A former college professor shares his research on good Web-based courses and bad ones , and the differences between them.
Lee Alley knows a good online course when he sees one , and he's seen very few worthy examples. "Quality learning outcomes are entirely different from quality design and quality instruction," says the former college professor and university chief information officer.
Alley, who is president of WorldClass Strategies, an education consulting firm in suburban Washington, D.C., began researching what makes a good online course in 1999. He and his colleagues surveyed approximately 110 faculty members from colleges and universities around the country who were using innovative online teaching techniques.
They also evaluated about 100 online courses, looking at everything from the design of the syllabus to the way discussion boards and chat rooms were used. "In some cases, we had someone lurking in the chat room with permission. It's amazing what you can learn from that," says Alley, who was in charge of distance learning and instructional technology for the University of Wisconsin system before becoming a consultant.
Managing editor Kim Kiser talked to Alley as he was about to release his findings.
OLM: What prompted you to study the quality of online courses?
LEE ALLEY: About a year an a half ago, I began to recognize, and I think a lot of other folks did too, that it was getting easier and easier to fling a bunch of files from your hard drive to a Web site and call it an online course. We began to suspect that some patterns of lack of quality would develop , retention problems, high drop-out rates. Unfortunately, we were right.
OLM: What surprised you the most during your research?
LEE ALLEY: We found the great majority of courses online are not very high quality pedagogically.
OLM: Why is that?
LEE ALLEY: There is an awful lot of sweat equity in graphic design, in getting nifty images and a cool-looking Web site. It's amazing how much time people are spending on graphic appearance.
What higher ed has done, even more than corporate training, is convert faculty to Webmasters, and they're not very good at it. Early adopters tend to be attracted by the technology. They enjoy learning to use the technology and successfully creating a Web site. But they haven't yet mastered the soft science, the pedagogical design.
OLM: So what can course designers do to incorporate good pedagogical design?
LEE ALLEY: In online learning, we have to engage this notion of self-directed learning; that is, transferring responsibility for learning to the students. That's real hard for some folks to do. Stand-up instructors feel if we teach real hard, students will learn. But if people are going to be self-directed learners, we have to tell them how they're doing and whether they're on track, off track or behind schedule. It needs to be done much more thoroughly and with much more finesse than we do in a classroom.
Another thing that's unique to online courses is the interaction between students. It's one of the most powerful things online courses allow us to do better and more prolifically than any other instructional modality. And it's amazing how little that's leveraged.
There are a wealth of things we could be doing. One of the best ways to learn a subject is to teach it. It's very effective to engage students as cooperating instructors , they can critique each other's work, contribute advice. Most of us who have been stand-up instructors are not accustomed to engaging the student as a partner in the instructional process.
Also, we have to make sure the instructional design choices match the learning style of the students. If a corporation has many 20-something road warriors who dial in from hotel rooms and are extremely energetic and intelligent, it requires different instructional design than if you have a more mature set of executives.
OLM: What kind of response have you been getting from the study?
LEE ALLEY: We've been very pleased with and surprised by the interest. About a year ago, just putting courses on the Web and saying, "We're doing it" stopped being a bragging right. Now, the issue is not how many but how good these courses are. Colleges are quite concerned. Most administrators in higher ed have no background in this area. They realize they don't know how to assess quality until it's too late.
OLM: So what can college administrators or training managers do to make sure they're offering good online courses?
LEE ALLEY: It's very important to pilot these courses. What's amazing is that hardly any of the course developers we asked said they do it. Also, it's very important to get some sense of the success of the people who actually took the course. That's the ultimate test.
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