E-Learning Courses are Easier to Scrutinize

Secretary Spellings Encourages Greater Transparency and Accountability in Higher Education at the National Accreditation Meeting

This isn’t new, but it is important.  We’ve heard news about this movement for the past several years.  Spellings was talking about transparency in order “to provide families with valuable information about institutions so parents and
students can make informed education decisions.”  I remember Darcy Hardy mentioning something similar at the 2006 Distance Learning and Teaching Conference- that there is a growing demand for evidence that a higher education institution is actually resulting in student learning.  We want to know that a diploma means something and that students with that diploma actually have the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to be successful beyond college.  This growing trend to be more transparent about student learning outcomes as well as student performance after graduation is something that accrediting agencies will look for more and more in the upcoming years. 

I know that Spellings was talking about transparency on a University level, but this also leads me to think about transparency in a different way, on the course level, and simply transparency of the details of a given course for use by the instructor.  Consider a typical collaborative e-learning course.  Discussions, correspondence, instructional materials, and learning activities are captured, easily available for scrutiny during the course and after it is complete.  As an instructor/facilitator, I find this a priceless opportunity for careful review and discovery of what did and did not work.  If several students struggled with a particular unit or assessment, I can track activity levels of students, how frequently they logged in, and how much time was spent on a given activity.  This doesn’t work perfectly.  For example, if a student visits a page and simply prints it out rather than reading it online, then it may look as if the student only spent thirty seconds on the page, when they may have spent an hour.  Instructors can use all of this captured data for course improvement, research (granted all of the appropriate IRB measures), as well as interventions with individuals students who are struggling. 

The amount of data available for review is sometimes overwhelming.  Print off a single-spaced script of threaded discussions from a sixteen week graduate course with fifteen students and you are likely to have 300-500 pages.  And the fact that all of this data is in digital form allows you to engage in all sorts of discourse and content analyses. 

I realize that this is not really what Spellings was talking about.  But the ability to carefully review and scrutinize e-learning course quality is amazing.  When I have presented overviews of e-learning to groups who are skeptical that one can receive a good education online, I often encourage criticism and skepticism, but only if it is across the board, applied to all learning environments.  I explain that, “E-learning courses receive the scrutiny that all courses deserve.” 

While it is easier to review the details of an e-learning course, what Spellings is talking about is outcomes.  From the perspective of accrediting agencies and prospective families, they want to know if students are actually learning anything.  That can be demonstrated by end results, often without showing how they got there.  But I am too much of a process person to accept a set of numbers as an adequate measure.  I also want qualitative data.

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