A role for rankings in open and distance education?

When it comes to university league tables, open and distance learning providers are getting a raw deal, said experts at the biennial conference of the International Council for Open and Distance Education, or ICDE. “We feel pushed by the current rankings,” said Albert Sangrà, UNESCO chair in education and technology for social change at the Open University of Catalonia in Spain.

University World News spoke to experts on the sidelines of the 26th ICDE World Conference, held at Sun City north of Johannesburg from 14-16 October and hosted by the University of South Africa under the theme “Growing Capacities for Sustainable Distance e-Learning Provision”.

Some believed that specifically designed rankings could boost the reputation of open and distance learning, which has long been a ‘Cinderella’ sub-sector of higher education.

Not-so indicators

The indicators used by various university rankings “do not fit with us”, said Sangrà. Indicators such as the number of Nobel Prize winners simply did not work for open and distance institutions. “Mind you, those academics do not teach.”

Before rankings were produced, Sangrà continued, the feeling was that indicators of quality in open, distance and online learning needed to be identified and shared.

In general there was a need to understand why the transition to online technologies was working in conventional universities that are usually ranked.

“Identifying real elements of quality could help open and distance learning to be more visible and get accepted among the wider community of academics,” he argued.

Overcoming prejudice could come from online universities themselves, if they got together around plans to develop sustainable online teaching, said Sangrà, who has teamed up with some global online universities to tackle the challenges of online education.

“We see that online long distance education is continuously growing, but some scepticism from some academics remains.”

The quality question

According to Sangrà, there are global providers of education who question the quality of online education. “Some tools we use for teaching remain under suspicion,” he said, adding that international rankings “do not consider us”.

Although numerous conventional universities are moving fast towards online education, he did not think the ‘blended learning’ solution was the best to support online education.

It could be the best solution for people attending universities, “but not for those who cannot be at the university, as [with] our students”, said Sangrà, whose online university started with 200 students a decade ago and has since risen to 52,000 students.

He said methods used to teach online should be known, put to the test and recognised, in order to develop a globally accepted model.

“We are trying to be more visible, and we know we have to add value,” Sangrà said. “This can be done by distinguishing high quality online education performance from poor quality.”

Some universities based their reputations on being very old or highly rated, but that should not stop open and distance learning institutions from “claiming our space in that realm”.

“The perception is that low-cost providers are offering low quality online education. This is what we are trying to avoid,” said Sangrà. “We need to be more demanding. We have experience in teaching MOOCs – massive open online courses – and MOOCs will stay because convenience and price will always win, regardless of quality.”

Could rankings help?

Dr James Timothy, an associate professor at the National Open University of Nigeria, told University World News that rankings for online universities could help – especially in Africa, where graduates of open and distance institutions were often regarded as inferior.

“It would give more credibility to online education,” said Timothy, adding that it was a responsibility of governments to ensure an environment that enabled open and distance learning to thrive and be treated equally.

Roger Palmer, an associate professor and deputy director of language programmes in the Hirao School of Management at Konan University in Japan, said it was high time that rankings indicators designed for conventional universities became more inclusive for open, distance and online universities.

“Rating online universities should be a discussion between all institutions,” said Palmer. Rankings indicators needed to change, given that increasing numbers of people would obtain their higher education through open, distance and online education in future.

“Understanding that we do not have adequate resources, there is still a need for higher education to inform discussions about rankings.”