Global On Line Education: Proposed Governmental Role

October 13th, 2012

Redefining Universities For Global On Line Education: Government Role In Quality And Student Attainment:     Proposal to the Global Economic Symposium, Brazil   by Michael W. Kirst, Stanford University

Idea:    Create government entities that enable students to obtain degrees/certificates by aggregating online course from anywhere in the world.

Background and Rationale: Many students lack access to high quality postsecondary education. Delivery costs for traditional brick and mortar postsecondary programs are high and rising rapidly. In the United States, where breadth of access has a particularly strong tradition, 85 percent of students are “nontraditional” working adults, or ethnic minorities. Eighty percent of them attend institutions that are non-selective. Many countries are cutting support for public postsecondary education. While the capacity of public institutions stagnates, for-profit colleges are the only sector expanding significantly in the USA.

Universities have provided a single physical location for many educational and social functions. But modern technology makes it possible that courses as well as faculty are no longer tied to a geographic location. Students can complete an expanding array of online courses worldwide. Many post-secondary online initiatives focus on training for specific vocations, or basic introductory courses. Introductory courses like economics, computer science, and statistics have become commodities that sell online for less than $100 US dollars.

In making use of these opportunities, students create personal learning paths that combine classroom, online and work experience. Online students have online teachers and teaching materials, and are digitally networked to help each other.

Prestigious USA universities  created two competing online entities called edX and Coursera, and both groups of institutions offer “massive open online courses” (MOOC) for a marginal cost between $3 and $7. Two-year community colleges provide career-oriented technical courses packaged for specific vocations for $38 per credit hour. Private for profit postsecondary institutions have been in the online space for decades. The worldwide University of the People is tuition-free, and enrolls students from 132 countries. Some postsecondary institutions require students to take exams in a secure proctored setting before awarding course credit.

Role of Government and Public Policy

In spite of this richness of opportunities, students find it difficult to aggregate or “stack up” their personal array of courses from various providers so as to obtain a degree/certificate in recognition of their overall attainment. An array of perfectly solid courses taken online may have less labor market value than courses offered by a recognized traditional college. It is difficult for students to transfer online courses taken at one institution to another one. Articulation agreements for course transfer between postsecondary institutions are haphazard and incoherent.

Governments should therefore create and enable systems to help students aggregate online courses and programs obtained from different providers. At the same time, nations need to collaborate in establishing quality assurance for combinations of online and traditional courses from multiple suppliers as well as appropriate metrics for the mutual recognition and transfer of credit (as in the case of the European Credit Transfer System [ECTS]). One alternative would be for governments to establish criteria and standards for exams that students must take after the completion of online courses and programs of study, and to make those criteria nationally and internationally known. Two examples are the Collegiate Learning Assessment in the USA and the UK Open University.

A second alternative would be for government to set up a professional review of online course content and quality, and for the approval of specific courses and coherent programs of study. A third alternative would be for governments, or government-appointed professional review boards, to approve an online provider as an accredited institution, which would then automatically confer approval on all of its course offerings.

While government should initiate these measures and be in control of their procedural integrity, the actual certification of course offerings might best be in the hands of professional boards made up of experienced educators, researchers, and employers.  An example of this in USA is Council For Adult and Experiential Learning that assesses the validity of prior learning for acceptance at participating postsecondary institutions.

With the help of these government-initiated safeguards, a student would be able to design his or her own post secondary program that has value and recognition in the labor market. Employers would be encouraged to provide feedback to governments and the review boards concerning the job performance of students served by online providers. Since the quality of online instruction is variable and evolving, a reliable and transparent quality assurance mechanism sponsored by international or national governments is crucial for the acceptance of these offerings by both students and employers.

A strong role for government concerning the quality control of online education is essential because experience shows that some post-secondary administrations and faculty will resist competition. The market will not function optimally if decisions about new forms of instruction and of measuring pupil attainment are solely left in the hands of existing institutions.