Building Quality Online, Together

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By Dale Hale

What does it mean to have a “quality” online program? Why does that matter? Isn’t it enough to put online what is done in the physical classroom? Don’t we want the quality of the traditional program to be repeated online?

All of these are excellent questions. So, let’s take them one at a time.

First, what does it mean to have a quality online program? For a long time, online learning was seen by many adopting institutions as one of two things – either it was seen as a “cash cow” that would save the institution; or, it was the ugly stepchild that no one wanted but necessary to continue to grow. With either of these views, the online program was pushed out into the ocean and expected to swim on its own. When faculty approached the online classroom as they did their physical classroom, they soon discovered the online experience to be unwieldy, difficult, and frustrating. This came across to the students, providing a poor learning environment.

Still, some institutions persevered, attempting to figure out exactly how to make this work. In fact, some began to see that the online program provided the ability to be more mission driven, reaching beyond the four walls to a world beyond, into the “laboratories” of the students’ real lives. Those institutions became the drivers of online learning.

Online learning was first conceived in the mid-1990’s as an intentionally designed, internet based, technologically-mediated tool to deliver an education. Since then, the number of students has continued to grow. In 2009, a report by Ambient Insight published some interesting predictions, which claimed that by 2015, the traditional campus would decline from 14.4 to 4.1 million students. It also stated that the online classes will grow at a compound rate of 11.08% and that exclusively online students will grow at an annual rate of 23.06%. Click here to read more.

While the Ambient Insight report may have overestimated the rise of online learning, today’s statistics show substantial growth. Currently, there are 5.8 million students online. That’s a 265% increase over the past 12 years, as reported by EdTech Higher Ed. (Ed, 2017) According to Quality Matters using the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System’s (IPEDS) data, online undergraduate enrollment has slowed but continued to grow from 9.7% in 2012 to 12.5% in 2016 of the total enrollment. Over that same period, graduate level total enrollment has grown from 20% in 2012 to 27.5% in 2016. (Quality Matters, 2018)

The Evolution of Online Learning in Higher Education

Online learning is now a given at many institutions. It has become a vital component of higher ed strategic planning for continued growth and sustainability over the next 5 to 10 years. In fact, 87% of higher education institutions include online learning as part of their strategic plans and included in budgets with full budget lines (Quality Matters, 2018.) Yes, it is viewed as a revenue generator, but it is also understood as a way to advance the work of the institution.

What may not have been understood in the past, however, is that having a quality program is essential in this growing market. In the early days, it was enough to say an institution offered online classes. But as more and more offered online coursework, it became important to offer full degrees online, just to stay on top of the market. Now, just having an online program or two is not enough. What makes an institution stand out? It’s quality! If students have a poor experience, they are likely to adopt a consumer mentality and move on to an educational experience that “gives them their money’s worth.” Quality!

You may remember the slogan for one of the giants in American automobiles – “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” The car maker obviously wanted to appeal to a younger generation. Many times, a teacher attempts to recreate a great traditional class by shoehorning it into an online course. That’s when I think of that Oldsmobile slogan. This is not your father (or mother’s!) classroom. It is a different medium and requires a different approach. What works in the traditional classroom may not work online. In fact, it probably won’t.

“Wait just a minute,” you say. “Are you saying my class won’t work online?” Quite the contrary. It will. What I’m saying is that the methodology will probably change. But, that doesn’t mean the great content, and the wonderful way you connect with students will disappear. Your content and the connections you can experience with the students can still be as good. It will just be different. On one hand, I wish I could tell you that things can remain the same. On the other, we’re using a relatively new medium. Why not exploit its strengths and use the medium the best we can?

But, what of quality? Earlier, I raised the question, “Don’t we want the quality of the traditional program to be repeated online?” Well, if you mean that the same Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) will be the same, the answer is an absolute “YES!” It has to be. In fact, the outcomes of the online course should be held against the same standards as the traditional course. A student taking an online class should be able to pass the same final that traditional student passes. In fact, my expectation is that an online student will master a subject at the same level as a traditional student.

Here’s where the quality of the online course matters. If the technology or the methodology gets in the way of the student learning, then we haven’t done our job well. This includes the quality of the technology, the content, the methodology, and even the faculty. Of course, you already believe that, or you wouldn’t be a teacher today. The same expectations for the traditional classroom are the same for the online classroom.

The Pillars of a Quality Online Experience

The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) lists five pillars that come together to make a quality online experience. First, learning effectiveness must be expected so that the students have a worthwhile education. “This means that online students’ learning should at least be equivalent to that of traditional students” (Quality Framework, 1997). We want to ensure that the outcomes of both platforms are comparable.

The second and third pillars that OLC lists are the faculty and the students. If you, the faculty, are not satisfied with the quality of the education you are providing your students, then we have not done our job in preparing you to present your course content effectually. Our expectation is that you will find online teaching not only effective but a rewarding experience for you, both personally and professionally.

OLC points to the interactive quality of the online learning community and the opportunity to reach beyond the traditional campus — to those who would not ordinarily have had the opportunity to learn from you. Online also opens up many avenues for faculty to publish because of the integration of the online interaction.

“Faculty satisfaction is enhanced when the institution supports faculty members with a robust and well-maintained technical infrastructure, training in online instructional skills, and ongoing technical and administrative assistance” (Quality Framework, 1997). This is what we aim to do for you.

Students Are  Aware of Quality

“RateMyProfessors.com is built for college students, by college students. Choosing the best courses and professors is a rite of passage for every student, and connecting with peers on the site has become a key way for millions of students to navigate this process. The site does what students have been doing forever – checking in with each other – their friends, their brothers, their sisters, their classmates – to figure out who’s a great professor and who’s one you might want to avoid.” (About RateMyProfessors.com, n.d.)

While this is a website created by and for students and is by no means scientifically trustworthy, students continue to use the site to “figure out who’s a great professor.” Students know a quality course and demand that of their faculty. Our goal is that all students are challenged to think and grow in a way that makes them quality contributors to the world they enter upon graduation from the university. If we are unable to satisfy students we lose, in terms of both our reputation as a caring, quality university and our development as a 21st century place of learning.

That said, online teaching is different and perhaps not something you’ve experienced in your own education. The OLET team’s task is to help you prepare your course in a format and methodology that works best in the online environment. We’ll follow best practices and help you design your course to maximize the tools at your disposal. Like Quality Matters (the national standards program that has been adopted by many institutions for just this reason – to assure the quality of the online course) we will preview the courses and make sure they are ready for student consumption. Unlike Quality Matters, we won’t be scrutinizing all of your content to match it against a set of standards and expectations. We believe you are the expert in your subject. But, we can help you deliver the content to your students in the best way possible for them to grasp, engage, and assimilate.

In the coming months, my part of this newsletter will be to take on different aspects of quality online courses. We want a quality program. We believe you are already at the top of your teaching game. We just want to help get your message across to students as effectively as possible.

Sources

About RateMyProfessors.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from RateMyProfessor.com: https://www.ratemyprofessors.com/About.jsp

Ed, E. H. (2017, August 10). EdTech Higher Ed. Retrieved from Infographic: #HigherEd leaders & students see the value of #OnlineClasses http://tech.mg/J8BfDB: https://twitter.com/EdTech_HigherEd/status/895678224524599296

Quality Framework. (1997). Retrieved from Onlinelearningconsortium.org: https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/about/quality-framework-five-pillars/

 Dale Hale is CBU's Director of Online Learning & Educational Technology

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