eLearning Quality: The Elephant in the Room

Mark Smithers, writing from Australia, has created quite a stir in the blogosphere with his recent posting titled “eLearning at Universities: A Quality Assurance Free Zone?” The gist of his argument is that most universities pay little more than lip service to the quality of their online course and programming offerings. Course content is often scanty and out-of-date, course sites are often poorly structured and sloppily put together, and interactions spotty and irregular. Yet, contends Smithers, the quality of online higher learning is rarely spoken about.

My own experience bears out Smithers’ observations. I have been exposed to the online offerings of many universities over the years. And I have to admit that I often see exactly what Smithers outlines. The examples of exemplary eLearning are few and far between at post-secondary institutions. And when one tries to raise it as an issue for consideration with clients or prospective clients, it seems that they would rather focus on anything (e.g. better marketing, better technology, better business models, etc.) rather than on improving quality. Quality is like the proverbial elephant in the room. He is there, but we choose not to notice.

Smithers argues that quality is not talked about because of concerns of “academic freedom,” that what happens in one’s “class” – whether on campus or online – is between the individual faculty member and his/her students. This may be part of the reason that quality of online courses is not a serious topic on many campuses. However, I would posit another cause: benign neglect.

There seems to be a prevailing culture in higher education that if you just put the faculty member and students together (whether physically in a classroom or virtually via a course website) that magic somehow happens. I have been through two on-campus degree programs as a student, and I can attest that the “magic” is hit-and-miss. Just because someone is an expert in 18th Century French history does not necessarily mean that he/she is a great teacher. But at least in a classroom setting there are understood cultural norms on what is expected from both sides (teacher and learner), there are all kinds of visual and auditory cues, misunderstandings can be cleared up on the spot, and outstanding questions answered fairly immediately.

In an online course, however, any weaknesses in course organization, presentation, guidance, facilitation, etc., are magnified ten times. Things can go off the rails very quickly in an online course, the variances for “winging it” are very thin indeed. Yet, surprisingly, there are still institutions that provide faculty with a half-day training session on the use of their learning management system and then set them off on their own, with predictable results.

So how do we address the elephant in the room? On the classroom side, there are teaching and learning units at campuses doing their best to provide resources, advice, support, etc. to faculty teaching in traditional classroom environments. And some institutions have teaching (as opposed to research) streams that allow those who are really good at teaching to focus on this. On the eLearning side, successful programs have the following characteristics:

  • The institution has adopted a rubric for defining quality (e.g. Quality Matters, Sloan-C, The TLT Group, etc.) and defines a vision for success in this regard. Such quality rubrics offer guidance on broad expectations and best practices regarding online course design/organization, pedagogy, facilitation, and evaluation processes.
  • Faculty are supported through the entire process of developing and teaching online courses, receiving assistance from instructional designers, programmers, course production staff, graphic artists, technical support staff, etc., along the way.
  • The institution has a means of continually evaluating and improving online courses based on the vision for quality it has adopted.

This isn’t rocket science. Define best practices, support faculty in moving towards such standards, and evaluate and adjust as you go. The elephant is not that scary once directly confronted.

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