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The Standards Approach: Planning for Excellence in Distance Education

Many groups have generated standards for distance education. Despite the many formats and expressions of these efforts, taken together they offer a “form for quality” and a foundation for building the next generation of distance education spaces.

New technologies are offering many alternatives for those teaching in the distance education environment. What can instructors and those charged with distance learning programs do to ensure that they are giving students the best educational experience? Standards can help.

Promoting quality in distance education is a goal that many faculty, administrators, students, and industry executives pursue. But quality is difficult to achieve, especially with technology advancing rapidly, the numbers of courses growing exponentially, and with costs nearly always in question.

In the face of these complexities, how can higher education technologists ensure quality at all levels for everyone involved? How can they best guide growth toward these sought-after outcomes?
A systematic strategy for delivering this goal is to identify and adhere to standards of excellence, which are acknowledged values for developing and delivering technology-based instruction.

Standards for quality in a distance environment can be similar, if not identical, to standards in a face-to-face environment: they relate to active learning, a sense of community, flexibility, timely feedback, and reliable technology. In a distance environment, though, standards may be expanded to relate to additional elements, such as course development timelines, complex legal issues like copyright and intellectual property, and new forms of leadership and technology infrastructure.

Typically, the primary purpose of standards is to improve the teaching and learning process. But standards can have an impact on related issues, such as teacher certification, consortia initiatives, competition for distance students, eligibility for funding, and accreditation. This last item is an especially significant issue, because accreditation “is the primary means by which higher education distance learning offerings are currently reviewed for quality,” according to the Council for Higher Education.

Broad Endorsement
In the last decade—particularly in the last five years—many national and international organizations have promoted the use of distance education standards to their constituents and the educational community as a whole. The American Council on Education, for example, says, “All those involved in the learning enterprise … will benefit from principles that provide guidance in producing high-quality education with outcomes that can be clearly assessed.”

And according to the American Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, online degrees, “won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on, credits won’t be accepted for transfer, and the people who earned these diplomas will have a hard time having them accepted in the workplace and elsewhere if standards are weak.”

At the same time that powerful endorsements—and warnings—have been issued about standards, many schools have been motivated to adopt their own. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, for example, set out to draft guidelines to promote excellence in the school’s distance education program.
This project yielded a document centering on 18 standards areas, including initial course planning, learning and assessment strategies, student feedback, all the way through to course ownership and student and faculty support services.

At the same time that powerful endosements—and warnings—
have been issued about standards, many schools have been motivated
to adopt their own.

In October 2002, roughly a year and a half after the project began, our standards were officially approved. Now, as we look at how we created them and how we’re using them, we feel that our process has been a good one, and that the standards will continue to be a strong, supportive element in our institution. Some of the strengths are:

- Variety of contributors: Students, faculty, administrators, and technical staff were included in the document’s creation so that a variety of experiences, backgrounds, and knowledge would be represented and integrated.
- Wide circulation: The standards have been circulated institution-wide to standing committees, administrators, various constituent groups, and individuals. The objective was to give as many people as possible an opportunity to comment and contribute so that the document would be enriched and ultimately accepted and used.
- Comprehensiveness: The standards document is thorough, its recommendations covering all major aspects of developing and delivering courses, including instructional design, technical specifications, and support services.
- Practicality: The standards include many practical examples, guidelines, and suggestions to support the school community in day-to-day efforts that relate to distance education.

Although the standards committee believes the project will have long term success, it also anticipates challenges, including making the standards accessible and useful within the school, and continually integrating them into the instructional design process and program development.

A Form for Quality
Standards will have different meanings, depending upon who is using them and what purpose they are serving. But one way to remember their value in distance education may be to look at what standards mean outside of the distance education field. For certain gardeners, for example, a standard is a “naturally-bushy plant trained to have a clear, upright stem capped by a mop of leaves.” Standards in distance education might be viewed in a similar way. Each one—whether it pertains to learning design, objectives and outcomes, materials, or technology—is a leaf in the mop of a well-trained tree. Together, they can be cultivated to create a strong and viable educational program.

Standards are a foundation, a form for quality. They help us manage the present and navigate change. Take care of them. Then watch them grow.

Best Practices

Many organizations have already created teaching and learning standards for distance education. Some standards are simple and streamlined; others are complex and full-bodied. Here is a short list of models for a variety of approaches:

The American Association of Higher Education: "Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" (Chickering & Gamson); "Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever" (Chickering & Ehrmann)

Pennsylvania State University IDE:
"An Emerging Set of Guiding Principles and Practices for the Design and Development of Distance Education"

International Distance Education Certification Center:
"Distance Education Standards and Resource Guide: Principles for Designing and Delivering Quality Distance Education Courses"

American Council on Education:
"Guiding Principles for Distance Learning in a Learning Society" and "Distance Learning Evaluation Guide"

Institute for Higher Education Policy:
"Quality on the Line: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-based Distance Education"

David G. Brown (ed): "Interactive Learning:
Vignettes from America’s Most Wired Campuses"

Atwood Publishing:
"147 Practical Tips for Teaching Online Groups: Essentials of Web-Based Education"

St. Petersburg College:
"Best Educational E-Practices"

David G. Brown (ed):
"Interactive Learning: Vignettes from America’s Most Wired Campuses"

Atwood Publishing:
"147 Practical Tips for Teaching Online Groups: Essentials of Web-Based Education"

St. Petersburg College:
"Best Educational E-Practices"

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