Quality in Distance Education: Stakeholders’ Perspectives – Part I

greenberg80By Gary Greenberg
Staff Writer
22 November 2008


The large number of students in the U.S. taking one or more courses online in 2006—nearly 3.5 million—reflects another trend: more faculty members are teaching online than ever before (Allen & Seaman, 2007). As they gear up for their first course taught at a distance, faculty must balance their drive to be innovative teachers with their institution’s demands for online course quality.

At the 2008 University of Wisconsin Distance Teaching and Learning Conference, I conducted a discussion with seven conference-goers on the topic of innovation and quality.


Gary Greenberg: Some observers of distance education, including Curtis Bonk, who was here at the conference, and Kurt Squire, who is here at the greenberg04University of Wisconsin, have charged that innovation in the creation of online courses has stalled out. I wonder if any of you share this concern about lack of innovation going on in distance courses.

Robert Bulik: I think it’s not necessarily innovation, but I think it’s getting away from the basic theory of education. If we think that online learning should be as good as, better, or equivalent to face-to-face classroom learning then we need to consider what goes on in the classroom, which includes interactivity and learner control. And if we give that background away when we go into an online environment then we’ll just have page turning virtually on the screen versus in the book. That gets away from the basic tenets—theory —of education, and I think that’s a different issue than innovation. (Bulik, MD, is an associate professor for the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and is currently developing case-based instruction and software for the education of medical students.)

Kay Shattuck: I think what’s happening with the comment that distance education or e-learning has stalled because the innovators aren’t there—I think some of that comes from the sheer numbers of . . . people who are told, in many cases, they have to put something online from their institution.

My other perspective on innovation is: Who’s the innovation for? Is it because an instructor wants to use a new toy? Or has the instructor really been looking for a way to improve a piece of the course and has, through her investigation, shattuck11discovered a really nice toy? I think we’re sometimes led by toys. (Shattuck is director of research for Quality Matters™ [MarylandOnline, 2006], an organization offering a faculty-centered, peer review process for distance learning courses.)

Katie McDonald: I love going to conferences and [taking notes] about all the tools, looking them up online, and playing or trying them. But I always have to keep myself grounded at the level that faculty don’t want this just because I think it’s cool and because I think it would help their course. The designer really has to build a relationship with the faculty and have the trust that when I say this is technology that will really help you, it’s because it will really help you in this way. Not just to use it because it’s fun and it’s new and it’s innovative. (McDonald represented the views of working instructional designers in the discussion. She is an instructional technologist for RIT Online.)

Joeann Humbert: I think that’s where the instructional designer is key in the process of putting a course online because it is different teaching online. And a person in that role can translate—help to translate—effective pedagogy. So I think if you go back to the core [issue] of helping people teach good courses online, the instructional designer can be a key person for the faculty member. I think having their skill in the balance is critical.

I still meet faculty—and many are in engineering and areas that have more traditional lecture-based courses—who don’t know about all the research in the field. They have no clue about distance education and are thinking about delivering a distance course but wouldn’t even consider [consulting] an instructional designer. It’s only after building credibility with those faculty, and building trust, that they’ll begin to reconsider how they develop their course. (Humbert is the director of RIT Online, the distance learning support organization for the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY.)

Shattuck: I think that is what we’re talking about, the masses, the mass of instructors, that have now moved into distance education, and I think that people who are the innovators are frustrated at seeing this. But I think that’s the natural process. Eventually, because students will not take the courses, people will find an instructional designer. They will, for their survival.


The discussion concluded with remarks on the importance of conversations—between faculty members and more experienced colleagues; between faculty members and instructional designers—in the design of a quality distance education course. There was general agreement that these conversations play a crucial part in the creative process and are deserving of further attention in the ongoing debate about quality. I’ll post that part of the discussion next time.

(Author’s Note: This work was supported in part by a travel grant from the School of Educational Policy and Leadership at The Ohio State University.)

[Editor’s Note: Part II to follow in a coming article.]

Making a Case for Online Science Labs

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
10 November 2008

In my last article, I spoke of states blocking progress in online science education. California and New York proscribe the use of virtual labs for their high school diplomas. Rather than complain about this situation, the online community must find ways to work with the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) and the New York State Board of Regents (Regents) to amend their rules.

There’s much at stake here — too much to waste our efforts attempting somehow to make simulations okay as labs. Realize that if these states modify their rules, then we open up a great set of opportunities for online education.

Instead of beginning by opposing UCOP and Regents, begin where they are and work with them. I read in the UCOP position a statement that no virtual labs that they had seen were good enough to substitute for hands-on labs. Take that as our starting point.

First, make contact with these groups. Then, show them the possibility of using online labs as a part of the instructional process. What’s the best way to make that demonstration?

Because the UCOP and Regents have not seen any virtual labs that they feel are suitable, and they have seen plenty of simulations (data, objects, and phenomena generated by equations and algorithms), do not begin by showing them what they’ve already rejected. Instead, show them something completely different.

keller10nov08Remember that the decision makers are taking their guidance from scientists. I’m a scientist (chemistry) and have some ideas about how these important advisors view science lab experience. Understand that the traditional education community is very protective of hands-on labs. Any solution must include these to some extent. The exact extent should be a subject of negotiation. The College Board, for example, mandates 34 hours of hands-on time for AP Chemistry.

Use America’s Lab Report for guidance and as a possible neutral virtual meeting ground. Showing adherence to all aspects of the report will, I believe, demonstrate the required possibility.

Having established communication and demonstrated the potential for online science to succeed, engage in a dialog regarding any deficiencies perceived by the UCOP and/or Regents in the various presented alternatives. Agree that one or more, if amended, can substitute for some fraction of the total hands-on requirement. Some approach may even succeed without modification.

Overcoming any such deficiencies and presenting our case again will complete the process and open the door for online science instruction throughout the United States.

Our initial presentation should include as many innovative approaches to virtual labs as we can muster and should not include simulations as lab substitutes for the reasons stated above.

I’m aware of three possibilities for presentation. None use simulations. All use the methods of science.

1. Large online scientific database investigation. Prof. Susan Singer, the lead author for America’s Lab Report, uses this approach in her own classes.

2. Remote, real-time robotic experimentation. Prof. Kemi Jona, one of the authors of the NACOL document about online science (together with John Adsit), is working with the MIT iLab people to supply these labs to students.

3. Prerecorded real experiments embedded in highly interactive software allowing students to collect their own personal data. The Smart Science® system is the only known example of this approach. (Disclaimer: I’m a creator of this system.) Apex Learning and Johns Hopkins University’s CTY are just two organizations that use these integrated instructional lab units.

I’d be happy to hear of other approaches that are not simulations and to work with anyone who’d like to see a change in the UCOP and Regents standards for lab experience. I’d especially like to talk to anyone who has contacts with the UCOP or Regents. The sooner we start in earnest, the sooner we’ll succeed.