Who's Conferring with Faculty on Online Course Quality?

Henryk Marcinkiewicz is associate vice president for academic affairs at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, and a frequent writer and presenter on issues relating to information technology and teaching and learning. In his opinion piece he calls for greater quality control over online course development, noting that course management technology d'esn't lend itself to quite the same degree of self-correcting misuse as other forms of information technology did when they were relatively new.

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Faculty and institutions should control for quality when using online instruction. This may seem obvious, but it is not common practice for faculty to follow a set of quality control measures in developing online instructional material. The fact that online courses are password-protected complicates the review process.

During an introductory or novelty phase of instructional technology application there is a lot of experimentation, as there should be. Recall the overuse of features on word-processed documents, varying font sizes and styles, for example. Or, consider the overuse of features in digital slide show presentations. Course management systems (CMSes) for online instructional material are practical: they have enabled the compiling of lesson parts and functions into a single location, but the same overuse or misuse of features has been evident in these applications as well.

An important distinction is that there are fewer opportunities for feedback to the faculty member/course developer than there are for the former applications. Once an online course is password-protected, the only individuals who access the course are the instructor and the students. Electronic documents and slide shows have been viewed by wide audiences outside of and within academe. They have been discussed by professional organizations, at conferences, in the literature, and in the very robust base of sharing of practices by users. But, who sees online courses? Who guides the development of courses?

Not all faculty members develop courses "from scratch" and create idiosyncratic courses. The most popular CMSes offer standardized features that come close to being templates. In fact, the use of wizards in the employment of features fosters greater uniformity of look and feel than had been previously available. Some institutions use template-based courses and still others use partially-developed courses, which the faculty members then complete and modify. But, look and feel are not the only concern. It is more important that faculty use the CMS features appropriately to support and enable different parts of their online courses.

Instruction comprises three phases: presentation of information, practice, and proof (of learning). It would be inappropriate to withhold the practice phase of learning from an online student unless it were accounted for elsewhere. Yet, this is the most common misuse of features—most online courses primarily contain the presentation phase of instruction. Any one of these phases can be added or subtracted to create an example of an imbalance. The question, then, is: Who is conferring with faculty about the effective development of courses? Most likely, no one is, or perhaps, some staff member from an institution's instructional technology development department might confer about the technical aspects of a CMS. Sometimes, there is an instructional designer on staff to help. More is needed.

Any oversight of online courses raises a concern about academic freedom. Will faculty members be surrendering academic freedom by oversight of their online course development? I do not believe so. Faculty members already participate in oversight of their classroom instruction, conferring about their online course delivery would be following suit. In fact, any oversight program—online or in the classroom—should be focused on the improvement of instruction.

However, that is currently not the case. At most institutions, there is little guidance or scrutiny of the quality of the material that instructors deliver online. In fact, there is probably more scrutiny over classroom-based delivery of instruction. Someone from the institution should be overseeing and guiding the development of online courses with what research and good practice have shown to foster effective learning. Proper guidance of online course development will result in better instruction and students will be the benefactors.

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We think that Marcinkiewicz has made a good point: Much online instruction is still piecemeal and few institutions are working on ways to review content and structure of faculty materials developed for online teaching. Will they do so in the near future, given that there is a lot of time and resource cost to do so? That's a good question. Maybe we all need to pay a little more attention to the work of the Center for Academic Transformation's Program in Course Redesign, which is showing financial savings from the redesign of large, introductory courses. Maybe, in a twisted analogy to sports programs, if institutions can show dollar savings from redesign and quality control of the larger classes (football, basketball) then the resources gained in terms of process can be used to support smaller classes (comparative literature, biological anthropology).

Henryk Marcinkiewicz is vice president of for academic affairs at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (www.pct.edu).

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