Questions on Quality of Online Learning

George Washington professors review digital offerings and find lack of oversight, unclear course requirements and large student-faculty ratios.

October 18, 2017
 

In April 2016, four online students at George Washington University filed a class-action lawsuit. The students said they paid more for their online master’s degrees than did their on-campus classmates, but they received a lower standard of instruction. At the time, the Faculty Senate at GW was alarmed. Was this lawsuit (which has since been dismissed) a one-off, or was it emblematic of broader issues?

In the wake of the lawsuit, a Faculty Senate task force was established to investigate how online, hybrid and off-campus courses are established and monitored at the university. The task force’s recently released report found that there was “no universitywide master list” of online programs, nor any universitywide guidelines describing how new online courses should be approved and monitored. The report is an example of faculty members wishing to assert more control over an online program that grew quickly, with many professors feeling out of the loop.

As of February 2017, the report said, there were a total of 70 programs offered online by GW at the baccalaureate, master's and doctoral level -- with approximately 4,300 students enrolled. The tuition rates of these online programs vary, but some charge significantly more for the flexibility of learning off campus. A master's degree in cybersecurity strategy and information management, for example, costs students $37,260 online, versus $30,960 for a 36-credit classroom-based course that typically takes up to 16 months to complete. A master's degree in paralegal studies (which includes a graduate certificate), similarly, costs $34,060 online, versus $27,600 on campus for a 32-credit program.

Programs approved for face-to-face instruction can be offered online “without review by the department, dean or academic editor,” said the report. Given that teaching online is very different from teaching in person, the report recommended that all programs should be “re-viewed” to “determine their appropriateness for online instruction.” While processes used by schools and colleges to establish and monitor online programs were said to be "similar" to those used for on-campus programs, the report stressed that new online programs should go through the same approval process as on-campus programs, regardless of whether the course had already been approved in a different modality. The extent to which faculty are involved in monitoring online programs is “unclear,” the report said. The task force suggested that, like on-campus programs, online, hybrid and off-campus degree programs should be subject to an academic program review every five years, as well as an evaluation of annual student learning outcomes.

The report also looked at the ratio of faculty to students in online doctoral programs, an aspect of the study that Charles Garris, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at GW, who chaired the Faculty Senate’s Executive Committee when the task force was established, described as concerning. In the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, around 220 online Ph.D. and doctor of engineering candidates were said to be advised by just two full-time faculty members and 20 part-time or adjunct faculty members. Garris said that for most doctoral programs on campus he would expect the ratio to be much closer one to one. "It's hard to see that the quality of those degrees is comparable, though it may be," he said.

Garris added that the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has since commissioned an oversight committee to look at its online practices.

The report recommended that staffing polices for online courses and student-faculty ratios should be made equivalent to on-campus programs. This was said to be especially important for doctoral programs -- whose “integrity must be ensured” as the “highest level of academic achievement recognized by the university.” Generally, the report identified that a large number of part-time and adjunct faculty members are involved in teaching online. Doctoral candidates were also found to be teaching online master’s courses in some instances. Garris said he did not have a problem with nontenured faculty members teaching online (and indeed said that many were very distinguished) but noted a need to support such staff to ensure the quality of teaching received online is good.

In all, 15 recommendations were made in the report, including a call for greater attention to be paid to the potential “overlap and duplication” of online programs. The report noted some on-campus programs “may lose enrollment because they are cannibalized by the same program offered online.” Additionally, the report recommended that the university should conduct an “in-depth analysis of best practices from other universities” in the future to improve online teaching and evaluation.

Doing Online Education Right

Kurt Darr, professor emeritus of hospital administration at GW, chaired the senate task force. In an interview, he said that he was concerned that the university did not seem to have carefully planned its approach to nontraditional education, with new online programs instead “springing up from various schools.” Darr said that putting together the information in the report had been a “daunting task” that required a “lot of perseverance,” due to the difficulty the team experienced in finding information about GW's online and off-campus programs. So far, the reaction to the report has been positive, said Darr. He said he felt assured that the university administration would respond to the concerns raised. “I think the faculty has made clear its concern about how these various online and nontraditional efforts have been undertaken and monitored,” he said. The first thing he would like the university to do “is understand what is being done already,” he said.

Garris said that a driving factor behind the creation of the task force was a concern that the university had expanded its online offerings too quickly. As the university’s enrollment on campus is capped, adding new students online and off campus classes is a key source of revenue generation, he said. While Garris acknowledged the benefits of online education to students who might not otherwise have access, Garris said that care needed to be taken "to make sure that we do it right."

The university offers many excellent online programs, said Garris, but there is potential for some classes to fall short of students' expectations, he said. He noted concern among faculty that subpar online programs could tarnish the good reputation of the university, which they worked hard to cultivate. He described the report as a "valuable study" that raised some "red flags" for the university to consider going forward. "We had the aim of starting a conversation, and I think this has achieved that," he said.

Regarding concerns of a lack of central oversight, Garris noted that, previously, the university had a vice provost for online education and academic innovation, but this role is no longer occupied, potentially creating a strategic vacuum. “By eliminating that position, we were afraid that there was very little to no coordination between the programs,” said Garris.

Paul Schiff Berman, Walter S. Cox Professor of Law at the university, was the vice provost for online education and academic innovation from 2013 to 2015. In an email, Berman said he believed it is “absolutely essential” that universities have a tenured faculty member at the vice-provost level “dedicated solely to overseeing online education.” He said this role was necessary to ensure academic quality, coordinate resources, generate economies of scale, disseminate best practices and collect crucial data. Berman said that this is particularly important given that online and hybrid learning “are an increasingly important component of the educational programs at most if not all universities.” Without such a role, “the quality of the university’s offerings will inevitably vary wildly by school and department,” said Berman, adding that lack of coordination and oversight “will lead to educational and administrative difficulties.”

Addressing Concerns

In an interview, Forrest Maltzman, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at GW, said that he would be reviewing the report carefully and would work with his team to respond to each of the recommendations in turn. He noted that he felt some of the recommendations described policies that were already in place, and he planned to discuss these with faculty, as well as share more data with them. Asked whether central oversight of online and off-campus programs at GW was lacking, Maltzman said he felt there was "a fair amount" of oversight in place. He noted that the responsibilities previously held by the vice provost for online education and academic learning had not disappeared, and had instead been transferred to a new dean of libraries and academic innovation, under whom technology and teaching and learning could be better integrated.

Asked whether the university may have expanded its online offerings too quickly, Maltzman said emphatically that he did not think this was the case. “I don’t think at all that it’s happened too quickly. It’s happened; there is no question that we’ve had a rapid expansion. But this is about our mission. I feel very, very passionate about this area. Online degrees have created accessibility for advanced degrees to people who previously did not have access,” he said. He added that he did not think that online degrees were "cannibalizing" classroom numbers. Asked about the large number of students supervised by faculty in some online doctoral degrees, Maltzman said he felt there was some misunderstanding about the nature of different doctoral degrees offered by the university.

"Doctoral education is changing," Maltzman said. "We offer many what I would characterize as professional doctoral degrees … The engineering program has midlevel professionals pursuing advanced degrees -- these people are already practicing engineers."

Asked to comment on whether students studying online can expect the same standards as their classmates on campus, Maltzman said, “My expectation is that all of our programs, regardless of learning modality, meet a high standard of quality. I expect everybody to make that a top priority.”

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