As college online catalogs grow, so does the drive to develop quality standards for these courses. But do personal courses get the same attention?
If you ask many advocates of online education, the answer is no. And the solution, many say, is for colleges to adopt standards and policies that set consistent quality expectations for all courses, whether delivered remotely or in the classroom.
While decades of research and the pandemic-driven expansion of online learning have helped demystify it and build confidence in its effectiveness, these advocates say the misconception persists that distance learning is inherently lower quality than classroom-based learning. And that stigma, they say, provides a magnifying glass for online education while in-person instruction remains largely business-as-usual.
“To rethink all of our college experiences, we all participated in major lectures” with minimal to no contact with a professor, said Julie Uranis, senior vice president of online and strategic initiatives at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. In other words, face-to-face tuition does not necessarily guarantee more student engagement and teacher support. “But for some reason, that bar is higher for online.”
Some college professors can attest to that. When accrediting bodies require institutions to demonstrate that all of their courses are equally rigorous, colleges have often interpreted this instruction as “showing that online courses meet the standard of ‘classroom courses,’ not vice versa.” Northern Illinois University executive vice president and provost Beth Ingram wrote in an email.
The discrepancy also seems to be confirmed in the data. According to a survey of more than 300 chief online officers by Quality Matters, an organization that helps ensure quality in online education, 38 percent of classroom courses are not required to meet quality assurance standards. This compares to 17 percent of synchronous online courses and 5 percent of asynchronous online courses.
Of course, online and in person aren’t entirely interchangeable — there are nuances that need to be considered. Distance learning, for example, is governed by federal regulations that require courses to include “regular and substantive” interactions; This requires a course design that deliberately offers students opportunities to exchange ideas with each other and with their professor. Online also involves more technology, which means additional checks for security measures and proper integration – are all the links and embeds working? — and accessibility features.
Barring caveats, proponents of online education like Bethany Simunich, vice president of innovation and research at Quality Matters, say higher education needs to stop “being different” and setting different standards for different learning styles. Especially since the boundaries between them are blurring. (For example, many face-to-face courses are now “web-enhanced,” with faculty members using the campus learning management system. And many colleges now offer hybrid courses with face-to-face and online components.)
Instead, the focus should be on one big question, Simunich said: Is this a quality learning experience for students?
Numerous institutions are working to focus on this question. Oregon State University has developed a universal quality framework. North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University has introduced a common curriculum template. Montgomery College, Maryland requires all new faculty members teaching credit courses to undergo Learning Management System training. Harford Community College, also in Maryland, has revised its faculty observation forms.
“Online and in person are very different things. But that doesn’t mean systems have to be separate,” said Jeff Ball, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Harford. “We’re learning that we have to be very conscious about talking to each other about it.”
It’s not uncommon for faculty members to teach a range of courses: some online, some in person, some a hybrid mix. Oregon State University is no exception.
For that reason, it made sense to develop an overarching quality teaching framework that outlines the standards the institution expects of each of its courses, said Karen Watté, director of course development and training at Oregon State’s Ecampus. It would, in her words, “improve teaching across the board.”
This framework, completed in 2021, includes expectations such as:
Providing materials in formats accessible to all learners, including curriculum materials with recommended fonts and colors. Fostering community outside of the classroom. Measurement, documentation and use of performance data to inform instruction.
Around the same time, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University introduced another tool: a universal curriculum template to create a cohesive student experience across all grades, said Tonya Amankwatia, associate vice president for distance and extended learning.
This newer template introduced standards not previously required in faculty curricula. For example, it includes a communications policy that states that faculty must “inform students of the approximate time and method they can expect to receive a response to all communications,” with the expected window being 48 hours, excluding holidays . The curriculum template also links to a “general guidelines” document that directs students to resources such as minimum technology requirements.
According to Amankwatia, it is particularly exciting that the proposal is not the result of a top-down mandate. In fact, faculty members who teach both online and face-to-face courses had led the charge. “It was a big visible step that no senior administrator had to say or demand,” she said.
Prioritizing professional development
According to experts, the success of a course also depends on the investment in professional development.
For Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., that meant doubling down on its Digital Foundations for Teaching and Learning training, which teaches faculty members how to leverage the campus’ learning management system. (All creditworthy classes in Montgomery must have a course page in the LMS).
The training, which lasts approximately 20 hours, starts with basic skills – how to post files and upload a curriculum – and builds on: how to create and manage discussion forums. How to embed and subtitle videos to help accessibility. How to set up an online gradebook for students to track their performance.
The college first introduced this training in the early days of the pandemic to ease the transition to full distance learning. Approximately 70 percent of full- and part-time faculty members who teach creditable courses graduated in 2020. It was so beneficial that the college has since required every new faculty member teaching for credit to attend the training, whether they teach online, in person, or both,” said Michael Mills, vice president of the Office of E-Learning , Innovation, and Teaching Excellence.
Montgomery also offers a voluntary Quality Assurance Micro-Certificate – a set of three badges that a faculty member can earn off-hours that demonstrates, among other things, knowledge of “inclusive quality course design and delivery.”
Mills acknowledged that the college does not offer a wage incentive to complete this micro-credential. “The incentive is better course design,” he said. “Some faculty care about that.” He noted that this could help part-time faculty secure additional teaching opportunities at other institutions.
repetition of observations
Setting standards is one thing. Assessing courses based on these standards is another; Implementing and enforcing policies on a broad basis can be difficult. (It’s also an area where online education still struggles.)
This also applies to faculty evaluations. This procedure is often stipulated in collective agreements and grants the faculty members a high degree of autonomy in teaching.
At Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland, “observing” a faculty member’s course is part of the larger annual evaluation process. And a goal for this piece is at least consistency, where it makes sense.
The updated faculty observation forms for both online and face-to-face classes—the online form is still in draft mode—are formatted similarly. Both dispense with numerical values and rating scales. Both set parameters for what the observer sees and when they see it (for in person it’s a single class. For online it’s access to an agreed part of the course for an agreed time frame). . Both check whether the trainer has promoted “an attractive learning environment”.
But there are differences. For example, in the online course observation form, the reviewer is asked to check that links and “technical aspects of the course are OK” and that the navigation is “user-friendly”. During the personal observation, the reviewer is asked about the pace: Did the lecturer teach so quickly that the students were able to process the content?
“It’s like a Venn diagram,” said Elizabeth Mosser Knight, associate dean for academic operations at Harford. “There’s overlap, but there’s also nuance because they’re unique in a way.”
It’s these types of conversations that get online advocates like Simunich excited about the potential for advancement.
“As these conversations all start to coalesce and come to a head, institutions need to make a decision,” she said, “whether to engage publicly with quality and talk about quality.”