The one truth about online education in higher ed: Everybody seems to do it differently

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Though online learning has been around for about 30 years now, little data has been available to compare how higher education institutions implement it. A new report confirms that the differences among programs can be vast, whether it’s how they charge for courses or when they require participants to be online.

CHLOE 2 — the second annual report by Eduventures Research and the nonprofit Quality Matters — aims to offer insights about online learning policies, practices, plans and impact across higher education. CHLOE stands for “Changing Landscape of Online Education,” and this year’s edition is subtitled “A Deeper Dive.”

The “hope is that institutions will become more aware of the options they have regarding the development, management and policy issues they face with regard to online learning,” Ron Legon, co-director of the CHLOE project at Quality Matters, told EdScoop.

The report is based on a survey of 182 online learning officials, including chief online officers, from four-year public and private universities as well as two-year public institutions. Cost is a big focus.

The money factor

CHLOE 2 indicates that a number of institutions charge more for online courses than in-person courses. According to the report, the main reasons are the added costs of online instruction and services, the added costs of program development and the added costs of program marketing.

Large institutions are twice as likely than others to charge more for online classes than they are to charge more for in-person classes (43 percent versus 20 percent), according to respondents.

Community colleges, however, tend to keep costs about the same for online and in-person classes. Just 4 percent of them reported charging less for online courses than in-person and 17 percent said they charge more.

Forty-five percent of chief online officers said their institution’s online learning program generates revenue. Those from community colleges and mid-size schools were more likely to say these programs are a financial drain. Eleven percent of respondents from large institutions said their programs were actually net costs, which surprised researchers as this bucked the trend.

Who’s online, and when?

Most online classes tend to be asynchronous, meaning that faculty and students engage at different times and they use learning tools such as threaded discussions, the report said.

Synchronous online learning involves students and faculty engaging at the same time, i.e. during a live video conference. Only 16 percent of survey respondents said their institution had found a balance between the two — asynchronous and synchronous — in their online programs, while 56 percent said their institution is mainly asynchronous; 26 percent said it’s wholly asynchronous; and just over 2 percent said it’s mainly or wholly synchronous.

Thirty-seven percent of those surveyed said their online learning programs offer “limited interaction and personalization.” Only 13 percent said their online programs had “extensive interaction and personalization.”

One positive insight from the report mentions that institutions’ No. 1 motivator for introducing new technology is to improve student experience, with improving faculty experience coming in at a close second place.

With frequent updates and more technology, online learning continues to improve over time, Legon said.

“We believe that the nature of online learning is to improve incrementally through sharing of techniques and technological advances as well as quality assurance efforts that are being widely adopted,” he said.

Legon said he thinks future reports — the third edition of the survey is launching this spring — will include more questions and responses about blended learning and also will make greater efforts to learn about for-profit institutions.

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