Higher education is becoming more data driven, including in relation to online education. The information that colleges and universities are collecting about online education could be institutional data used in accountability reports or accreditation reviews. It could also include data related to teaching online courses, learning management system usage, and faculty use of technology.

One suggestion I often give leaders in higher ed is to consider creating an online education fact book. Most institutions are already collecting some data related to online education, but many do not have that data in a single, easily accessible location. Approximately 10 years ago I was reviewing our institution’s fact book (sometimes called “Quick Facts”) and had the thought that it would be helpful and informative to create a fact book specific to online education. So we did.

Initially, a colleague and I started collecting online education data such as the number of online courses being taught, the percentage of our online courses that were for general education, how many instructors were teaching online, and how many instructors were completing a three-week online instructor training course offered through our institution’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning.

After a few years we started getting requests to collect more data. Much as conducting a research study often results in additional research questions that should be examined, the data we were collecting and sharing with campus was generating more questions that we could answer only by collecting more data.

It didn’t take long, and we started to get overwhelmed with the process and our limited querying abilities prevented us from collecting the data being requested. So we reached out to folks in our Office of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Planning, the individuals who love working with data (I am not one of them) and had the skills and querying capabilities to gather the data we needed. They were excited to help with our fact book, and we were elated to have the assistance.

Eventually, we made the decision to convert our online education fact book to Tableau, an interactive data visualization software. If you are interested in viewing the fact book, you can find it at this link.

One benefit of having the fact book and our data in a single location is that we now have the ability to easily review the past eight or 10 years and see online education trends on our campus. That can help with future planning and budgetary decisions.

For institutions interested in creating an online education fact book or another type of centralized repository for online education data, I’d offer two pieces of advice. First, making it should be a team effort. If your university has an online education committee or online education advisory board, this might be an ideal group to charge with determining what data they could and should collect. It would be beneficial if this group had wide representation from across campus, including among staff, students, faculty, and administration.

Second, it may be beneficial to reach out to your institution’s regional accreditation liaison and discuss which types of data related to online education would be helpful to have available, or will be required, for the next regional accreditation review. Even if an accreditation review won’t officially occur for seven or eight years, knowing what data to collect, collecting that data on an annual basis, and keeping it in one location would most likely help ease the stress and workload of preparing for a future review.

In addition to the abovementioned details about the types of institutional data we are collecting, you might also look at, for example, student credit-hour production in online courses, the percentage of your student body taking online courses, the impact that taking online courses has on student graduation rates at your institution, online course drop and completion rates, online program graduation rates, and the respective GPAs of students taking online and face-to-face courses.

More faculty and institutions are also paying closer attention to course-level analytics. Examples of this may include the number of times students log into a course, what time students most commonly log into a course, the total time a student spends working in a course, what content students are viewing and for how long, and how often students participate in discussion forums. Such data can help instructors to identify students who are struggling academically as well as  tailor and improve their teaching practices.

Over the years we have used our online education fact book as both a communication tool and a way to disseminate information related to online education across campus. We update our fact book every spring, and I then use that data to share with the campus information such as how many online courses were offered the previous year, how many instructors taught online for the first time the previous year, and how students who take one or more online courses at our institution graduate in less time than students who don’t take online courses.

Finally, don’t collect data just to collect data. One of my favorite cartoons depicts two individuals gathering and holding lots of papers and reports with the caption, “Get all the information you can, we’ll think of a use for it later.” Get the right people involved, come up with a sensible plan regarding what data to collect, and use that data to advance online education on your campus.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on April 20, 2020. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.


Brian Udermann, PhD, is director of online education and professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.