In Chapter III we talked about narrowing your focus and choosing schools that have programs and departments that fit your goals. As you move through the process of evaluating schools, your primary focus in choosing a program should always be quality.
That’s easily said, but how do you assess the overall quality of a school? Quality is a work in progress at every institution, and each school defines quality according to its own specific mission. However, the Sloan Consortium has developed a guide by which an institution can measure its own progress and be gauged by others. The guide is known as the Sloan Consortium Quality Framework and the Five Pillars. Don’t let the title intimidate you. This framework is largely just common sense. It’s entirely fair, not to mention sensible, to ask your advisor any questions you have that involve these five pillars.
The school can demonstrate that the quality of learning online is comparable to the quality of its traditional programs.
The school continuously improves services while reducing cost.
All adult learners who wish to learn online have the opportunity and can achieve success.
Faculty achieve success with teaching online, citing appreciation and happiness.
Adult learners are successful in learning online and are typically pleased with their experiences.
Each of these metrics is more fully developed than what we have presented here, but this provides a relatively quick and straightforward framework to help you think through your assessment. The entire document can be found at The Sloan Consortium's website.
A cohort can be defined as a group whose progress is followed and measured at different points in time. At Linfield College, an adult learner who is enrolled in the RN to BSN program, for example, would enroll as part of a cohort. This means that when you enroll, you join a group that begins the program at the same point in time. Your group moves through the same coursework together.
This is important because nearly every industry now asks employees to work in teams. The cohort model in the Linfield College RN to BSN program emphasizes this collaborative approach and provides adult learners a strong social support system.
Jessica Quinlan is an emergency room nurse who lives and works in Coos Bay, Oregon. A nurse since 1988, she was motivated to return to school for her BSN after a colleague (a nurse with a BSN) was promoted to a position that she herself had sought. “I had six interviews for that position, but in the end, I didn’t have my BSN.” She enrolled in Linfield’s RN to BSN Program in the summer of 2006. “It was a little bit intimidating at first,” she said. “But I’m surprised at how quickly I became comfortable in the online environment. Online classes are so much fun and the bonus is that my computer and technology skills improved. I loved the flexibility as well as the community I was part of and I can’t imagine taking classes any other way.” During senior year Jessica completed her clinical work at two local hospitals near her home. Her degree has brought her new found respect from co-workers and from her employer. Now, along with her regular shifts, she tackles special projects, like a recently completed rewrite of her hospital’s Emergency Department Orientation Manual.
Linfield College employs a “pay as you go” financial arrangement. This means that you pay for only the credits that you are taking that semester. You can pay the entire amount up front, or you can pay one-half up front and then pay the balance on an installment plan. Some schools require that you pay all costs up front. If you register for a four-semester degree or certificate program, you are committed to the entire program whether or not your interests change or you find the program not to your liking. Again, it pays to ask questions.
One of the central components of legitimacy is this: the worth of the degree you earn online measured against a similar degree you can earn in a face-to-face environment. If you can determine that an online degree measures well against a similar degree earned on a campus, you’ve answered the legitimacy question.
Now to answer the question directly: Yes, a degree that you earn online is legitimate. In every way that matters, a degree that you attain by taking classes online is legitimate if that degree has been awarded by an accredited institution. Are there caveats? Yes, based on accreditation issues and variations in quality. Are there some who question the legitimacy of degrees acquired online? Yes, but the number of dissenting voices are few and continue to drop every year.
The Sloan Consortium says this on the topic of legitimacy: Of the educational institutions that are fully engaged with online learning, over 60% of Chief Academic Officers at those institutions say that their faculty members accept the value and legitimacy of online learning.
Nurse Quinlan did have concerns about legitimacy. “I was very concerned about legitimacy. That’s why I wanted my degree to come from a school that had a face-to-face program in addition to their online program. That’s a large part of the reason why I chose Linfield.”
During the fall of 2006, more than three million people were enrolled in an online class in the United States, according to the Sloan Consortium. During that same time period, 100 billion people around the world, every single day, clicked on a Web page. In 2004, the stage had been set for an ever more dynamic online experience: the emergence of Web 2.0.
Web 2.0 was a technological breakthrough that truly brought to life the promise of the Web. Web 2.0 delivered on the idea of community, interconnectivity and interactivity of Web-delivered content. Shortly after the birth of Web 2.0, YouTube was created on April 23, 2005.
Since the creation of Web 2.0, Web-based learning now has a potentially huge and rapidly growing audience, more sophisticated tools, and a more user-friendly and interactive platform. All of which means a far richer and deeper experience awaits adventurous online learners and educators.
The thrill of Web 2.0, and its ability to connect ideas and people to one another and to deliver information to anyone, anywhere, and at any time is brilliantly captured in an online video called The Machine is Us/ing Us, by Mike Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University. On June 23, 2008, Wesch presented his video to the Library of Congress. This video can be seen on You Tube, where it has been viewed more than six million times.
Illustration 3. The Machine Is Us/ing Us
Depending on course design, online learners might participate in discussion groups with fellow learners of wide and varied experiences who could be anywhere in the world. They might watch videos and create some of their own. They might listen to or create podcasts; share their thoughts, feelings, and opinions on relevant subject matter via email; and chat, visit Websites and blogs, and engage in a robust back-and-forth exchange with an instructor. They may edit a page in Wikipedia or conduct research at the British Museum. Times really have changed.
It used to be that knowledge was disseminated through traditional channels: textbooks, journals, and other types of scholarly publications. All of that has changed. One of the great advantages of Web-based learning is immediacy and variety. Academic papers, breaking news, articles by thought leaders and journalists, and video lectures are all available almost instantly. Gone are the days when it took nearly two years for a published article or a breakthrough idea to make its way to readers.
Earlier in this e-book we discussed the concept of the guide at the side and the sage on the stage. We pointed out the distinction between the traditional lecture format and the guide at the side who facilitates self-learning and discovery. In part, it is the guide-side phenomenon – that quality of self-direction, motivation, and responsibility – that online learning demands and that drives the use of the word “learner” instead of “student” in many discussions of online learning. This is not to suggest that students are not learners or vice versa, only that the online environment suggests a distinction.
While in some quarters, there is a rich, multimedia aspect to online learning, much of the online-learning experience still involves reading and writing. Online learning makes for better readers and writers simply because the process is largely text based and demands clarity of thought and expression. Online learners should expect to read and write a great deal.
The online-learning community is unusual in that participants are generally a bit older than average college students and are career based. The average age of an online student at Linfield College is thirty-eight. That means that on any given day in any given class, the potential exists for a truly varied and exciting network of adult learners who bring a rich mix of life, work, and personal experiences to the group. The cross-pollination of cultures, ideas, strategies and new ways of thinking alter our understanding of what a community of adult learners looks like and acts like.
Interesting Historical Fact
Vannevar Bush developed one of the Web’s central ideas: hyperlinked pages. The date? 1945.
One distinction about accreditation should be understood at the outset. Not everyone needs to attend an accredited institution. If, like Lynn T. in Chapter I, you are taking an online class for personal knowledge or edification and not for professional career advancement, accreditation is going to be less of an issue for you than someone pursuing a degree. For degree seekers, accreditation is critically important.
The reason is that accreditation confers value and worth. Accreditation equals legitimacy. Any college must have accreditation from an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to be eligible to participate in the administration of federal student aid programs. Accredited institutions do not accept credits earned at unaccredited colleges. Virtually all graduate schools require graduation from a regionally accredited school. In the eyes of potential employers in government, science, law, academia, business, and every other field imaginable, the accredited degree that you worked so hard to earn is accepted, recognized, and respected.
Imagine learning that after years of hard work, the degree you earned is not recognized or accepted by potential employers. It can and does happen.
There are six regional accrediting associations that have been evaluated and approved by the U.S. Department of Education:
Middle States Commission on Higher Education
New England Association of Schools and Colleges
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
Western Association of Schools and Colleges
With regard to accreditation, there are two key questions that you need to ask as you evaluate a school, college, or university.
1. Is the school of my choice accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies listed above?
2. Is the program I am interested in recognized by its relevant professional association?
Linfield College is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and offers three undergraduate degrees, Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
In the latest edition of "America's Best Colleges" published by U.S. News & World Report, Linfield College has been listed alongside the best liberal arts colleges in the United States, which confirms Linfield's growing excellence as a selective undergraduate college.
A learner attending Linfield College’s adult degree program in nursing is attending a regionally accredited college and a program that is certified. The Linfield – Good Samaritan School of Nursing is accredited by the Oregon State Board of Nursing and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). The college and the program are both accredited.
Most schools that offer online classes offer technical support, virtual library support for research, advising services, writing centers, and so on. The quality of that support, from your initial inquiries to questions that may come up once you are enrolled, are key indicators of the level of commitment that the school has toward adult learners.
Responsive faculty – teachers who promptly respond to email queries – are another indicator of a supportive, student-oriented institution.
Onto Chapter VII. How does all this work, and what does it all look like?