That Sound You Hear Is the Online Education Pendulum Swinging Back Toward Quality

Signage is displayed on the main building of the University of Phoenix, part of Apollo Group Inc., in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.,
Signage is displayed on the main building of the University of Phoenix, part of Apollo Group Inc., in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. Apollo Group, the biggest U.S.for-profit college by enrollment, led education shares to their biggest plunge in more than 5 years today after executives described a bleak future for signing up new students. Photographer: Joshua Lott/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In Edgar Allen Poe's famous short story, "The Pit and The Pendulum," the narrator imagines breaking free and stopping the steel "crescent" as it lowers inexorably toward his breast: "I would have seized and attempted to arrest the pendulum. I might as well have attempted to arrest an avalanche!" Those of us in the higher education online marketplace have seen the "for-profits" a bit similarly, as though they had created so much momentum that there was simply no way to stop their progress. Then 2012 came. Online giants like The Apollo Group (even their name exudes dominance) watched their stock price tumble from over $58 per share to about $19. New enrollment at their largest subsidiary, University of Phoenix, dropped 15 percent, as they cut 800 jobs, closing 25 "campuses." Others, like DeVry, had similar challenges, with their stock price cut in half and enrollment in the business, technology and management school segment falling 9.4 percent over the year.

With the economy slogging through a protracted malaise, consumers are beginning to scrutinize their online education options like never before, signaling the start of an industry correction that will lead more prospective students to demand higher quality from their online investment. Research shows that when students are considering a non-profit college or university they generally consider a number of schools before choosing. When it comes to for-profit universities, more than 50 percent look at only one schoolbefore enrolling. These students were looking for convenience over quality, and the for-profits had a customer-first business philosophy that smashed through the ivory tower's seemingly impenetrable fortress of reputation-driven enrollment.

But the rush to online education swung the pendulum too fast and too far, and it now has begun to swing back toward quality. The Obama Administration has tried to help prospective students be more wary, as they target what they have called the "abuses" at for-profit institutions that graduate too few and leave students with huge debts and few job prospects. The DOE and others realize that these schools spend more money on marketing (22 percent) than instruction (17 percent), and have begun to question the real value of the education they offer. While University of Phoenix and other online providers argue that they have granted educational access to thousands who would otherwise not be in college, more and more students are demanding objective quality measures from their online schools.

Because online universities are still fairly new (it wasn't until 1993 that the first accredited online university, Jones International University, opened), prospective students have to work hard to find resources to help them evaluate the quality of programs. US News and World Report, long considered the gold standard for quality college choices, has responded to increased interest in online education and recently published their second evaluation of online universities. US News used three criteria to establish quality. Student engagement, which measured student interaction with faculty and students and a rewarding learning environment, was weighted 50 percent. Faculty credentials and training, weighted at 25 percent, tracked data to ensure that the institution "hired instructors with academic credentials one would expect from a reputable college or university, and have the resources to train these instructors on how to teach distance learners." Lastly, student services and technology (weighted at 25 percent), rated "diverse online learning technologies" and "a strong support structure that provides career guidance, academic assistance, and financial aid resources commensurate with quality campus-based programs."

Another quality measure of online education is "Quality Matters" (QM) a "faculty-centered, peer review process that is designed to certify the quality of online and blended courses." QM was developed at the University of Maryland, and uses 40 categories to help ensure that best practices for online education are used in course development and implementation. Some schools are using QM to "certify" their online courses, though it is not yet clear that the general public sees the value of this new validation. Blackboard, the largest learning management system provider in America, recently announced a partnership with QM, designed to "offer clients a complete solution to their consulting needs for quality online courses to improve the online education experience."

As the world of online education seeks legitimacy in the days ahead, they will need to find convince naysayers from without and within. A recent survey revealed that 72 percent of professors who have taught Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) don't believe that students should get official college credit, even if they did well in the class.

More importantly, these are the professors who voluntarily took time to teach online courses, which means the actual number of professors who discount the quality of MOOCs is probably much higher. The survey reveals that online programs will need to stay focused on quality, and help the general public and employers better understand what makes for a superior online experience. The sound of the online pendulum swinging back to quality is surely a sweet sound for some schools and a haunting one for others.