Posted by: Gillian | June 28, 2010

Marketing, hype and choosing a university

University courses from India to the US and China to Europe are becoming both more expensive and more available online so it is reasonable for those looking for courses to look beyond the marketing brochures for some sort of online opinion.  The questions are: where do you look and what do you believe if, as is likely, comparing universities is not part of your normal routine?  Some guidelines:

  1. Check the university is in the UNESCO/IAU list.  That means some national education authority agrees it is a university.  It is not a quality stamp but it does mean that if the university is not on the list you need to be convinced that it is not a degree/diploma mill.
  2. Check the accrediting authorities.  Do not just look at the badges: go to the websites of all the ‘accrediting authorities’ and make sure they list the university in which you are interested.  Note that, in the UK, all ‘British’  universities (as opposed to ones with a base in the UK) are listed on the government website. USA universities have a different system where they are ‘regionally accredited‘.
  3. Beware of ‘badge collectors’.  Universities are as prone to it as some people.  It may be that an MBA programme really needs AMBA, EQUIS, AACSB and IACBE but that costs serious quantities of both cash and resources.  Are you looking for proof of financial solidity or of a good teaching and learning institution that puts money into education?  There are some programmes in all disciplines that can stay outside the ‘badges’ and, to take an MBA example, one such is the Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt.

  4. There is a world of difference between ‘leads to’ and ‘offers’. Professional institutions (lawyers, architects, HR, engineers) are usually in a costly business deal with universities that they recognise so if you know and trust a professional institution and it does not agree that a particular university ‘offers’ its qualifications, beware!  Check the conversion/acceptance rates with the professional body, not the university.
  5. Check out social media such as  LinkedIn groups, Facebook, Twitter. You should be able to find a group associated with – at least – your university and, preferably, your course.  How active is it?  Do you like the tone?
  6. If it is a face-taught course, Google search key professors.  Where are they teaching or how often were they teaching away from base last year?  You can learn a lot about the likelihood of headlined face-to-face teaching being delivered by a named professor simply by searching online.  (Of course, you may not want the named professor but a very interesting junior – but that’s a level of sophistication beyond this blog.)
  7. If it is an online course, look for the amount of free connection to the professor.  You may be ‘required’ to be online once or twice a week (or more often).  If you get charged for asking questions outside that amount, you may need to think again.  Your professor should be available ‘free’ but keep this reasonable: face-to-face professors are not available 24/7 and online professors have other classes and lives, too.
  8. If it is a distance course, check the credibility of the writers and of the assessments.  Unknown writers and multiple-choice questionnaire exams should raise questions.

The above, while useful, is, however, old-style marketing.  There are some newer tricks on the block:

  • Query validity of student identity in exams
  • Query validity of assessments
  • Rubbish the professors
  • Ask/answer an ‘innocent’ question in an online forum.

To expand on these.

Querying the validity of student identity in exams is a favourite of traditionalists worried about online/distance universities.  Students have been cheating since Plato’s day and probably before.  In modern campuses with maybe several thousand students in a ‘class’ (and often over a hundred) it can be impossible for a co-opted exam invigilator to know each student so to complain about identity fraud for ID-checked online/distance students is somewhat disingenuous.  Good universites check and double-check and take all reports of identity fraud seriously.  If you hear/see of a university penalising students for identity theft, take that as a positive.

Querying the validity of assessments is a more complex issue.  Expertly designed multiple choice questionnaires with high validity do exist – and they cost huge sums of money. So, a rule of thumb is that if you have only MCQs and the course is really cheap, think again. Essays, on the other hand, tend to get a good press until you look at the detail (length, requirement for research, moderation…) and that detail can be impossible to find if you are merely hoping to take a course.   This is probably where you need to trust the national/regional accrediting authorities and apply large doses of scepticism to social media interests.

Rubbishing the professors springs from the relatively new phenomenon of most courses issuing what business would call  ‘satisfaction surveys’.  A lack of sophistication in these surveys combined with ‘Yeah, got my degree!’ indifference to filling in questionnaires, means that it is easy for one very negative review to damage a perfectly acceptable teaching performance.  If possible, check who is posting.  If there are many anonymous posts and no official denial, you may be better avoiding the whole institution because someone, somewhere, is obviously not listening.

Innocent questions” on social media are becoming a problem.  A asks about X and B mysteriously appears 2-5 messages later with a perfect response.  Education costs so much and is ‘offered’ rather than ‘sold’ . This leads to people’s normal advertising awareness being dulled.  Product placement/attack is rife in education.  Just be aware.

(Note: I am on a very part-time faculty in the US and am UK based. I am very clearly (forcefully?) independent when it comes to making sure people find the right course for them.)

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