The Design & Management of Effective Distance Learning Programs – Chapter 11

Chapter 11: Distance Education Quality: Success Factors for Resources, Practices and Results

Cathy Cavanaugh
University of North Florida, USA

Copyright © 2002, Idea Group Publishing.

INTRODUCTION

The current growth in distance education is a result of a convergence of factors. The delivery technology has become more affordable, available, familiar and interactive. With improvements in the technology, distance courses are now more realistic, engaging, inexpensive, and varied. The audience of learners is more experienced and capable with the technology, due to the increased availability of distance education, and they welcome distance learning into their busy lives. Technology-mediated distance education research has matured enough to produce an extensive body of evidence that distance education can be at least as effective as classroom instruction.

The exciting convergence that brought about the growth in distance education also presented distance learners with a challenge: how to choose the best distance learning opportunities from the vast catalog of options. Distance learners can easily compare the costs, technical needs, cognitive requirements, and time demands of distance learning courses. Learners are less well equipped to distinguish high quality courses from the offerings. Distance education programs have the responsibility of communicating to students the quality assurance measures they employ, whether the measures consist of in- house practices or accreditation by outside bodies.

This chapter describes trends that have led to the growth of distance education from elementary school through higher education and professional development. The following sections present critical success factors that institutions, course developers, instructors, and students have found through practice to lead to high quality distance education experiences. These guidelines are presented as they inform the three stages of the distance education development cycle: resources, practices, and results. In addition, two distance education programs are described as case illustrations that exemplify the successful application of success factors.

TRENDS CONTRIBUTING TO THE GROWTH OF DISTANCE EDUCATION

Distance education, as experienced via the Internet, is a result of the convergence of several recent trends. Access to the Internet is now available in some form to most Americans, and distance education is increasingly seen as a practical and effective pathway to learning. A growing concern among distance learners is determining the level of quality of distance education programs. This section examines the trends leading to the growth of distance education and the need for distance education quality assurance.

Interest in Distance Education

Interest in distance learning is on the rise among high school students, college students and professionals. A recent survey found that the majority of parents polled obtained Internet access for their children’s education (Grunwald Associates, 2000), and as of the year 2000, a full 15% of U.S. high schools offered access to online classes (Market Data Retrieval, 2000). By the year 2002, over 2 million distance learning students are expected in higher education (Web-Based Education Commission, 2000). In a survey of working adults the majority stated that they believe college courses offered via the Internet are the future of higher education, with 32% expressing a preference for online courses over classroom learning, given equal quality of education (CyberAtlas, 2000). A survey of business managers who have used Internet-based training found that nearly 100% of respondents would recommend it, mainly because of “anytime, anywhere” access (CyberAtlas, 2000). While the expense of developing high- quality distance education materials can be high, return on investment analyses are beginning to show that training efficiency and resulting productivity gains make distance education worthwhile.

Effectiveness of Distance Education

Traditional reviews of distance education literature conducted in the 1980s indicated that adult learners achieve as well in distance education programs as they do in classroom settings (Moore, 1989). A quantitative review of the achievement of over 900 students in K-12 distance education programs found no significant differences in student achievement between distance learners and classroom learners (Cavanaugh, 1999). Other studies described by Moore and Thompson (1990) indicate that the instructional format itself has little effect on student achievement as long as the delivery technology is appropriate for the content and timely teacher-to-student feedback is included. Good distance teaching practices have been found to be fundamentally identical to good classroom teaching practices, with quality factors being universal across environments and populations (Wilkes & Burnham, 1991).

Assurance of Quality in Distance Education

With obstacles such as access and convenience largely overcome, students and workers are embracing distance education as a solution to the educational problems of course variety, time flexibility, and transportation limitations. As consumers of distance learning become more experienced and as distance education offerings become more varied, demand for high quality in distance education grows. Distance education providers vary widely in the methods they use to establish quality criteria, ensure that they meet the criteria, and communicate their quality assurance procedures to students. Instructors have concerns regarding the identity and honesty of the students doing the work in distance education courses. Administrators at many traditional institutions fear that public perception about the meaning of a college degree will erode if distance learning courses are added to the curriculum (Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 2000). In response, online and traditional institutions of higher education have implemented standards for accreditation. This chapter offers an examination of success factors for quality distance education, with exemplary cases included to illustrate best practices.

Defining Quality

In its December 2000 report to Congress, the Web-Based Education Commission made high-quality online educational content one of its seven critical issues. In order for a student or institution to determine whether quality has been achieved, quality must be defined. A primary goal of educators is developing independent learners who can capably apply their knowledge to new situations. To ensure that distance education offerings meet this goal, providers must identify desired learning outcomes and instructional methods. Quality indicates that instruction is effective and appropriate. The definition of quality may include quantitative elements such as completion rates, student performance, and student evaluations of the learning experience. Qualitative dimensions may include ratings of teaching-learning events, materials, learning process, pace, activities, content and options offered to students. Effective and appropriate outcomes and methods for distance education are adopted from educational practice, business systems, and learning research. The following sections apply specific approaches from education, business and research to achieve quality distance education experiences.

THE QUALITY DISTANCE EDUCATION CYCLE

The process of developing and implementing effective distance education happens in an iterative cycle. Broadly considered, the three stages in the cycle are (1) procurement and preparation of the resources necessary to meet the distance education goals, (2) delivery of instruction using the best practices from education, business and research, and (3) analysis of the results of distance education to gauge achievement of the goals. Each stage of the Resources-Practices-Results (RPR) cycle continually revisits lessons learned in the other stages and builds upon the successes realized in the other stages. Each stage requires participation of all stakeholders, including students, instructors, support and design professionals, administrators, and the community. The critical success factors discussed in each stage are based on decades of research and experience with learners from professions, higher education and K-12 education (Barker, 1999; Bruce, Fallon & Horton, 2000; Cavanaugh, 1999; Educational Development Associates, 1998; Fredericksen, Peltz, & Swan, 2000; Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2000; Mantyla, 1999).

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Figure 1: The phases of the RPR Cycle

The Resources Phase of the RPR Cycle

The resources required to sustain a quality distance education program exist to support students, faculty, and the program or institution toward achieving the goal of effective and appropriate learning. Responsive and flexible human resources, knowledge, skills, policies, procedures and technical infrastructure enable quality practices and contribute to quality results. Procurement, development and adaptation of resources are ongoing processes. The discussion of the critical resources for quality distance education begins at the institutional level, and continues with faculty, students, and technology. A case description illustrates an institution where a significant and ongoing commitment of resources has resulted in a high-quality distance education program.

Institutional and Program Resources

To provide a vigorous quality distance education program, an institution begins with policy that values distance education as an endeavor that integrates seamlessly with the institution’s mission and goals. With such a policy in place, understood by administration and staff, the institution is positioned to create a strategic plan for delivering distance education to students. In planning, distance education administrators and instructors engage in continuous dialogue with a broad range of stakeholders in specifying quality benchmarks (Vaughan, 2000). Providers forge consensus with past, present and potential future students about the perceived effectiveness of courses, and they communicate with employers to determine the match between the skills and knowledge required on the job and those developed in the course (Kearsley, 2000).

The strategic plan is a financial and philosophical commitment that gives the direction to personnel who make specific decisions regarding program implementation. It is a commitment to team support for distance educators and students, technology led by the program’s current and future goals, and development of program standards. Course developers and instructors need target standards to guide course design and delivery. As a partner to the standards, program review procedures must be developed, implemented, and revised frequently to ensure that all components of the program meet standards and to ensure that the standards contribute to program goals. For example, academic accrediting bodies may limit the amount or type of learning that may occur via distance education, or faculty may decide that certain courses such as laboratory courses are inappropriate for distance education. Standards and results of reviews are used to drive future decision-making, including selection of qualified experienced instructors and levels of support needed throughout the program.

Administration of a quality distance education program depends on clear and accurate communication to students. Students need access to information about admission, tuition, materials, technical requirements, learning expectations and support available to them. For students to be successful, the program must advise entering students, including screening for students who display success indicators for the program, and consideration of prior learning experiences. Registered students need orientation and counseling so they will be properly placed in the program. Students need assurance that their rights are protected and their records will be confidentially maintained as well as available to other institutions. Student privacy and security in online activities must also be ensured.

All education programs are built essentially on their people. For facility- free distance education programs, this fact is critical, making human resources a vital responsibility of the institution. Qualified instructors and support staff must be recruited, they must be provided with development opportunities related to instruction, content knowledge and technical skill, and they must receive feedback on their teaching. Because students often learn to fulfill a career goal, the program benefits when employers and other community members understand, support and contribute to the program’s goals, policies, and outcomes.

Community members, who may be thought of as consumers of the program’s products, are valuable sources for program evaluation data. Qualitative input about student performance, satisfaction, and success is at least as important as quantitative data such as enrollment, costs, utilization of technology, and hiring rates. The elements of the comprehensive program evaluation process should be communicated to all stakeholders in advance, and the results should be reported completely and efficiently.

Faculty and Course Support Resources

Qualified and experienced distance education instructors are likely to have the desired attitudes and understanding of the distance education teaching and learning process. For faculty members to succeed in distance education, they need to be supported with accurate and complete information and training in order to develop their skills and understanding. Successful distance educators understand the distance learning environment and the options that exist for instruction. They recognize the time and effort necessary for producing and teaching an effective course, and are provided with release time in advance for course preparation. They have experience using the tools of distance education, and receive opportunities to learn and practice with new tools. Ideally, instructors are involved in the evaluation and selection of technology resources and in the development of policy for their programs. In addition to their distance education competencies, faculty in high-quality programs excel in their academic field, have earned credentials in the profession, and contribute to scholarship in their subject.

In support of the design and delivery of quality courses, institutions are responsible for providing training and resources for instructors. All distance education faculty members require training aligned with their needs in pedagogical and technical skills, including distance learning course organization, planning, teaching and assessment strategies. This training is most effective when it is followed up with ongoing course design assistance and peer mentoring throughout course delivery. The training should cover pacing and sequencing of activities, broadcast or online communication skills, and methods of interaction with students that develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Instructors need continual access to the physical resources and human support that will enable development of high-quality teaching materials. Materials used by students must be appropriate for the content area, using the media and delivery technology that suits the content. Most distance learning courses are highly visual, but many arts, communication, science and other courses depend on high-quality audio and motion capabilities. Materials should be presented in an organized, functional and easily navigated structure. The materials used in successful distance learning courses are comfortable and affordable for students to use, accessible to all learners, in accordance with copyright restrictions, and free of errors and bias. The materials result in quality learning when they are interesting and attractive, varied to support different learning styles, and used in meaningful work. The best distance learning courses use complete and up-to-date materials to increase the information literacy of students, while allowing opportunities for creative expression and mastery of concepts.

Student Support Resources

The focus of distance education is the students, whose work is made better when they receive well-designed instruction in a well-planned program. For students to maximize the time and effort they spend on their learning, they must minimize the time and effort they spend on solving nonacademic problems and seeking answers. Many questions are answered in comprehensive orientation opportunities that cover “the what” and “the how” of distance learning, the processes of the institution, and the requirements of the program. Orientation is accomplished with synchronous online or face-to-face sessions and with asynchronous print or web-based guides. Some students need hands-on technical training using the tools employed in courses and in using general learning tools such as libraries and information archives. Information literacy training should include guidance in the legal and ethical uses of electronic information. As students begin the work of learning, they need continual access to instructors, libraries and other student resources. They also need a streamlined technical support system accessible through several channels, such as toll-free phone, fax, email, web, and help desk.

As an example, the Southern Regional Electronic Campus (SREB), a distance learning clearinghouse for higher education institutions, publishes a guide called Principles of Good Practice (2000). Institutions following the principles assure students of the quality of the courses listed and endorsed by the SREB. The principles require an online course or program to provide students with “clear, complete and timely information” on requirements, interaction, prerequisite skills, equipment requirements, support services, financial resources, and costs. Students must have adequate access to resources appropriate to support their learning. The institution must assess the student’s ability to succeed in online learning.

Technical Resources

Even given the best plan, program, instructors, materials and students, distance learning does not occur without the technology for delivery. Technology selection decisions involve all stakeholders. A technology plan guides decision-makers in considering student outcomes, program goals, and technical feasibility. Technology selection must consider tools used by professionals, the skills and budget of students, and the institution’s ability to provide support. The technology and infrastructure contribute to quality learning when they are reliable, secure and fully supported. Support extends to all users of the technology for all facets of the learning process. Users require assistance with hardware and software uses. Students require assistance with access of electronic resources. Instructors require assistance with lesson development and delivery, including editing, graphic design, research, and communication with students.

The eight education accrediting commissions acted together in 2000 to draft the Guidelines for the Evaluation of Electronically Offered Degree and Certification Programs (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions). In the area of technical resources, the guidelines specify that institutions must “strive to assure a consistent and coherent technical framework for students and faculty.” The technology must be selected based on appropriateness for students and curriculum, reasonable cost for students, maximum reliability, and a plan to keep the technology updated. In support of the technical framework, institutions must provide technical support for each hardware, software and delivery system required in a program. Support mechanisms recommended in the guidelines were a help desk with person-to-person contact and a well-designed FAQ.

Exemplary Case: University of Central Florida

In the days before electronic distance education, the University of Central Florida was called Florida Technological University. While the university’s focus has expanded, it has not lost touch with its technological roots. In 2000, UCF received the United States Distance Learning Association’s award for Excellence in Distance Learning Programming for Higher Education. The award and the success of the university’s distance education programs are a direct result of an institutional commitment of significant resources to distance education. Located in Orlando, Florida, the university serves a large geographic area in the state’s high-tech corridor. The university’s strategic plan embraces distance education as a way to facilitate the learning of a growing clientele. Beginning with senior administrators, UCF’s organizational structure supports its “Virtual Campus.” The Center for Distributed Learning and the Course Development and Web Services Department both fall under the auspices of two Vice-Provosts.

The university’s budget reflects the importance of distance learning programs in meeting institutional goals. The university funds the technical infrastructure, faculty development, learner support, research and development in distance learning, and impact evaluation. The technical infrastructure consists of wired and wireless network connections to every building, access to Internet2, dedicated servers for online courses, and always-on access to information and services for all students and staff. Faculty development services are especially noteworthy. All distance teaching faculty take a faculty development course, for which they receive a stipend or a laptop computer. Faculty members are given release time and stipends for course development and are assisted in all phases of course design and delivery by trained Tech Rangers. Course instructors are required to file an RFP for a planned distance learning course to ensure that it meets the needs of programs and students. A university evaluation unit collects data on courses and students for use in future planning.

To support learners, UCF enables students to apply for admission and register for courses online. Course schedules, technical guides, distance education orientation courses, financial aid information, library access, and textbook purchasing are all accomplished on the Web. Technical support is always available by phone or Web, and a group of CyberKnights acts as student computer consultants (so named for the university’s mascot, the knight). A CD-ROM contains Internet software, a browser test, tutorials, and automatic configuration for network dial-up access. The university’s research and development projects investigate technical solutions for distance education and they study the effectiveness of various approaches to teaching distance courses.

Impact evaluation at UCF concentrates on student and faculty issues related to successful distance education. Student issues include success rates, withdrawal rates, learning styles, attitudes and demographics. Faculty issues include instructional tools, data warehousing, action research, and program accreditation. For more details, see UCF’s Virtual Campus website at http://distrib.ucf.edu.

The Practices Phase of the RPR Cycle

With the right resources in place, the stage is set for dramatic distance learning performance. At this point the spotlight shifts from the institution to the instructor. Quality distance teaching begins with the careful design of courses, materials and learning activities. Next, the instructional practices employed during instruction will aim at developing independent learners with the ability to transfer their learning to novel situations. Throughout the course, effective communication and community building are essential foundations for all events. This section details critical success practices in course design, instruction and communication.

Course Design Practices

Course design is a series of decisions regarding objectives and the most effective methods of ensuring that students accomplish the objectives. Distance course design requires the methods to be effective in a technology- mediated environment. The requirements of the curriculum and the needs of the students lead the technological decisions in a well-designed course. The skills and knowledge included in the most effective courses are relevant to students, either in their current lives or in their future roles. The skills and knowledge also represent the most desirable learning in the current state of the field of study. The information presented is credible, respectable, balanced and accurate, offered in rigorous and appropriate depth. The instructor is responsible for structuring the information in an organized way and presenting it in a context that is motivating to students.

Regardless of the content, students learn best when they are comfortable, have some control over their learning, and are sufficiently challenged. A balance of comfort, control and challenge can be difficult for distant instructors to achieve, and depends on psychosocial rather than academic strategies. Instructors contribute to the comfort of students by providing fast accurate answers to questions. Many instructors strive for a 24-hour turnaround time in sending students feedback on assignments, and they answer questions from students immediately. Students are comfortable with a familiar visual design in course materials. Written and electronic material should be consistent with few distractions, divided into short chunks. Students are more confident in the importance of their work when course criteria are stated clearly and are viewed as realistic. To give students a sense of control, instructors offer choices of activities and topics or they allow students to negotiate options. Control in distance learning often involves flexibility in scheduling activities and deadlines, although students need structure and prompting to keep up a reasonable pace of work. Students are challenged when there are high expectations for them to succeed at new tasks that they view as beneficial to them. An important aspect of student comfort and challenge is complete understanding of student evaluation techniques, which will be discussed in more detail in a later section.

Drawing from a business model of education in which students are consumers of services, many instructors and institutions have adopted quality educational service practices such as Total Quality Management. Quality service centers on providing learners with excellent support integrated into the course and systems for communication within the course (Vaughan, 2000). The focus is on the needs of learners and the learning process, rather than content. The quality service approach emphasizes the course structure and interactions in order to supply flexible scaffolding to learners as needed.

Communication Practices

Because learning is an interactive activity and constructed socially, a key to success lies in communication between students and others. A quality benchmark is to involve students in communication during 50% of the time they spend on the course. Frequent and active communication with the instructor, fellow students, or experts in the subject is essential in making students feel that they are part of the community of learners. Connection is vastly more motivating than isolation. Students need to know that others care about them and that they are contributing to an educational endeavor larger than themselves. Instructors should strive to know students on a personal level, and maintain a conversational tone in all communications during the course.

Interaction in a distance learning course is most effective when it occurs through a variety of media, when it occurs with a variety of sources, and when it is integrated into the overall course design. The course should offer students opportunities to interact through more than one media channel, and the student should become proficient at choosing the most appropriate channel for specific needs. Media channels for course interaction include email, chat, discussion forum, listserv, phone, audio-video conference, fax and face-to face meetings. Most institutions offer a range of media services and many are now available on the web for free. Students should be encouraged to interact with sources including classmates, professionals, experts, and nonhuman sources of information such as databases, print material and audio/video media. Students access such media remotely online and locally in their communities. Very effective learning in an online course may occur offline, in labs, businesses, and other settings. Interactions are most effective when experienced within the context of other course activities.

Communication in a course has the greatest value for students when it authentically approaches the kinds of communication students will experience beyond the course. Students should work in cooperative teams to solve realistic problems. The instructor’s role is to set up situations that approximate the professional world and require high levels of interdependence for success. The instructor must also model and require respect for student diversity and various learning styles.

Instructional Practices

Successful distance educators understand that motivation is among the most important factors in promoting student learning. Distance learners function very independently and are generally intrinsically motivated, but they often require extrinsic motivation to keep up their pace in a course. Instructors provide extrinsic motivation through course structure, communication and activities. At the outset, instructors must clearly state the benefits of learning the course content to the student. The course activities should foster both knowledge construction and content understanding through active learning. To succeed in the course and later endeavors, students in the distance education environment need education in the subject blended with information literacy and applied technical skills. The education in the subject should focus on higher-level cognitive skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The information literacy skills should include information retrieval, evaluating resources and communicating a viewpoint. The technical skills relate to the hardware, software and online applications used in the field of study.

The Results Phase of the RPR Cycle

The only way to know whether a distance education program has achieved quality is to compare the program results to established quality benchmarks. Measures of quality are tied to institutional goals, and account for the specific context of the program. To maintain success, a distance education program evaluation must account for institutional and instructional factors as well as student factors. Evaluation of course and program results is a continual process that involves all stakeholders and requires a wide range of tools. This section presents evaluation strategies used for ensuring quality distance education programs. The strategies evaluate success through assessment of student learning, program review, and program accreditation.

Assessing Learning

When experiencing quality learning, students shift roles from audience to actors as they acquire skills and display their abilities. The display of student abilities is the most important result of distance education. In the course of developing their abilities, successful students manage their learning by engaging in frequent self-assessment. Because self-assessment does not come naturally to all students, it is helpful when instructors guide and encourage students to assess themselves. Instruments such as rubrics, checklists, and journals are effective tools for helping students become independent and responsible learners. Such assessments provide information to students about their strengths and about the gaps in their knowledge.

Students receive the greatest long-term benefit when they have extensive opportunities during a course to develop their skills in a realistic context, and assessment of skills should occur within that context. As professionals or lifelong learners, students need experience using peer review as a way of assessing their competencies. During the distance learning course, students may be grouped with others in the class or they may be directed to practicing professionals for feedback on their work. A peer review process known as 360-Degree Feedback calls for reflection on student self-perception along with anonymous feedback from superiors, subordinates and peers (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Another approach that incorporates a professional context is the use of portfolios of student work. Construction of a portfolio is an engaging endeavor that requires the habits of mind in the field of study. Portfolios are commonly developed using the framework of the field of study, but they allow a degree of freedom and flexibility as students showcase the range of their accomplishments.

Using varied assessment methods is a key to student assessment that gives an accurate picture of student abilities. In addition to authentic assessments that show student application of knowledge, tests may be needed to show student acquisition of knowledge. Constructing valid and reliable tests for distance education is no different from a traditional environment. The special challenge of giving tests and accepting other work at a distance is maintaining academic integrity. In a student-centered course where assignments are open-ended and require critical thinking, little cheating occurs (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). Instructors use multiple sources including the record of student dialogue throughout the course when evaluating assignments. Tests in a distance course may be delivered electronically via the Web or computer disk, or at a proctored site. Online tests can be made available during a specific time frame, during which all students take the test simultaneously, or may be monitored using videoconferencing cameras (Kearsley, 2000).

Program Review

Evaluation of course effectiveness by students is most useful when it is an ongoing feature of the course. At intervals during the course, students should be asked to explain their satisfaction with their experience, including likes and dislikes. When the course climate is open and supportive, students generally offer honest and constructive feedback that can be used toward continuous improvement of the course (Palloff & Pratt, 1999).

Participation of students, instructors and the institution is needed to determine the quality of the distance education program. Students should have the opportunity to offer feedback regarding their access to learning activities, course delivery, and technical support. Scope and sequence of courses are important factors for students, too. Student feedback is collected using printed or electronic surveys, narrative messages, and interviews. Program faculty should be asked about their experiences with course access, delivery and support. More importantly, faculty members need to express whether they have adequate access to training and development resources.

The intended program outcomes must undergo review at the institutional level to ensure their clarity and their appropriateness to students who move into work or higher learning roles. Learning outcomes for distance education programs should be clear to instructors and students. Achievement of outcomes in specific courses should be observable and measurable against a known scale or set of criteria. The methods and materials used in attaining program outcomes must also be included in the review. Comprehensive program review considers the quality of the course materials, instructional design of courses, and instruction and technical support provided to students. Qualitative assessments of program components, accounting for the learning context, can reveal patterns of student performance in relation to different course features. Quantitative data on student achievement and satisfaction are important parameters that contribute to future program success. Students and faculty need alternatives if they discover that a distance learning course is not appropriate for a student. Proper placement of students contributes to program success, reflecting positively on the institution.

Accreditation

Accreditation gives an institution a seal of quality because educational standards have been met. A student who expects a distance education course to transfer to another school must be sure that a regionally accredited institution offers the course. Institutions with distance education programs approach accreditation in several ways. The accreditation process varies according to whether a distance education program is offered by a high school, a traditional institute of higher education, or dedicated distance education provider.

Traditional institutions such as high schools, colleges and universities offer distance education programs to meet the needs of students and to accomplish institutional goals. Regional accrediting commissions generally accredit programs at these institutions. To maintain accreditation currently, distance education programs must meet the same criteria as on-campus programs. Most public online high schools are not currently accredited as independent institutions because they offer courses a la carte to students attending a local accredited school. The local school districts and the online high school reach agreement about course standards and funding. Examples are: Florida Online High School (http://fhs.com), Kentucky Virtual High School (http://www.kvhs.org), and the Concord Consortium Virtual High School (http://vhs.concord.org). Private online high schools seek accreditation through regional independent school accrediting agencies. A private online high school, Class.com is accredited through the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Commission on International Transregional Accreditation accredits Apex Learning.

The eight bodies that accredit colleges and universities in the US have released a draft of Guidelines for the Evaluation of Electronically Offered Degree and Certification Programs. The guidelines address institutional activity in the areas of institutional context and commitment, curriculum and instruction, faculty support, student support, and evaluation and assessment. The regional commissions will implement the guidelines in a manner compatible with their policies and procedures (Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, 2000).

An accrediting group specifically focused on distance education is the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). Since the 1950s, the DETC has accredited correspondence schools and nontraditional online programs. DETC accreditation means that quality standards have been met, and that students may be eligible for federal financial aid. DETC accreditation is not a guarantee that credit will be granted in a degree program (DETC, 2000). New organizations are appearing that claim to accredit online programs, however, many of them are not recognized by the US Secretary of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (Johnstone, 2001).

The Web-Based Education Commission has called for enhancement of the accreditation process in which institutions and programs participate voluntarily. The Commission’s goal is to provide more clarity for students regarding online options. The Commission recommends common standards and requirements for online programs comparable to standards for on-campus programs (2000). Disreputable accrediting bodies exist, enforcing virtually no educational standards. The public needs information to help them distinguish among the accrediting bodies and the quality control they provide.

Exemplary Case: Virtual High School

Virtual High School (VHS), operated by the Concord Consortium, MA, began offering online courses to high school students in 1996. Initially funded by a US Department of Education grant, VHS is a consortium of high schools that offer web-based courses for students in participating schools. This not-for-profit organization does not provide a comprehensive accredited high school diploma, but provides courses taught by certified teachers as part of a student’s local public or private high school education. As of the 2000-2001 school year, VHS serves 4,000 students taking 150 courses in 30 states. The core program goal of VHS is to expand the offerings available to high school students through a wide range of quality, innovative online courses. The process used to evaluate the results of the program stems directly from the core goal.

During its four-year history, VHS has conducted reviews of its programs with the help of research firm SRI International. Program reviews provided information about program results that was critical in improving the program’s resources and practices. Evaluations have judged the qualifications of VHS teachers, the usability of the infrastructure, and student/teacher satisfaction. The results of instructor reviews led to the implementation of a graduate level professional development course in online pedagogy for teachers. A panel of experts reviewed the quality of courses in the areas of content, pedagogy, design, and assessment. A Course Evaluation Board sets standards for course design and delivery.

The most recent review targeted the advantages of VHS relative to classroom courses. Quantitative and qualitative factors were included in a case study of four VHS courses also offered face-to-face. Comparison of factors such as dropout rate, content, goals, assignments, use of technology tools, interest in the course, assessment of course quality, and student scores revealed no significant differences. These findings are supported by the results of an analysis of 16 programs comparing face-to-face with distance learning at the K-12 level (Cavanaugh, 1999). However, the VHS case study indicated that differences exist in student interaction and community building. The students and teachers in the online courses reported less satisfaction in these areas than did participants in classroom courses. The program is addressing the need for increased interaction and sense of community through teacher training and improved technology infrastructure. For details on the Virtual High School evaluation process, see http://vhs.concord.org.

CONCLUSION

With the worldwide number of Internet users expected to reach 600 million by 2002 (Computer Industry Almanac, 2000), and the increasingly frequent need for employees to update their knowledge and skills to adapt to the rapidly changing workplace, interest in distance education will continue to grow. In response, distance education offerings will grow, and competition for students will grow. Students online have access to any online course, and the tools of the Web allow students to quickly compare courses. A strength of distance education is its potential to focus the learning process on the student. Courses and programs that emphasize their focus on the student’s strengths and needs will succeed in attracting students. In order to build their reputations and keep students, courses and programs must reach quality goals.

High-quality distance education achievement is the outcome of the dedication of all constituents in the continual quest for the best possible resources, practices and results. With increased need for new career skills and improvement in delivery technology, distance education students will demand evidence of quality and authenticity in distance courses. It is imperative that distance education providers implement and review quality benchmarks regarding Resources-Practices-Results in response to the needs of students, employers and the community. Educational institutions must take the lead in developing and maintaining standards, and they must clearly communicate those standards to the public. When students benefit from an education program that meets their needs, the community benefits as well.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Many thanks to my colleagues at the University of North Florida for sharing their expertise, ideas, and support with me during the development of this chapter, especially Zella Boulware, Terry Cavanaugh, David Jaffe, and Phil Riner.

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