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The Most Dangerous Threat to Online Education: Government Quality Control

written by: Sylvia Cochran•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 12/29/2011

States are chomping at the bit to get a finger into the online learning pie. Asserting that they are only interested in ensuring a quality online education for would-be students, politicians fail to recognize that this market place is self-regulating. Ever wonder why and how?

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    Case Study of Missing Quality Control in Online Learning

    “Achieving higher learning through the use of computers It started out as a clearinghouse for online classes. The American Independent reported that the Texas legislature put together a number of such Internet learning courses to benefit rural students and those requiring an alternative to the traditional classroom setting. Over a few short years, online education classes provided by public schools were augmented with courses from for-profit education venues. The resulting hodgepodge of available learning opportunities was not uniformly regulated or vetted for quality.

    At the heart of the issue is the question of quality control. Courses designed by private enterprise could come with priorities that differ from the public education sector. “They are responsible to their shareholders, not to the kids or anyone else. They are in it for the money," the American Independent quotes a researcher from the University of Colorado’s National Education Policy Center. Arguing that states have the burden of administering a suitable public education, the authors assert that state-control of online learning is a must.

    The leap from tightly regulating K-12 online learning to also including post-high-school virtual education is easy enough to make. It stands to reason that once lawmakers get a death grip on the online courses, education venues, and programs in the state geared toward children, the adult learning opportunities are next.

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    Current Models for Quality Assurance Exist

    Just as this 2007 case study pits the perceived evils of for-profit education against the government oversight of public learning, a 2002 Sloan Consortium report highlights that quality control models for the online classroom already exist. Although aimed at higher education, the model easily transfers to the K-12 online classroom as well. Highlighted are areas crucial to all students:

    • Learning success. Does the virtual classroom deliver what it promises? Is it at least comparable to the brick and mortar option? The goal, of course, is to surpass face-to-face instruction via online teaching.
    • Student approval. Treating students as discerning consumers results in learner-centered approaches to education. Speed of responses, just the right amount of educator support and a personalized approach to – and interest in – student achievements rank high.
    • Educator satisfaction. Just like students must be satisfied with the education they receive, faculty members must also approve of their work conditions. This approach is instrumental for gauging and adjusting institutional support of the teaching staff engaged in the virtual classroom. Setting the standard in this venue is the Monroe Model, which ensures that online teachers have the academic, technological and administrative support needed to focus intently on the challenges brought on by teaching online.
    • Return on investment. A for-profit educational venue must deliver a superior product at the lowest possible cost. Cost-cutting, as implied by the previously quoted Colorado researcher, would quickly deliver disastrous results with respect to learning outcomes and customer – as well as faculty – satisfaction.
    • Ease of access. A website set up with the user in mind results in a more authentic learning experience.

    It is clear that the open market and for-profit educational venues have already devised models and benchmarks for effectiveness and customer satisfaction. If the industry is able and willing to police itself, is it truly necessary for the state to add arbitrary rules and regulations, especially if they are not based on industry insider experience?

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    A Case for 'Caveat Emptor'

    Letting the buyer beware is an adage that applies to adults as well as the parents of K-12 youngsters. Questions to ask – and answer honestly – include:

    • Learning readiness. Is the student interested in the subject and willing to undertake all that is required to pass the course? An unmotivated student frequently cannot benefit from even a well-prepared class.
    • Industry knowledge. Does the student recognize that taking classes from an accredited online school offers multiple benefits, including credit transfers, while an unaccredited educational venue may be cheaper, but not necessarily accepted by everyone? Is the student – or the parent – willing to read up on recognizing and avoiding unaccredited programs? Remember: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
    • Motivation. Is the student the proverbial self-starter? A learner who needs a lot of affirmation, hand-holding, and re-directing to stay on task will not do as well as a focused student who will complete even a tedious task from beginning to end.
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    There is little doubt that it takes some legwork, research and comparison-shopping before a consumer can be certain that she or he receives a quality online education. Nevertheless, it is just as clear that government involvement at the state level is not the answer. Adding red tape and imposing occasionally sub-par standards to frequently private sector education venues is sure to do more harm than good.