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 learninghave 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:
institutionalizing a multi-phase all-faculty peer-review process for course development;
creating checklists and/or standards that guide development, design, and delivery;
making instructional design assistance available to all faculty, with appropriate incentives for its use;
providing professional incentives to academic faculty for innovative practice; and
implementing course design through teams comprised of instructors, subject matter experts, instructional designers, technical experts, and evaluation specialists.
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:
developing an involved, customized instructor training program to accommodate the transition from residential instruction to distance learning that includes instructing faculty in technical training and online teaching concepts, teaching a mini-lesson, observing an actual course, and assessing the individual;
supporting online instructors through a peer mentoring train-the-trainer program;
offering online instructors just-in-time activities to prepare for distance learning presentations; and
fostering faculty involvement through an appropriate reward/tenure system consistent with the institutions mission.
Information Access. A wide variety of media are replacing the professor as the students 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:
developing resource/reference handbooks for tutors, faculty, and facilitators that recognize and identify the potential and pitfalls of electronically accessed data;
assigning a tutor or local facilitator to each student to assure that the vast array of resources can be accessedbut with discrimination; and
providing comprehensive study guides (in addition to textbooks) to students that contain course objectives, support key concepts and ideas, suggest learning activities and resources, and outline assignments with due dates.
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 instructorwhether 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:
employing strategies in courses that promote significant interaction between students and faculty, students with other students, and if appropriate, students with electronic media;
providing students with timely feedback to assignments and questions;
setting expectations for students to spend a minimum amount of time per week for study and homework assignments;
requiring faculty to respond to all questions within a certain time period and to grade and return all assignments within one week of being submitted; and
ensuring that "non-threatening" feedback to student responses is continually observed.
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:
separating learning activities into self-contained segments that address specific learning outcomes, which are mastered by students before moving forward;
determining the length of the content module by the complexity and depth of the learning outcome; and
ensuring that each module contains activities that require analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
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:
using problem solving activities involving groups of students (where appropriate) to enhance understanding and help to translate theory into practice; and
developing course materials explicitly to enhance collaboration.
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:
including consideration of the learning styles of diverse students with respect to age, gender, ethnicity, etc., in addition to content, in the development of courses;
using assessment instruments to ascertain the specific learning styles of students and then using this information to gear course delivery to accommodate the learner; and
providing structure in courses that is readily apparent to the learner, regardless of the learning style.
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:
making available a "virtual" library via the World Wide Web, which contains a sufficient number of items to support an academic program;
providing students with assistance in procuring materials through electronic databases, interlibrary loans, government archives, and news services; and
instructing students in proper methods of research, including assessment of internal and external validity of resource materials.
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:
supplying written information regarding program and admissions requirements, tuition and fees, books, technical and proctoring requirements, program supplies, and support services to all students in sufficient time to make decisions;
counseling students to determine if they have the self-motivation and commitment to learn at a distance;
providing easily accessible technical assistance to all students, before and during the presentation of the course, including detailed instructions regarding the electronic media being used, practice sessions prior to the course being offered, and convenient access to technical support staff; and
establishing an ombudsman system to address student complaints.
Infrastructure. Assuring that students participating in learning activities do not experience interruptions or problems in communications, the organizations 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:
articulating the technical quality standards through a technology plan which clearly defines and guides the use of technology in support of learning goals and activities;
addressing the system security to assure the integrity and validity of information;
selecting the distance education technologies based on learning outcomes; and
centralizing support for building and maintaining distance education infrastructure.
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 imperativefor 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 outcomespreferably determined through multiple measuresprovide the organization and its constituents evidence that learning has taken place.
Benchmarks for assuring quality in the assessment of outcomes include:
evaluating the programs educational effectiveness through learning outcomes assessment and faculty/student evaluations of course content, management, and delivery;
using evaluations to improve the teaching-learning process;
providing a written, explicit statement of learning outcomes for each course;
developing standards to compare and improve end results;
evaluating system effectiveness through data on enrollment, costs, and successful uses of technology;
reviewing instructional materials periodically to ensure they meet standards; and
reviewing intended learning outcomes regularly to assure clarity, utility, and appropriateness.
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.
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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).