Benchmarks for Quality Assurance in Technology Mediated Postsecondary Distance Learning

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A variety of groups, including the American Council on Education, the National Educational Association, and the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications--as well as individual experts in distance learning–have recommended benchmarks for quality assurance in technology-mediated postsecondary distance education. The Institute for Higher Education Policy conducted an extensive review of the literature to determine the extent to which these benchmarks overlap or are distinct. This research resulted in the following compilation of benchmarks that represents a comprehensive list of recommendations for quality distance education, which can be used as a useful guide for practitioners and policymakers.

Faculty Expertise and Professional Involvement

Courseware Development. Courseware is, by and large, produced either by individual faculty (or groups of faculty members) on campus, subject experts in organizations, and/or commercial enterprises. Regardless of the source of courseware development, the ultimate knowledge, skills, and competency levels contained in the courseware should be defined clearly and determined or approved by faculty or individuals possessing the appropriate academic and professional experience. In addition, the academic quality of courseware developed commercially should be validated by institutions or organizations, ensuring that the courseware is consistent with the goals and objectives of the enterprise.

Benchmarks for assuring quality in the development of courseware include:

Faculty Selection and Training. Not every faculty member or trainer has the skills and temperament for technology mediated learning. In addition to the careful selection of faculty members, proper training with respect to learner needs and the use of technology is essential. Because of the rapidly changing requirements of technology, training needs to be continuous. Furthermore, an integrated team, such as computer service technicians, counselors, site administrators, distribution clerks, and library resource personnel, is needed to support faculty efforts.

Benchmarks for assuring quality in the selection and training of faculty include:

Information Access. A wide variety of media are replacing the professor as the student’s primary source of information. Therefore, the ability of faculty to guide students through the morass of the Internet to identify the reliability of information is of particular importance.

Benchmarks for assuring quality in students’ capacity to access information include:

Process Strategies

Interactivity. There is a substantial body of evidence that a common element to student academic success is interactivity; the more interactive the instruction, the more effective the learning outcome is likely to be. The key ingredients appear to be the availability of the instructor—whether through direct person-to-person contact or through electronic means— and the intellectual engagement of the student, regardless of the method of engagement.

Benchmarks for assuring quality interaction between students and their classmates, as well as their professors, include:

Modular Learning. There is also considerable evidence that individualized instructional approaches are advantageous. This is particularly true if the approach emphasizes small, modularized units of content, mastery of one unit before moving to the next, immediate and frequent feedback to students on their progress, and active student involvement in the learning process are consistently effective in enhancing subject matter learning over more traditional learning formats such as lecture and recitation.

Benchmarks for assuring quality in modular learning include:

Collaboration. Learning is enhanced through cooperation and reciprocity among students. As the American Association for Higher Education notes in its Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, the learning process involves collaboration and a social context, where working together helps each student. Given the nature of the technology used, special attention must be paid to this issue, which can be difficult to achieve in distance learning. Sharing ideas in a group setting improves thinking and deepens understanding. Study groups, collaborative learning, group problem solving, and discussion of assignments can be dramatically strengthened through technology mediated learning.

Benchmarks for assuring quality in collaborative efforts include:

Learning Styles. Students learn in many different ways and bring varied talents and experiences to the learning activity. Technology has the enormous potential to enable students to learn in a variety of ways. Technology mediated distance learning can provide dramatic visuals and well-organized print; promote self-reflection and self-evaluation; encourage collaboration and group problem solving through tasks requiring analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Benchmarks for assuring quality in addressing varied learning styles includes:

Support for the Student

Learning Resources. Libraries and learning resources are being transformed by technology. The rapid pace of replacing traditional libraries and resource centers with computer networks and online retrieval systems requires that students and faculty, staff, and administrators be provided with ongoing orientation and training sessions for accessing information.

Benchmarks for assuring quality in the learning resources available to students include:

Student Services. There is a growing movement for colleges and universities to contract for student services, including registration, business office, financial aid, and bookstore functions. Institutions who use outside sources must be diligent in ensuring that students receive clear, complete, and timely information regarding institutional requirements, assumptions about technological competence and skills, technical equipment requirements and availability of support services and that students have easy access to services. It is particularly important that technical assistance for students is available so that the technology becomes a "transparent" conduit of knowledge.

Benchmarks for assuring the quality of student services include:

Infrastructure. Assuring that students participating in learning activities do not experience interruptions or problems in communications, the organization’s technological infrastructure needs to be monitored continuously and, if appropriate, enhanced. Major components of the infrastructure that need to addressed include expanded network capacity, addition of dial-in ports for remote access, enhancement of e-mail, file-serving and other centralized services, creation of a software library, and enhancement of network security.

Benchmarks for assuring quality in the infrastructure needed for distance learning include:

Assessment of Learning

Outcomes Assessment. Almost two decades ago, Howard Bowen observed that in higher education, true outcomes in the form of learning and personal development of students are on the whole unexamined and only vaguely discerned. It is becoming increasingly important —and some would say imperative—for organizations participating in technology mediated distance learning to identify a clearly understood set of outcomes, particularly student knowledge, skills, and competency levels. Once these student learning outcomes are identified, reliable and valid methods for measuring their achievement should be developed. As the concept of "seat-time" becomes less and less relevant, especially as a proxy for student learning, externally validated outcomes—preferably determined through multiple measures—provide the organization and its constituents evidence that learning has taken place.

Benchmarks for assuring quality in the assessment of outcomes include:

Critical Reviews

Critic V

I like the intent of this article, but as is, it reads like an outline, a skeletal listing. The benchmarks are vague and skimpy. To be useful or stimulating, the individual standards need to be discussed and assessed to some extent by the author. Ideally, the author would (1) cite specific examples (from the field) for some of the key benchmarks and (2) incorporate thoughtful comments from other writers, experts, or practitioners at points of issue. The paper needs an introductory and concluding paragraph and a brief description/assessment of the sources and research procedure; and it sorely needs the author's "editorial" voice. I don't recommend publishing as is; however, I would definitely encourage the author to massage this piece into a more dynamic offering.

Critic UU

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Critic Q

I believe this article is appropriate for publication. I would suggest incorporating web links to the other foundational works from ACE, NEA, etc. that were reviewed by the author(s).