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Uneven Standards Hamper Online Education the World Over

group of people sitting around map of globe

A new report has provided SWOT analyses of seven regions around the world related to digital and distance education. The bottom line: While online learning is on the rise everywhere, programs and courses show great unevenness because of a lack of standards.

The project, led by the International Council for Open and Distance Education, was kicked off in 2016 when ICDE sought senior leaders from around the world to run task forces that would examine the quality of online learning in their regions. This was undertaken to help address the United Nations' fourth "Sustainable Development Goal": "Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning."

The project examined the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to quality in "online, open, flexible and technology-enhanced education" in seven broad regions:

  • Africa;
  • Arab region;
  • Asia;
  • Europe;
  • Latin America and the Caribbean;
  • North America; and
  • Oceania.

Through regional meetings, the teams gathered data and information via surveys, focus groups and collaborations. For North America the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) served as the lead.

According to a final report, while online learning in North America continues to grow, the absence of a single industry standard for quality has led to a lack of consistency among programs. That's true, the report suggested, even within a single institution, where decentralized learning environments result in haphazard offerings. Faculty development needs for teaching in the online environment are also inadequate, OLC reported.

Other issues for North America included a lack of buy-in from faculty for the idea that quality standards were needed and a lack of collaboration between faculty and staff to incorporate quality standards.

A similar theme emerged worldwide. Without consistent standards, the report noted, institutions can't be benchmarked against each other and ambiguity arises regarding expectations for quality. There's also the problem of credibility; schools may offer courses or programs without incorporating best practices or preparing their instructors to teach online, resulting in "poor learning experiences for students."

In addition, there are "societal perceptions" to contend with. While distance learning can have the same impact as traditional learning in many parts of the world, that's not universally true. In some places, distance learning is considered "substandard." Where that's the case, the report explained, support from university leaders and even government leaders may be required to overcome the "negative perception."

The report included three recommendations:

  • That guidelines and standards for quality be adopted;
  • That more research be done to help build the credibility of innovative education models, such as online and open learning; and
  • That faculty and staff professional development standards be identified and used to build out the capacity for teaching in a digital mode.

The report is available with registration through the OLC website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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