Quality Online Education

COVID-19 together with the proliferation of 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) has not only forced educational institutions at all level to scurry for the utilisation of online learning as an alternative to face-to-face classes.  The common risk made by many institutions making the shift is that the teaching and learning process applied for online learning is a replica of that applied in face-to-face sessions.  The question then is “which is better, online or face-to-face learning?”.  To address this question it is important to acknowledge that there are significant difference between the two learning media used which are influenced, amongst others, by the technology used, the learning styles of learners and the teacher/lecturers teaching style.

Research conducted by Spiros Protopsaltis (Director of the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University) and Sandy Baum (Professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College) concluded “Faculty, academic leaders, the public and employers continue to perceive online degrees less favourably than traditional degrees.”  The report said its review of the evidence demonstrated that:

  • Online education is the fastest-growing segment of higher education and its growth is overrepresented in the for-profit sector (private institutions),
  • Students in online education, particularly underprepared and disadvantaged students, underperform and on average experience poor outcomes, and
  • Regular and substantive student-instructor interactivity is a key determinant of quality in online education, leading to improved student satisfaction, learning and outcomes.

The researchers concluded that a hybrid models of online learning avoid most of the pitfalls of fully online ones, at least when they feature strong in-person components and when online material and technology are used mostly as a supplement – blended learning methods.

The quality of online learning systems education institutions apply depends on the design and delivery of the teaching and learning process to achieve the desired outcomes.  The following table represent the factors the impacts on the quality of online education systems and infrastructure:

High quality online educationPoor quality online education
Open: learning resources are accessible and available, including beyond that prescribed as well as available for use after the courseObstructed: learning resources are controlled and restricted behind a curtain (limits the learning experience to the prescribed material)
Navigable: well-planned interfaces allow learners to find what they need (design and structure of the platform/technology used)Nonsense: chaotic interfaces prevent learners from finding what they need (time wasting in navigating the platform)
Learning: sites are designed to develop knowledge, skills, attributes, and identity (develop competence rather than transferring knowledge content)Lazy: sites are only about completion and do not promote positive change (learning process is content, and solution driven and limits the development of learners)
Interactive: dialogue is supported amongst and between teachers and learners (engagement and shifting to student-centred learning is essential)Isolating: students feel alone, and often lonely, throughout the experience (same rules as face-to-face sessions are used as a criteria of success)
Networked: curriculum and activities foster broad-reaching connections (shifting from content and solution driven to principles-based learning)Narrow: curriculum and activities are analogous to a locked filing cabinet (learning is limited to the prescribed material)
Engaging: teachers invite, model, and sustain enthusiastic presence for learning (learning is driven by learners)Empty: teachers abandon the site and the overall experience is unfulfilling

The following evaluation tool can be used to assess existing online education course sites and set priorities for development and improvement.

High qualityCausePoor quality
Open – learning resources are accessible and availableThere is not enough access to learning resources.Obstructed – resources are controlled and temporary
Navigable – interfaces make it easy to find thingsThe interface could be improved for search and finding.Nonsense – interfaces do not make sense
Learning – develops skills, knowledge, and attributesThe site feels mostly about completion – content and exercise driven.Lazy – site does not promote pos. development
Interactive – promotes teacher and student dialogueMostly experienced alone, without others present.Isolating – experience is alone (sometimes lonely)
Networked – fosters broad-reaching connectionExtends minimally beyond course site and curriculum.Narrow – feels like a locked filing cabinet
Engaging – teachers enthusiastically presentTeachers/lecturers do not seem to care about the course or learners.Empty – Overall experience is unfulfilling

Learners at tertiary institutions that they require and have the following expectations from a quality online learning experience:

Online evaluation frameworkLearners’ expectations
Open and NetworkThe curricular materials must be up-to-date and prepare them to be relevant in their chosen careers.  Material and resources must be actively used throughout the course, in addition, links must be made to current research, updates on material in the respective field.
NavigableThe structural interface and organisation of the course should be so straight-forward and intuitive that learners do not have to dedicate any mind-space to navigation or to finding what they are looking for.
Learning and NetworkAssessment instruments used to grade learners must be fair, relevant, reasonable, and clearly described. Assessments should be designed such that learners are actively engaged in doing similar work to what they will be doing in-industry upon graduation. Effective feedback must be regular, clear, and specific, which can be iteratively applied to improving their performance.
Interactive and EngagingOnline learning should be motivational, exciting, and enjoyable driven by the enthusiasm of the teacher. The learning resources must be chosen with care and assessment is active and involves doing.

In summary, a high-quality online education system must address the following:

  • The curricular materials and resources must be up-to-date and relevant supported by links to new developments in the specific fields.
  • The structural interface and organisation of all courses and resources should straight-forward and not consume learning time and energy.
  • It is critical that assessments are creative, innovative, and practical in terms of preparing graduates for the world of work as well as clearly define the criteria for grading must be fair, relevant, and reasonable.
  • All forms of education should be motivating, exciting and enjoyable – they use online interactivity, visualisation and practice tools to foster learning and to provide feedback and specific instruction along the way.

In conclusion, high quality online education must apply strategic design and delivery aligned to the ONLINE framework discussed above.

Create material and resources which are updated and relevant with links from and to key industry research and websites.Make the platform user friendly and easy to navigate by developing, sharing, and follow a consistent glossary of educational and technical terms.Identify the key digital tools that graduates are likely to use in the workplace and career and include them in the course.
Create a learning environment that encourages interactive and engagement with dedicated discussion forums.Apply assessments instruments which are fit-for purposes and provide clear guideline of assessment tools, grading criteria and feedback loops.Create a learning environment that is free of intimidation and fear that promotes open and transparent engagement.

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