Sloan-C Quality Pillars – Transcript


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Well, welcome back!  In today’s podcast, I want to talk about quality in online education.  I have been working with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for over 12 years now in the area of online learning.  The Sloan Foundation has provided a great deal of financial support to the University of Illinois to assist with the implementation of online programs on all three of our campuses – Chicago, Springfield, and Urbana-Champaign.

As many of you know, the Sloan Foundation has funded the start-up of the Sloan Consortium, which is usually called Sloan-C.  According to the Sloan-C website, [quote] The purpose of the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) is to help learning organizations continually improve quality, scale, and breadth according to their own distinctive missions, so that education will become a part of everyday life, accessible and affordable for anyone, anywhere, at any time, in a wide variety of disciplines. [unquote]

Dr. Frank Mayadas is the program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation leading its initiative in online learning.  In 1998, Frank developed the metaphor of pillars that support quality online learning.  Frank likes the number five – five of something can easily be remembered – if there are only three things on a list, well, you may not have enough categories, and people certainly have a difficult time remembering a list that is more than five.  How many of you can remember Chickering and Gamson’s 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education?  How many of you can remember Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?

Well, Frank came up with five pillars that support quality online learning.  If any of these pillars are weak, quality will sag, metaphorically speaking, that is.  So there we have the metaphor – all five pillars are necessary to support quality online education.

Oh, and by the way, the five pillars are access, learning effectiveness, cost effectiveness, student satisfaction, and faculty satisfaction, and I’ll be saying a lot more about these five pillars shortly.

Actually, as far as I can tell, the use of the term “Pillars” first appeared in an article in the ASEE Prism magazine.  This was in 1998 in a paper entitled “Learning on Demand”, and I’ll put the exact citation in the show notes for this podcast.

Mayadas, A. F. Quality Framework for Online Education, In Panitz, B., Learning on Demand, ASEE Prism. Washington, D.C.: American Society for Engineering Education, 1998.

However, these five pillars were actually itemized by Frank Mayadas in an interview with Gary Miller from Penn State University that was published in the American Journal of Distance Education the previous year – 1997 that is – but at that time, Frank called them the “five assessment factors”.  Frank said, [quote] I think in terms of five assessment factors, all of which must show favorable outcomes and favorable progress in order for [online learning] to succeed. [unquote]  Well, he didn’t say “online learning” – instead, he said “Asynchronous Learning Networks”, which is the type of instructor-led online education that many of us have implemented.

(Vol. 11, No. 3, 1997 – reprinted on Sloan-C website:

By 1999, the Pillars were an established part of Sloan’s thinking about online learning.  I remember hosting the first Sloan summer research workshop in Urbana, IL, in August of 1999, where the discussions were focused on the pillars of learning effectiveness and faculty satisfaction.

And for the past 7-plus years, I have talked about the pillars when I have given faculty development presentations, and internally, we have thought a great deal about these pillars.  And we always have discussed the pillars in qualitative terms.

I now want to go briefly through the five pillars, and talk about them from the perspective of our online degree programs at the University of Illinois at Springfield.  I have played a role in developing these online degree programs, and I regularly teach an online course for the UIS campus.  The online program at UIS has tripled its enrollments in the past four years, and now fully 25% of all the course credits taught by the campus come from online courses, and more than one in six students at UIS are online-only students – that is, they only take online courses and never come to the campus.

OK, now – on to the five quality pillars.  The first pillar is Access.  Many online students today would not be enrolled in degree programs if these programs were not available online.  We’re providing new access to higher education.  These online programs make it possible for place-bound and time-restricted individuals to work towards a college degree, which ultimately will benefit their own lives and those of their families, and also will benefit our society.  These online students not only have access to online courses and degrees, but they also have online access to a wide range of student support services, such as advising, library services, the help desk, and so on.  The implementation of an e-tuition rate at UIS has certainly given students throughout the nation new access to affordable online degree programs, since they don’t have to pay out-of-state tuition.  To me, access has always been the most important of the five pillars – since if we aren’t providing additional students access to higher education, then we really aren’t accomplishing anything of significance.

The second pillar is Learning Effectiveness.  Of course, I wouldn’t be such an advocate of online learning if it produced inferior learning outcomes – but that isn’t the case at all.  We now know that online learning can be as effective as classroom-based learning (or, for some students, even more effective).  And this claim is based on solid research findings.  Online students at UIS view their degrees to be completely equivalent to degrees earned by students on-campus – and perhaps they are more valuable, since earning their degrees online demonstrates that they have the drive and determination to do all this from a distance, while gaining new knowledge about the Internet and collaboration.

The third of the Sloan quality pillars is Cost-Effectiveness.  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines cost-effective as [quote] Economical in terms of the goods or services received for the money spent. [unquote]  Students certainly view online learning at UIS to be cost-effective, and they comment that the UIS online education is indeed affordable to them.  They realize that the e-tuition is a very fair price to pay to earn a degree with the University of Illinois brand name, and the financial costs of earning their degrees online are good investments in their futures.

The fourth and fifth pillars relate to satisfaction – for both students and faculty.  The idea being that if students are not satisfied with the online learning experience, they won’t come back and take additional online courses, and if faculty aren’t satisfied, they will go back to teaching only in the classroom.

So the fourth pillar is Student Satisfaction:  Students are enrolling in online courses, semester after semester at UIS – and we now see students who have taken 10 or more online courses, and certainly we now have a large number of graduates of our online degree programs.  Each semester, the online sections of courses fill long before the on-campus sections fill, which certainly tells me something about student satisfaction as it is related to our online classes.  Students are telling their friends about the quality of online learning at UIS.  They are very pleased with what they are learning and they are also pleased with the student support services to which they have access.

The fifth, and final pillar, then is Faculty Satisfaction.  Faculty are finding value in their online teaching.  They very much enjoy getting to know their online students on a personal level through regular online interactions, and they find positive benefit in having a more diverse group of students in their online classrooms than they have on-campus.  This past fall, UIS enrolled online students from 45 states – a much more diverse population than is taking classes on the campus.  Faculty also are enjoying the anytime-anyplace aspects of online teaching; as online teachers often joke, being able to teach from home while wearing your pajamas.  But seriously, online learning provides flexibility for faculty, as well as students – flexibility in their daily schedules, their commutes to the campus, and in their ability to travel to conferences.

OK, so it seems that UIS is doing a fine job in addressing the five quality pillars.  However, I was speaking with Frank Mayadas a few days ago, remember that he is the program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation who is managing their program in online learning, and he started pressing me about thinking of the pillars in QUANTITATIVE terms.  I have to admit, that isn’t anything I have done in the past.  So let’s think a little more about this now.

Access.  What is the evidence that we really are providing new access to higher education?  What is the evidence that we are enrolling new students in our online programs – and not just the same students who would have taken courses on the campus?  Well, for the access pillar, we actually have pretty good quantitative data – almost a quarter of our online enrollments now come from out-of-state, which clearly means that they are new students, since the on-campus population is about 98% from in-state.  For some online majors in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, such as history, English, and philosophy, more than half of the majors now come from out-of-state.  And we have tabulated the online majors from within Illinois by their county of residence, and we know that many of our students reside in counties far from Springfield.  So as far as access goes – I think we have some pretty good quantitative data to show that we are providing new access to individuals who previously did not have the opportunity to earn a college degree.

Let’s go on to the second pillar, which is Learning Effectiveness.  What is the evidence that online learning is as effective as classroom learning?  Here, I’m not sure that we have as much quantitative data as we should have, at least for the UIS campus.  We do know that the grade distribution for online and on-campus classes is essentially identical.  We have the same faculty teaching the same courses in both modes.  And we do know that our retention rates in online courses are within a percentage point or two of our on-campus retention.  We do have a lot of anecdotal evidence from students and faculty, related to perceptions of online learning effectiveness, but that isn’t quantitative data.  We have started to use e-portfolios to track the work produced by online and on-campus students, but I haven’t seen any good quantitative data come from this initiative yet.  So this certainly is an area where we need to do more – and maybe the campus folks are doing something here that I’m simply not aware of.  We certainly can fall back on the published literature, which shows that online learning is indeed as effective as on-campus learning, but we really do need some quantitative data for the UIS campus itself.

Cost Effectiveness is the third pillar.  And it is interesting to me that we don’t have better quantitative data here.  Early on, the UIS campus argued that online instruction was more costly than on-campus instruction, and the campus actually implemented a fee for online courses amounting to $25 per credit hour.  This fee is fairly significant.  With more than 3000 course enrollments during the Spring 2006 semester, that means over 11,000 credit hours from online courses, so this fee will raise more than $275,000 to support the online program.  This fee is quite significant for a small campus, with about 3500 FTE students.  But I think we need to go back and re-examine this.  The on-campus students all have access to the same Blackboard course management system as is used by the online students.  And the on-campus students use all the other technologies as well, such as the plagiarism detection software at  Of course, everyone has access to the technology help desk.  So why would we think that online instruction is more costly than on-campus instruction?  Of course, the on-campus costs typically don’t factor in the cost of the classrooms.  And we’ll have to look at class size here – to see if there are differences between the size of online and on-campus classes.  At any rate, the cost effectiveness pillar is something we certainly need to revisit in the coming months.

Student Satisfaction is the fourth pillar.  Again, I think we have some good quantitative data related to student satisfaction.  We have the results of numerous formal surveys, and of course, the retention data I just mentioned.  With our new student registration system, we can track the most popular classes – even after those classes have filled.  And last fall, the six most viewed classes in the registration system were all online classes, and something like 15 out of the top 20 were also online.  In addition, more than 50% of enrollments for the Summer 2005 semester were in online classes.  To me, all of these numbers suggest that students are indeed satisfied with the online courses at UIS.

Faculty Satisfaction is the fifth pillar.  I am not aware of any formal surveys of our faculty – but clearly this is something we need to have.  However, one quantitative measure of faculty satisfaction is that no faculty have “dropped out” from online teaching – that is, all faculty who have taught online have returned to teach online again.  Moreover, the online degree programs at UIS have been established by a vote of the departmental faculty; the increasing number of online degrees at UIS indicates to me that faculty are supportive of online teaching.  In addition, the fact that online enrollments at UIS have tripled over the last four years indicates that many faculty are quite willing to teach in the online environment.

Overall, however, I do think that we need to get better quantitative data in all of the pillar areas, as Frank Mayadas suggested.  We need to develop a quality metric, and revisit this metric each year with NEW quantitative results, to see if we have improved.  In some ways, we need to use this quantitative data in a process of continuous quality improvement.  I am confident that the quantitative data will assure our faculty, staff, and administrators that the quality of our online programs is high, and improving each year.  I think that it should be “energizing” to everyone to see quantitatively that we are doing so well with our online programs.

To sum up, it is clear to me that we have a lot more work to do to quantify our online programs in terms of the Sloan-C pillars.  This certainly is something I intend to work on in the coming months, and I hope to be able to come back with another podcast on this topic (and hopefully a conference presentation and a journal publication, as well).  So stay tuned!

If you have any ideas on how to quantify your online programs in the areas related to the five Sloan-C quality pillars, I would like to hear about it.  You can contact me by e-mail at burkso2 at gmail dot com.  Of course, if you have actually performed a detailed quantitative analysis, by all means, let me know – I’m sure that everyone at Sloan-C would be interested in learning about your results.

Well, that wraps up this podcast, so until next time, this is Burks, signing off!