Why You Might Want to Create an Online Education Factbook

Why You Might Want to Create an Online Education Factbook

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

Some people love data and analyzing data, and some people are terrified by it. (I tend to be in the latter category.)

Wherever you fall on that continuum, it is important to realize that collecting, analyzing and using information related to online education is happening more frequently in higher education. This information is being used to help identify at-risk students in online courses, conduct studies related to the scholarship of teaching and learning, develop professional development opportunities for faculty, and help determine institutional priorities.

Much like the movement of evidenced-based decision making that has occurred in medicine over the past 15 to 20 years, this trend in education is sometimes referred to as data-based decision making. Simply put, this entails making informed and educated decisions by using information collected and analyzed from your institution.

This practice is frequently referred to as learning analytics, but you may also see it described as data mining, action analytics, machine learning, data warehousing, academic analytics, and data science. It is becoming more common to see online education journals and conferences dedicate space to this important topic. There is even a Journal of Learning Analytics, which is the official journal of the Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR).

This is a huge topic, as institutions can collect data on a very wide variety of topics– the number of online courses they offer, how faculty are utilizing their learning management system (e.g., what tools are they using), the extent to which students are accessing and engaging with course content in online classes, retention rates, student and faculty satisfaction surveys, cost effectiveness of faculty development programs, and much, much more.

One reason this practice is becoming more common in higher education is that accrediting agencies are requiring evidence that online students receive the same education and have access to the same student support services as on-campus students. A number of institutions have had to collect this data in preparation for accreditation reviews and site visits, others have taken a more proactive approach and have started collecting this information in their efforts to assess learning and guide decision-making on campus.

For a number of years, as the primary online administrator at my institution, I tried to collect information related to online education with the help of an administrative assistant. It didn’t take long for this to become stressful and overwhelming. So, I turned to our Office of Institutional Research. Remember the first paragraph of this article? These are the people who truly love data! I encourage you to utilize their expertise.

A simple way to disseminate information

But the purpose of this article is not to give you a lengthy list of the types of data and information your institution could collect and monitor, but to give you one simple idea on how to present and disseminate information you collect. That is, to create an online education factbook.

Most colleges and universities have an institutional factbook or facts-at-a-glance document they use to share information related to enrollment, student-to-faculty ratio, retention and graduation rates, tuition, instructional staff, incoming freshman, tuition, average class size, etc. A number of years ago as I was looking at my institution’s fact book I had the thought to create one specific to online education.

Some of the data we have in our online education factbook includes the overall number of online courses offered; the number of online general education courses offered; the percentage of our students taking online courses; the growth in online course offerings by semester and year; the number of instructors teaching online; the number of instructors who have completed our online instructor training program; and the impact on graduation rates of taking online courses. Again, the types of data you may be collecting or choose to collect in the future may look very different, but I encourage you to think about how you are organizing and sharing that data.

One of the benefits of having data related to online education in one central location (e.g., a factbook) is that it makes it much easier to disseminate that information to various groups on campus. Our factbook of online education is publicly available on our online education website, and it is also emailed to all faculty and central administrators on an annual basis. Another benefit of having the factbook is that it allows people to view our institution’s data over time. Some of the items in ours tracks data going back six years.

A word of caution based on past experience. Much like when you conduct a research study and the results lead to three or four other good research questions, the same can happen when you create a factbook for online education. As you disseminate information and more individuals view it, you will likely get suggestions on different ways you could analyze data or suggestions on new types of data that could be collected. This can be both good and bad. Most online and distance education administrators are interested in using data to help drive their decision making process, but continually adding data to your factbook can get to be a burdensome chore. Find a balance that works for you.

If your institution doesn’t currently have a factbook for online education or a single location where information related to online learning can be found, it can be a little overwhelming to think about starting that process. A simple way to begin might be with information you are already collecting. That way you simply have to pull it together and figure out how to present it. Another suggestion would be to charge your online advisory board or online education committee to determine what information would be appropriate to collect and share in a factbook.