In only 10 years
since the software for the World Wide Web (WWW) was developed by Tim Berners-Lee
in Switzerland, educational institutions, research centers, libraries,
government agencies, commercial enterprises, advocacy groups, and a multitude of
individuals have rushed to connect to the Internet (Johnson, 1999).
Indeed, not since the printing press was invented by Johann Gutenberg in
the 15th century has an “invention” generated such potential to
dramatically change how people communicate and interact with one another.
growth of technology-mediated distance learning in higher education has prompted
several different organizations to develop principles, guidelines, or benchmarks
to ensure quality distance education. The organizations include The American Council on Education, the
Global Alliance for Transnational Education, the National Education Association,
and the Southern Regional Electronic Campus. The
quality assurance benchmarks promoted by these organizations are designed to
apply to a wide variety of institutional contexts and consist of fairly broad
statements. Virtually all of the strategies address such topics as course
development, faculty training, student services, learning resources,
infrastructure, and outcomes assessment.
These benchmarks for all types of distance learning have been in existence in various forms for a number of years. The question that has arisen is whether they are applicable to Internet-based distance education. In short, are the benchmarks appropriate and necessary to ensure quality Internet-based distance education? Two organizations—the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest professional association of higher education faculty, and Blackboard, Inc., a widely used platform provider for online distance education—have been interested in exploring these issues and their implications. The two organizations jointly commissioned The Institute for Higher Education Policy to examine the benchmarks by studying active distance learning programs at several institutions.
The Institute was
approached by the two commissioning organizations in part because of its
previous experience in analyzing issues related to quality in distance
education. The Institute’s widely cited 1999 report, What’s the
Difference? A Review of Contemporary
Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education (Phipps
and Merisotis, 1999), has generated considerable dialogue throughout
academia about what constitutes quality in distance learning settings.
Specifically, NEA and
Blackboard, Inc. asked The Institute to attempt to validate those benchmarks
that have been published by various entities, with specific attention to
Internet-based distance education. This
study was designed to ascertain the degree to which the benchmarks are actually
incorporated in the policies, procedures, and practices of colleges and
universities that are distance education leaders. In addition, this case study sought to determine how important
the benchmarks are to the institutions’ faculty, administrators, and students.
The following description of the case study is adapted from the full report, Quality On the Line: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-based Distance Education, which can be found on the Institute’s web site at www.ihep.com.
The Case Study
The case study
process consisted of three sequential phases. First,
a comprehensive literature search was conducted to compile those benchmarks
recommended by other organizations and groups, as well as those suggested in
various articles and publications. This search resulted in a total of 45 benchmarks developed by these
Second, we sought to identify institutions that satisfied the following criteria. The institutions (1) must have substantial experience in distance education; (2) are recognized as among the leaders in Internet-based distance education; (3) are regionally accredited; and (4) offer more than one degree program via online distance learning. To ensure that a broad spectrum of higher education institutions were represented, the study would include a community college, a comprehensive institution, a research institution, and a virtual institution. From among several colleges and universities that fit the requirements, the following six institutions agreed to participate in the study: Brevard Community College, Regents College, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Maryland University College, Utah State University, and Weber State University.
Third, the six
institutions were visited by Institute staff to assess the degree to which the
campuses incorporated the benchmarks in their Internet-based distance learning
courses and programs. Each site visit
included interviews with faculty, administrators, and students, as well as a
survey of these individuals that rated both the presence and importance of the
original group of 45 benchmarks to determine if they are being followed and if
they make a difference in terms of academic quality.
The results of the
study revealed that, for the most part, the benchmarks for quality
Internet-based distance education were considered important and, in general, the
institutions strived to incorporate them into their policies, practices, and
procedures. At the same time, several
benchmarks did not enjoy consensus among administrators, faculty, and students
at the institutions and, in some instances, were not considered mandatory to
ensure quality in distance education.
The following list represents the final benchmarks resulting from this study. The Institute’s analysis of the data and information from the interviews resulted in the elimination of 13 benchmarks and the addition of three benchmarks. Several benchmarks were combined because they addressed the same issue and were related to each other. The final outcome is a list of 24 benchmarks that are essential to ensure quality in Internet‑based distance education.
Institutional Support Benchmarks
A documented technology plan that includes electronic security measures (i.e., password protection, encryption, back-up systems) is in place and operational to ensure both quality standards and the integrity and validity of information.
The reliability of the technology delivery system is as failsafe as possible.
A centralized system provides support for building and maintaining the distance education infrastructure.
Course Development Benchmarks
Guidelines regarding minimum standards are used for course development, design, and delivery, while learning outcomes—not the availability of existing technology—determine the technology being used to deliver course content.
Instructional materials are reviewed periodically to ensure they meet program standards.
Courses are designed to require students to engage themselves in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as part of their course and program requirements.
Student interaction with faculty and other students is an essential characteristic and is facilitated through a variety of ways, including voice-mail and/or e-mail.
Feedback to student assignments and questions is constructive and provided in a timely manner.
Students are instructed in the proper methods of effective research, including assessment of the validity of resources.
Course Structure Benchmarks
Before starting an online program, students are advised about the program to determine if they possess the self-motivation and commitment to learn at a distance and if they have access to the minimal technology required by the course design.
Students have access to sufficient library resources that may include a “virtual library” accessible through the World Wide Web.
Faculty and students agree upon expectations regarding times for student assignment completion and faculty response.
Student Support Benchmarks
Students receive information about programs, including admission requirements, tuition and fees, books and supplies, technical and proctoring requirements, and student support services.
Students are provided with hands-on training and information to aid them in securing material through electronic databases, interlibrary loans, government archives, news services, and other sources.
Throughout the duration of the course/program, students have access to technical assistance, including detailed instructions regarding the electronic media used, practice sessions prior to the beginning of the course, and convenient access to technical support staff.
directed to student service personnel are answered accurately and quickly,
with a structured system in place to address student complaints.
Faculty Support Benchmarks
Technical assistance in course development is available to faculty, who are encouraged to use it.
Faculty members are assisted in the transition from classroom teaching to online instruction and are assessed during the process.
Instructor training and assistance, including peer mentoring, continues through the progression of the online course.
Faculty members are provided with written resources to deal with issues arising from student use of electronically-accessed data.
Evaluation and Assessment Benchmarks
The program’s educational effectiveness and teaching/learning process is assessed through an evaluation process that uses several methods and applies specific standards.
Data on enrollment, costs, and successful/innovative uses of technology are used to evaluate program effectiveness.
Intended learning outcomes are reviewed regularly to ensure clarity, utility, and appropriateness.
24 benchmarks that made the final list were considered mandatory for quality
Internet-based distance education. Put
another way, the absence of the benchmark would be deleterious to quality.
The purpose of this case study was to assist
policymakers—such as college and university presidents and chief academic
officers, state coordinating boards, accrediting bodies, state legislatures, and
governors’ offices—as well as faculty and students, make reasonable
judgments with regard to quality Internet-based distance education.
The challenge, then, was to identify those benchmarks that are essential
for quality distance education–in contrast to those benchmarks that contribute
to and support the teaching/learning process, but are not necessary or required
to ensure quality. We are confident that policymakers can use this list with the
assurance that they are directly addressing the issue of quality without placing
unnecessary restrictions on institutions.
Johnson, J. (1999). The thread of
a great and long tradition. TechKnowLogia
Phipps, R. A., & Merisotis, J. P. (1999). What’s the
difference? A review of contemporary
research on the effectiveness of distance learning in higher education.
Washington, DC: Council for Higher Education Accreditation.