October 20, 2009
Principles for Improving Online Transparency, Quality
Transparency by Design, an initiative from a consortium of adult-serving educational institutions with significant commitments to distance education, is based on the premise that a well-informed student—or prospective student—benefits everyone. A key focus of the plan is providing program-specific outcomes data that allows students to make informed decisions about their education investment.
Michael Offerman, president of Capella University, who led the working group that shaped the initiative, said that “To meet the education needs of adult students, we must provide them with trustworthy and transparent ways to choose among many available options and to gauge the potential of each one to further their careers.” The goal of the program is “to lead universities and colleges toward greater accountability and transparency.”
Transparency by Design institutions began issuing annual reports that include comprehensive data for each course of study, including student demographics, completion rates, costs, student engagement, and knowledge and skills learned. Most important, Transparency by Design reports include outcomes at the program specialization level, allowing prospective students to assess how well a program will prepare them for their professional pursuits.
One of the requirements for implementing Transparency by Design is the development of a new set of best practices for participating institutions. “You want to make sure things are in place at the institutional level,” says Merle Harris, president of Charter Oaks State College, who has been instrumental in developing just such standards. “Collectively we went back and we looked at best practices that have been put out by other organizations for online learning and then we developed our set based on those,” she says.
Harris and her associates concluded that there were a few basic principles for institutions that really want to be transparent.
#1 Make distance education a central element of your mission: Distance learning really has to be central to what the institution is doing. If it is viewed as an add-on and not part of the central mission then very often it doesn’t get the resources that are needed to carry out a quality program.
#2 Accountability to stakeholders: Who are the primary stakeholders in a transparent institution? The prospective student and the enrolled student. “One of the reasons we feel it’s important to have accountability measures and to report on those regularly is because prospective students who are making a decision about where they want to go to school, where they want to take courses should have information,” Harris says.
Accountability to prospective students includes providing adequate information about the program, what it contains, and who’s teaching it. But it also includes measuring what happens to students who go through the program. Harris’ group looks at things like graduation rates, retention rates, what alumni say about the program, and measures of student engagement, with the aim of making this information readily available to prospective students.
#3 Responsiveness: In practice this means nothing more or less than good customer service, so that when there are issues and questions students can get quick answers. Responsiveness in the academic process means that faculty respond quickly to a student, so that a student who’s learning online can get an answer to a question or feedback on an assignment within 24 to 48 hours, depending on the institution’s policy. Administratively, responsiveness means that if there are questions about grades going out, about registration, about fees being paid the student will get very quick response either by email or by telephone.
Click here for Part II of this article.
Excerpted from Transparency is Good Practice for Online Administration, Distance Education Report, April 1, 2008.