Quality in Distance Education: Stakeholders’ Perspectives – Part I

greenberg80By Gary Greenberg
Staff Writer
22 November 2008

Introduction

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.

Discussion

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.

Conclusion

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.]

POLL: Rate the Quality of Online Courses

This question is aimed at online courses in general and not the exceptions. If you don’t have sufficient hard data to support your opinion, then base it on your best guess. Please use the comment feature below to explain your vote. Don’t use the “comment” in the poll; instead, use the one that appears at the end of this article. Thanks!

[Edited 11 Dec. 2008]
The results as of 11 Dec. 2008:
iblog_poll01_121108

Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer
6 November 2008

Online education is bringing quality education to many thousands of K-12 students who would otherwise not be able to access it, but in doing so it is forcing us to rethink some of our traditional ways. Unfortunately, we are too often clinging to old rules and old ideas that stand in the way of this progress.

One example is in science education. In 2005, the National Research Council published America’s Lab Report, a scathing indictment of how science classes in regular schools include labs in their instruction. [The entire report is available online at no cost. Click here for the table of contents.] It identified seven goals for a lab program:

  1. Enhancing mastery of subject matter
  2. Developing scientific reasoning
  3. Understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work
  4. Developing practical skills
  5. Understanding the nature of science
  6. Cultivating interest in science and interest in learning science
  7. Developing teamwork skills

After examining hundreds of studies, the NRC concluded that what it called “typical” lab programs did a “poor” job of attaining any of those goals.

adsit012The problem is not in the labs themselves but rather in how they are included in the instructional plan—or rather how they are not included in the instructional plan. The NRC identified a different approach, which it called an “integrated” lab program, a design that makes science labs a critical part of the instructional process in ways that are fully in keeping with modern concepts of best practice in education. The report is pessimistic about the chances for this happening, though, for it notes that these methods are not a part of typical science teacher training.

After reading the report, several educators active in the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) theorized that by using this report as a guide, online education schools could create science courses that far surpass the quality of what students in “typical” schools are experiencing now, and they convened a committee under the direction of Dr. Kemi Jona of Northwestern University. Eventually, Kemi and I coauthored the results of that committee’s work in the form of a white paper describing how online science courses could be designed, using a variety of inquiry experiences that can include high quality virtual labs, to follow those guidelines and produce an excellent total lab experience.

Unfortunately, the old rules are getting in the way.

For example, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) has established the “a-g standards” that determine if a high school course is adsit021acceptable for admission to any of the UC schools. They require online students to make some sort of arrangements with a school to use their lab facilities under supervision. Students must leave their online setting, travel to a supervised lab, and follow precisely the procedures the NRC describes as “poor.” If an online program contains even a single virtual lab or simulation of any kind, it is not acceptable for admission. If an online class meets all their requirements and then decides to add a high quality simulation to the program, then it is no longer acceptable. If a student takes and passes a College Board approved Advanced Placement class that includes a single virtual lab, that course cannot be counted for college admission.

UCOP is only an example; it is not the only institution or state to have such a rule or law. If online education is to bring quality science education to students in remote areas, we must do what we can to help the die hard traditionalists who make the rules understand the new realities:

  • The traditional lab experiences students have in regular schools are not as valuable as is assumed, and in fact research says they are “poor” and ineffective.
  • Well-designed online classes have lab programs that are far superior to what students encounter in “typical” lab programs.
  • Archaic restrictions based on false assumptions are depriving thousands of students of the high quality online and computer-based educational resources that are not otherwise available to them.

Responding Article

Simulated Labs Are Anathema to Most Scientists by Harry Keller