How to Improve Public Online Education: Report Offers a Model

April 22, 2013

Public colleges and universities, which educate the bulk of all American college students, have been slower than their counterparts in the for-profit sector to embrace the potential of online learning to offer pathways to degrees. A new report from the New America Foundation suggests a series of policies that states and public higher-education systems could adopt to do some catching up.

The report, "State U Online," by Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst with the foundation, analyzes where public online-education efforts stand now and finds that access to high-quality, low-cost online courses varies widely from state to state.

Those efforts fall along a continuum of organizational levels, says the report. At the low end of the spectrum, course availability, pricing, transferability of credit, and other issues are all determined at the institutional level, by colleges, departments, or individual professors, resulting in a patchwork collection of online courses that's difficult for students to navigate.

Some states, though, have taken "a series of steps that build on one another to make public online higher education more rational and accessible for different student populations," Ms. Fishman writes. "Taken together, these steps result in something that looks less like an unorganized collection of Internet-based classes, and more like a true public university."

That "something" is a model she dubs "State U Online," in which "students can move freely among institutions within a state and eventually beyond state lines."

The report identifies five cumulative steps that build toward State U Online and gives an example of a state or system at each step. Each example illustrates how that state or system overcame such obstacles as cost, getting faculty buy-in, and assuring course quality.

5 Steps

The first step is for state institutions to collaborate to establish a searchable clearinghouse of online courses and degrees. At Step 2, institutions further collaborate through shared contracts on resources, like learning-management systems. At Step 3, systems also provide shared student-support services, such as advising, that can be used by students at all institutions in the system, regardless of where they are enrolled.

At Step 4, an entire state, or a system of public higher-education institutions within the state, achieves all the previous levels of collaboration and in addition makes it easy for students to transfer credit among institutions. Students enroll in a program at their "home" institution, but can easily take classes at any institution within the consortium.

Step 5 carries that concept beyond state borders. Students can take courses at any institution in such a multistate consortium and not worry about whether their credits will transfer, because institutional agreements within the consortium make that automatic.

The report notes that no one model is going to serve all states' needs and priorities, but it suggests that regardless of the organizational level that states or systems choose, they can improve their online-education efforts to help students find streamlined, affordable pathways to a degree.

It offers practical suggestions about concerns like building sustainable revenue streams that are less dependent on allocations from legislatures, and on providing incentives and support for faculty members to offer online courses. It also recommends experimenting with innovative course-delivery systems, including massive online open courses, or MOOCs, as well as alternative credit systems, such as prior-learning assessments and competency-based measures.

And, while it welcomes recent federal changes that allow colleges to distribute student aid on the basis of such alternative measures, it notes that colleges are hesitant to use the new definitions. It urges the Department of Education to do more to ease uncertainty about alternative measures and federal financial-aid eligibility.