Diane Goldsmith is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium.  A long-time contributor to WCET activities, Diane is the current WCET Steering Committee Chair and serves on the WCET Executive Council.

Maybe I’m just getting cranky, but I’m increasingly irritated by attacks on online learning, especially those based on badly designed research, small sample sizes, or those using data from un-cited studies.  “Why Are So Many Students Still Failing Online?”  was the provocative headline of a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article.

Now to be fair, the article itself, aside from postulating that the only reason that institutions offer online course is that they are the “proverbial cash cow,” was not completely unreasonable.  Although the author is clearly not a fan of online learning, most of us would at least agree with his point that learning online requires certain skills.  But why the Chronicle devoted an entire article to something we have known for years while highlighting his solution of some sort of pre-test for students before enrolling, is beyond me.

Photo of Diane Goldsmith
Diane Goldsmith

This isn’t news.

What rankles me most is that those of us who work in the world of online learning, have been examining and implementing new ideas promoting student success for years, including assessments and orientations to ensure that students are aware of and helped to attain the skills they need to be successful.  I’m baffled as to why our efforts still seem to be a secret to both the public and the majorhigher education media.

In 2000, when I first started at the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium (CTDLC), we were working with our member institutions to help them improve the quality of their online courses and programs through course development funding, instructional design consultation, quantitative and qualitative research on course completion and faculty roles, studies of student readiness, the development of our collaborative eTutoring program, and the list goes on.  And in Connecticut, where “distance” is a strange concept in what, despite what its residents think, is actually a small state, we were behind many of you at tackling these issues.

There are long standing national efforts such as Quality Matters with its focus on best practices in online course design and pedagogy.  An entire business community has also developed commercial as well as open source solutions to many of the issues we, as a community of online practitioners, have identified as impacting student learning and success online.

And we don’t do this in a vacuum.

We have sought out organizations like WCET.  Even those of us from the east found that despite the “Western” (which was, wasn’t, and now sort of is) in its name, WCET’s active CIG’s, listservs, and annual conference belie the notion that institutions and administrators have nothing but revenue on their minds.  The responses to the recent WCET listserv discussion on improving online course retention provided evidence of institutional commitment to understanding and improving online programs and how they serve students.  Some reported 85%  In the responses, an Athabasca University study reported having “85% of courses started by undergraduate students were successfully completed,” the North Dakota University System Online reported an 85% completion rate, and research on institutions with high completion rates was cited.  Others reported progress in closing the retention gap between online and face-to-face courses.

Most institutions with significant online programs have clearly identified strategies to monitor and improve quality.  And we keep pushing ourselves and others to get better at this.  WCET’s recent grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to use highly sophisticated statistical methods aggregating large institutional data sets is a significant step in our continual efforts to improve the persistence of students online.

So why is it that the media continue to highlight these stories?  Is it just that the negative is more provocative?  Why is it that even within the academy, we are often all painted with the same brush used for fly-by-night online diploma mills?  Why am I still being asked to visit institutions to convince faculty that online education can and does help students achieve real learning objectives?  Does anyone seriously believe that the 5.9 million students taking an online course in 2009 (an annual increase of 21%) (2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning) is because all these students are choosing or fooled into enrolling in substandard courses?  How do we get better at ensuring that our commitment to quality and innovation are the norm?  Do we need better large scale research studies to help us demonstrate the efficacy of online programs? (Although the cranky me wants to respond with where’s the large scale research demonstrating the efficacy of lecture courses?)

I don’t mean these as rhetorical questions.  At the last WCET Steering Committee meeting, we began this discussion.  Now I’d like to ask all of WCET’s members and all of you reading this blog for your thoughts. Through comments to this blog, let us know about your institution’s commitment to student success.

It’s time we began to assert and better publicize the efficacy of our work.

Diane Goldsmith
Executive Director, Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium
Chair, WCET Steering Committee

11 replies on “Online Ed Needs to Be More Aggressive in the Quality Debate”

One challenges to excellent online course delivery is low-level or non-involvement by the instructor. Teaching online is not a side – line. Specific skills and gifts are required. In addition, communication is essential. Besides the course platform, participation in Discussion Board by the instructor, follow up with individual emails, initiating expansive thinking (not a cut and paste world at all).
In addition, we need to have high standards. The plethora of plagiarism in the real world reminds us to be sure our students understand the use of resources – how to evaluate them, how to use them, how to paraphrase, how to integrate ideas of others with their own experience. Writng across the Curriculum – a terrific principle – needs to be embedded in our content.
I’d love to communicate with others who – like myself – have been doing online teaching for about 10 years and also to discuss what NEW teachers need and expect, i.e., mentor.
Mary Latela
Adjunct Instructor, Sacred Heart University, etutoring.org writing tutor, course developer, life-long learner.

As academic coordinator of an online MSc in IT at NUI Galway, Ireland (http://www.it.nuigalway.ie/mscsed), I am delighted to have found your post, Diane. You describe our challenge so well, with passion and conviction.

In our programme, we believe it is essential to engage in a continual effort to improve programme quality (content, learning & teaching, student support, etc.). Communicating with and learning from other online educators is part of this effort. For example, we are currently designing a new quality review process for our programme, seeking to use best practices from other programmes. Any examplars of quality review processes or tools would be welcome.

Mary, I particularly appreciated your comment. I would be delighted to communicate with you about online facilitator recruitment, training and support. This is essential work, and one of my most important roles.


Diane is quite right. Great post!

Unfortunately the Chronicle is often biased against online education on principle. It’s a pity they don’t more aggressively pursue all the good research that exists on campuses that consistently shows high online course retention rates.

Not all online colleges are alike — just as not all residential colleges are alike.

More needs to be done to showcase the best practices and quality principles that exist which have been shone to work.


Great questions. For the past 18+ months, I have been working on a book manuscript which was motivated in part by some of the same questions you’re asking — in particular, why are otherwise thoughtful thought leaders so thoughtless when it comes to education?

Vicky answered your question about the Chronicle – they have actually gotten much better about online education over the past few years thanks to Marc Parry and Jeff Young, but they are still dominated by traditional thinking. As for the particular Chronicle article you cite, uninformed rear-guard resistance to online education will continue. After so many years in the field, i’m as tired as you are of having to fight this never-ending battle to explain how online education is OK. But it persists, perhaps because we are now reaching the late adopters on the innovation diffusion curve, and maybe starting to get uncomfortably close for some of the laggards’ liking.

I don’t have a complete answer to your questions, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

– The mainstream media missed the growth in online education because they were looking in all the wrong places. They’re missing the growing emphasis on quality for the same reasons.
– The public misunderstands online education because it is still a relatively new and small part of the total picture. This will change somewhat over the next several years as online education attains full scale. There are reputational challenges ahead, but they can be managed.
– Most ideas about reforming education still advocate narrow, oversimplified outcomes which their constituencies support.

In response, I’ve developed a conceptual framework (the Seven Futures of Cyberized Education) that integrates multiple perspectives into a broader, coherent whole and which describes how to use the cyberization of education to improve it.

You’re absolutely right, there’s a lot of great work going on in online education that education’s key stakeholders need to know more about. I’m hoping that my book will help and look forward to hearing other ideas about how to get the word out, both specifically and broadly.


The game of education is as much about politics (read power and influence) as it is about learning – maybe more so in this age of special interests. From this perspective, instructional designers, Quality Matters, and other advocates of well-designed online learning have yet to get in the game.

While other interests use every means available – advertising, lobbying, campaign contributions, newspaper articles, the power of publishing, etc., etc. – we have labored to convince or cajole each and every online instructor to try out new, more effective methods. One little piece at a time. At this pace, we may make real progress in 1,000 years or so.

I’m ready to get more aggressive; I’m tired of talking to educated people who won’t even acknowledge I’m here, let alone believe I have something of value to offer. I want to talk to the power: college presidents, deans, Congress, state legislators.

It’s time to organize and make our case to the larger world. It’s time to get political.

Thank you for standing up (with boldness, integrity, and proof) that online learning is a reputable (perhaps preferred in some cases) way to obtain an outstanding education. I read the Chronicle article you refer to and it is disheartening that they seem to “report” on the negative aspects or at least provide a negative slant on things. Another recent article – http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/online-courses-should-always-include-proctored-finals-economist-warns/31287?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en – citing a study about proctoring exams seemed to imply that online students were more likely to cheat on exams. While we all recognize the issue of testing integrity (hot button alert) in an online environment, it came across to me that online students (as a whole) are just out to cheat the system, cram at the last minute, etc. I found that offensive. Whatever happened to the old fashioned “cheat sheets”…that was done in my day right under the noses of some classroom professors. So I feel your pain. It is frustrating to feel as though you have to continually “defend” your life’s work. The truth is change hurts. It is scary for many folks and that my friend can lead the way to a lifetime of foolish repetition, regret, and regression. Keep up the good work in being a strong voice for online/hybrid and alternative learning environments.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has become much more sensationalist in its coverage in general over the past few years, so articles like the one Diane refers to are, I suppose, to be expected. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact. Because online tools can be used to support residential classes and students, the format looks new and shiny and, to some, suspect. As a colleague at another institution plaintively says, however, “distance education was not invented in 1994 by the Sloan Foundation.” I say of myself that I was involved in distance education before Al Gore invented the internet.

Because the online delivery system is so new, many practitioners either don’t know of the precedents or don’t wish to acknowledge them. It can be discouraging to know that these public (mis)perceptions of quality are so old, but it’s also the case that the rationale and rebuttal claims have been articulated before and are still relevant. Correspondence study is embarrassingly low tech, but the issues of academic integrity, quality, and differentiation from the shady operators were all addressed in that practice 80 or more years ago. The National University Extension Association promulgated standards of good practice in the 1920s and 1930s, and (with one exception) they apply to the practice of distance and online education today. In the mid 1880’s, William Rainey Harper (yes, the University of Chicago William Rainey Harper) prepared a report on correspondence study that, if you substitute “online” for correspondence, is an excellent argument for the quality of our practice today. He concluded thus (and I invite you to substitute “online” at the appropriate points): “The day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our academies and colleges, when the students who shall recite by correspondence will far outnumber those who make oral recitations.” (OK, “recite” is also an old-fashioned word, too, but his prediction is about to come true.)

I think we should be very concerned about the issues Diane raises, and the temptation to political activism is great. In the current climate, however, I’m concerned about the unintended consequences of that activism. Those of us who have been complaining for the last several years that the shadiest of the for-profit institutions should be regulated now need to remember what we asked for. Now, after such regulations have been developed, to say, “but not US!” is not a very tenable or, to my mind, morally attractive position. We need to work on our campuses and in our communities first, and with policy-makers closer to home. True story: in 1996 I accompanied our university president to a meeting with our local Congressman, who at one point asked “Just what is distance learning, anyway?” I did my best, but it was an uphill slog. Probably the same conversation is needed with his successor now.

The other dangerous public assumption about online learning is that certainly it is cheaper than in the traditional classroom. That depends on how many costs you count, of course, and also assumes that cheaper is obviously desirable. The media attention can be beneficial in drawing attention to our work, but I sometimes agree with that same colleague I quoted at the beginning, when he said, “I liked it better when we were obscure and despised.” Alas, I think that obscurity may be the reason there are so many ill-informed assumptions out there now.

Yours in struggle, (as we used to say in the 60s), Peg Wherry

I can’t remember reading a blog that captured so well the frustrations of being misunderstood and the rough road ahead for online/distance learning. Legislators, the public, perhaps the Chronicle, too, just don’t understand what this thing we call online/distance learning is. (Remember, there are folks who still believe all sorts of odd things — there’s even a flat earth society — so it should not surprise us that they don’t understand.) We can fuss about it, and blame them, but the only solution I see is to call on our mission and skills as educators. We need to find all kinds of ways to educate Congress, state legislators, and the public about what we do, how we do it, and the learning that results. We might consider some marketing tools — video spots or personal stories (have you see the ITT ads?) — or large-scale research studies for those who like numbers (although I don’t see that money coming from the feds anytime soon). The point is that those others will be convinced by various types of arguments, but they can’t be convinced without those arguments.

And we have to counteract some of the ads I see on TV — “get your education in your PJs” for one — which may work with some students but may subtly denigrate the quality of the education (in the views of those who think PJs are not requisite for deep thinking, rather than sleeping).

And remember, with term limits or without them, legislators turn over regularly, so if you think you’ve educated them, you need to do it again and again. And as for convincing others within higher education, remember that there will always be doubters around us. Every innovation takes time to prove itself. We need patience and a plan.

We are educators, and we can do this.

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