Assessing the Quality of Distance Education at a University

Assessing the Quality of Distance Education at a University

David L. Bolton (West Chester University of Pennsylvania, USA), Esther Smidt (West Chester University of Pennsylvania, USA) and Rui Li (West Chester University of Pennsylvania, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 29
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7844-4.ch006
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This chapter reports the findings of an investigation into the experiences of undergraduate and graduate distance education students at a state educational institution in the United States. Current distance education students at the university were surveyed using an online questionnaire. The purpose of the study was to identify areas of weakness in the distance education program in general and develop recommendations for improving the program. The survey was primarily quantitative, but also allowed for participants to provide qualitative feedback. Results of the study are outlined in terms of distance students' perceptions about the institution's distance education program. Recommendations for improving the program are provided.
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Distance education courses provide a convenient way for busy people to learn. This premise has resulted in the number of distance programs being offered and, consequently, an increase in the number of students learning through distance education. In 2006, approximately 3.5 million students were enrolled in at least one online course, which was approximately a 10% increase from 2005 (Allen & Seaman, 2007). In contrast, in 2011, the number of students enrolled in an online course was 6.7 million, almost doubling the number of students taking distance courses in 2006 (Allen & Seaman, 2013). The percentage of universities and colleges offering online programs increased from 34.5% in 2002 to 62.4% in 2012 (Allen & Seaman, 2013). Simonson, Smaldino, Albright and Zvacek (2014) report that distance education has become an important part of many universities’ long-term planning.

When it comes to the quality of distance education courses, the record has been mixed. Allen and Seaman (2013) reported that in 2003 “57.2 percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face” (p. 5). In 2012, that number increased to 77 percent. In spite of the progress made in improving perceptions of online learning, a significant percentage of academic leaders – in 2012, 23% - perceive online instruction to be inferior to face-to-face instruction. Dropout rates, a significant concern when it comes to distance education programs, vary as well from program to program. Some programs reported more than 80% of the students completing their programs, while others report completion rates below 50% (Carr, 2000). More recent estimates show that distance education dropout rates are higher than face-to-face courses by about 10% to 20% (Bart, 2012), with some estimating it to be higher than that (Patterson & McFadden, 2009).

While there are variations in quality among traditional universities, online programs represent a relatively new approach to education. As such, online education is perhaps being held to a higher standard than traditional education programs. Casey (2008) states that online education “holds greater promise and is subject to more suspicion than any other instructional mode in the 21st century” (p. 45). Although the quality of online programs has improved in general, there is still work to be done. If distance programs are to be perceived as a legitimate means of education, it is critical for administrators to evaluate and improve the quality of their programs (Moore, Lockee, & Burton, 2002).

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