42(3), 327-354.

Exter, M.E., Korkmaz, N., Harline, N.M, & Bichelmeyer, B. A. (2009). Sense of community within a fully online program: Perspectives of graduate students. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 10(2), 177-194.

Guide to teaching online courses. National Education Association, Washington, DC. Retrieved from:

Guide to online high school courses. National Education Association, Washington, DC. Retrieved from:

Kim, K-J, & Bonk, C.J. (2006). The future of online teaching and learning in higher education: The survey says … EDUCAUSE Quarterly, November 4, 2006. Retrieved from:

Larreamendy-Joerns, J. , & Leinhardt, G. (Winter, 2006). Going the distance with online education. Review of Educational Research, 76(4), 567-605.

Legon, R., & Runyon, J. (2007). Research on the impact of the Quality Matters course review process. Presentation at the 23rd Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning. Retrieved from:

Miron, G., Horvitz, B., & Gulosino, C. (May 2013). Virtual schools in the U.S. 2013: Politics, performance, policy, and research evidence. National Education Policy Center, School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder. Retrieved from:

National Standards for Quality Online Teaching. International Association for K-12 online learning. Retrieved from:

Ward, M.E., Peters, G., & Shelley, K. (2010). Student and faculty perceptions of the quality of online learning experiences. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 11(3), 57-77.


No comments:

Post a Comment