Two findings stand out in WCET’s latest Managing Online Education survey: how course content is produced and acquired; and course completion rates.
WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies) conducted the 2013 survey in partnership with BCcampus, Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, and eCampusAlberta.
Course content: limitations of the in-house model
Results of their survey shows that the “vast majority of online courses use content that is developed in-house by faculty.” Approximately “60 percent use open content, but it is used only in a small number of courses.”
The dependence on in-house content for online courses fits neatly with the traditional organization of higher education: faculty are charged with serving as one-person providers for most aspects of a student’s experience, including content. And this model reinforces and reflects the notion that faculty are not merely teachers, but subject matter experts.
But of course, technology makes it increasingly simple and convenient to acquire content from other sources. This isn’t a new phenomenon; the process of unbundling the production and distribution of information begins with the printing press.
The downside of this reliance on in-house content development is that it places an extraordinary cap on the kinds of materials that can be produced and subsequently used by students to learn. More sophisticated materials that draw on rich media, predictive modeling and other properties that are dependent on higher levels of investment and a true division of labor, simply can’t be produced economically via the in-house model.
The relatively light take-up of open content is interesting on two levels. Open content initiatives have been around for a decade and a half. Increasing the frequency with which faculty share materials is logical. And we expect adoption of open content to continue to grow. But the growth will likely remain limited until the shared materials are consistently of higher quality, which in turn, is dependent on moving away from the aforementioned in-house production model.
Institutions don’t know their course completion rates
The focus in the study on course completion rates is smart. While the retention rates cited in the study are not particularly surprising, the authors rightly draw attention to what might be the more important issue: many institutions didn’t know their completion rates. “65 percent were not able to provide an on-campus rate and 55 percent did not report an online rate.”
Course completion rates are a particularly obvious marker of academic success. And it is information that is relatively simple to capture. It’s the low hanging fruit of institutional analytics.
The apparent lack of attention to even the most obvious and important information is somewhat alarming. As the report notes, “if institutions wish to improve course completion, they will need to collect these statistics. It’s hard to improve what is not measured.”
The full report: Managing Online Education, 2013