Outsourcing online learning is selling students short

Offloading virtual learning to third-party ‘partners’ doesn’t always work for students but remains a blind spot for quality assurance, says Nora Carrol

July 26, 2021
Source: istock

In recent years, many US universities have transferred their online learning to contractors with increasing frequency, positioning them as “partners”. They manage everything from enrolment to graduation and certification and provide the web-based learning platforms that encompass all audio, video and text components, whether asynchronous, in real time or both. The results are worrisome.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any industry or sector using contractors if they do things better, offering process expertise and management capabilities that can be critical when dealing with a high volume of consumers. However, these third parties are getting it wrong, bypassing best practices in instructional design and overlooking key elements of learner behaviours and communication that have been known for decades.

At its best, online education is a rich, engaging experience, integrating resources from around the globe, and offering students reliable access to ideas and people, including faculty and peers, whom they might not otherwise encounter. The underlying dynamics are complex, requiring attention to every detail, timely response to problems or enquiries, and exceptional skill in process management.

The platforms are falling short on too many counts. Originally designed to host massive open online courses (Moocs), which offer no credit and have modest need for interaction, the learning frameworks are not adapting well to the demands of credit-granting, theory-driven higher education. They rely too heavily on one-way videos and page after page of scrolled text with insufficient graphical support.

The result is virtual highway hypnosis; hitting the occasional “next” button does not relieve the boredom. While many courses do include online discussions, they are often structured as response-to-assigned-case or readings, rarely providing an opportunity for students to integrate their own workplace or personal experiences. Quality varies wildly, from abysmal, with obsolete, error-ridden content and out-of-focus visuals, to very good, with ongoing administrative and technical support. The extremes suggest a lack of standards from either the contractors or the client institutions.

Even more troubling is the absence of interaction with faculty, assuming that the faculty member is even known. Faculty are described as hosts or conveners and appear as talking heads. Grading is frequently done by tutors or tutor teams, which are labels, not people with clear identities and demonstrated credentials. Given the high volume of students allowed into each course, turnaround on grades can take weeks instead of days, at odds with expectations in the fast-paced online environment.

These unsatisfactory experiences risk undermining the excellent progress made in online education in recent years. I have spent 18 years as a web course developer and instructor of working adults at four institutions of higher education as online education matured from disk-based computer conferencing to instructional software and then comprehensive learning management systems. Each step represented an improvement to the benefit of learners, faculty and their institutions. 

I’ve also been an adult learner myself on programmes provided by three different platforms, ranging from a one-day presentation by a leading development bank to a three-month certificate offered by a top-tier university in the UK. The conclusion? Higher education’s strategic and tactical shift to third-party providers is not dependably serving anyone’s interest, which begs the question: where are the external overseers?

Oversight of higher education varies considerably in structure, emphasis and reporting mechanisms. The US focuses on accreditation, with accreditors organised regionally as well as by topical specialisation. In Canada, the UK, the European Union and Australia, the organisations are national or federal and emphasise quality assurance and published standards, providing time-limited registration rather than accreditation.

Nonetheless, the investigative processes are similar – reviews of institutional policies in two areas of assessment: design and delivery of learning experiences, and support of students. The overall goal is attainment of demonstrated “best practices”, both person-to-person and online. A few overseers do have warnings about diploma or cheating mills. However, a keyword search for content specific to contracted online learning yielded nothing. Third-party platforms are not mentioned as a factor impacting institutional integrity, so there is no discussion of the associated risks of online learning that has too little interaction and too much anonymity. This lack of attention is unnerving and startling, as overseers are typically committed to careful process review and suspicious of drastic change.

In the past year, the jump into online learning had an impetus that no one wanted: a global health pandemic. The unprecedented pressures to deliver learning programmes away from campus caught many institutions off guard, which in itself can result in poor choices.

Higher education as an industry and endeavour needs to pause and reconsider this wholesale offloading of programmes before another crisis ensues.

Nora Carrol is owner and president of Educative, LLC, an adult education and business advocacy consultancy in Washington DC.

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Reader's comments (5)

These scams are unfortunately not limited to the USA. One similar example in the UK is Essex's 'partnership' with Kaplan. Naked profiteering with the regulatory bodies having their heads stuck in the sand.
Your comment about Essex' partnership with Kaplan is ill-informed. The partnership was created in 2006 specifically intended to deliver degrees (rather than MOOC's) from the outset. Every new University of Essex Online program undergoes rigorous approval processes directly overseen by University of Essex the involve both internal academic input and external academic input. Programme that do not see the standard are not approved and I can authoritatively tell you that such programmes have been stopped in the past. Every University of Essex Online module is delivered by a named academic member of staff that students interact with. Every student also has a separate academic advisor who remains with them for the duration of their studies. All University of Essex Online students receive detailed written feedback and a grade for their assessed work within 7 days of submitting it. University of Essex Online is the only online degree provider with a Gold ranking in the Uk Governments Teaching Excellence Framework. University of Essex Online has also had among the highest student satisfaction scores in the UK (>90%) ever since it began with the overall student satisfaction outcome for 2021 measured at 95%. If you are wondering, I am a Professor and the former Dean of Partnerships at Essex that has been very careful to avoid all of the pitfall of private partnerships written about in Nora Carrol's interesting article. I think the negative post by artthe about the Essex-Kaplan Partnership is not at all fair or based upon any of the facts.
I understand your need, as the former Dean of Partnerships, to defend institutional reputation; but I disagree with the interpretation offered. I was asked to 'teach' on one of the online programmes and to provide quality check reviews of specific modules. I ran away in disbelief after seeing the paperwork, the 'quality' of course materials and the tick-box approach to education. I am pretty sure that the standard degrees offered by Essex (at least in my field) are far more robust than what I saw was being sold to students through the online programme. Hence, the need, in my most humble opinion, for focused oversight of such online programmes/partnerships by regulatory bodies. Enough said.
Business online
All of our University of Essex Online provision is subject to the review and oversight processes by the Quality Assurance Agency which they have met the standards for on numerous occasions. Our online programmes are delivered in a different way but this does not mean they are not robust and of very high quality. Our online programmes and the flexible learning methods we have carefully created provide many students with an opportunity to study towards a degree who would other wise not have the opportunity to do so. For example, people whose circumstances mean they cannot attend university on the traditional way. Those supporting families that cannot afford to leave work, frontline service personnel, those who were forced to leave education early because of caring or other responsibilities. Our online degrees make an enormous contribution to rebalance university inequality and exclusion. If you do not like the different approach we take to achieve this then that is you choice not to work with us as one of our tutors and we respect that. However, please desist from making unwarranted and unsubstantiated negative comments that undermine the degrees of all those online students who are trying to improve themselves by learning in often very difficult circumstances. As I have previously mentioned the quality of University of Essex Online Degrees is high and has on numerous occasions an in numerous ways (TEF, QAA, NSS etc) been independently confirmed as such. Elitist and exclusionary attitudes towards the important role online learning offers are unhelpful and unwelcome.