Course development issues in online education.
Institutions seeking to attract students to online programs should closely monitor the course development process to ensure quality standards are being met. This case study delves into this process using a systems approach to transactional distance education. A survey of faculty, instructional support personnel, and administrators at a university in the infancy of its online program delivery reveals an interesting difference of opinion among those involved in the course development process.
Higher education is faced with increasing demands from students and corporations to provide online-delivered degrees and programs. Along with creating anywhere-anytime access for these students, colleges and universities must recognize and concentrate on a variety of demands that come with providing online education (Pendergast & Kapitzke, 2003; Schenk, Frank, & Schenk, 2003).
Students in higher education are demanding academic programs that are convenient and accessible, and institutions, not wanting to be left behind in the marketplace, find themselves embracing online technologies because it is "the new thing." And in their efforts to convert campus-based programs, may overlook quality in the course development phase. Research to date has identified several critical issues that institutions should resolve before implementing a distance education program, including the identification of effective teaching methods and pedagogy, ensuring adequate access, communicating course and technology expectations, and providing the necessary infrastructure support to students and faculty (Buchanan, 2003; Kirby, 1999; Mauldin, 2001). In trying to meet these demands, institutions should strive to develop clear, articulated objectives and continually assess the effectiveness of their efforts, because efforts that are not grounded in sound educational practice or learning effectiveness will not produce a quality product (Knapp et al., 2001). Drawn from a study researching quality inputs of distance education programs (institutional support, course development, the teaching/learning process, course structure, student support, faculty support and evaluation and assessment), this article focuses specifically on the importance of the course development process.
Institutions should approach online course development with the same academic standards that they use for their on-campus courses (Inglis, Ling, & Joosten, 2002); in fact, courses should retain the same curriculum standards and assessments as their campus counterparts. A review of the literature supports several critical guidelines for quality in online course development, specifically:
* Online course content should be subject to the normal process of collegial decision-making (National Education Association, 2006);
* Course development should include learning outcomes that are appropriate to the technology (Hensrud, 2001);
* Instructional materials need to be reviewed periodically to ensure that they continue to meet program standards (Hensrud, 2001);
* Courses should be designed to allow students to engage themselves in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as part of the course and program requirements (Hensrud, 2001);
* The design of the course and the software used should include features that help support and define boundaries for online interaction (Buchanan, 2003; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff, 2001);
* Features of the course and its platform should support and define the boundaries for online interaction (Buchanan, 2003; Harasim et al., 2001).
To summarize, characteristics identified by students and faculty as having the greatest impact on the perceived effectiveness of the program included: student motivation, faculty dedication to courses/teaching/students, relevance of content to career, ease of access to technical support, and ongoing evaluations of the program and student academic progress. These critical issues which need to be resolved prior to any implementation of distance education programs include the identification of effective teaching methods and pedagogy, ensuring access, communicating expectations, and level of support (Buchanan, 2003; Kirby, 1999; Mauldin, 2001).
Case Study of a Course Development Process
The basis of this article is drawn from a quantitative case study that was conducted at a large, comprehensive university still in the infancy of its online program. Moore's (1987) theories of transactional distance education are used as a theoretical framework, and the study applies a systems analysis to this specific online program (Moore & Kearsley, 2004). At the time the survey was implemented, the institution was in the early stages of online program development and was interested in establishing a baseline assessment. Administration, faculty, and the instructional support personnel involved in the project sought to benchmark their progress in adopting the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) quality guidelines. The study covered seven areas considered important to quality online program implementation and asked the overarching question: To what extent does this Internet-delivered education program meet the standards for quality distance education, specifically in the areas of institutional support, course development, the teaching/learning process, course structure, student support, faculty support, and evaluation and assessment (Aceves, 2006). While the results of the study provided the institution with evidence of their online program's strengths and weaknesses, the author found the results of the course development processes to be worthy of further exploration and discussion.
Using Hensrud's (2001) questionnaire for evaluating quality online distance education programs, the perceptions of 130 participants who were directly involved in the development and implementation of the online program were surveyed. A total of 87 participants responded (60 faculty, 3 administrators, and 24 instructional and technology support staff), for a response rate of 67%. The instrument contained a total of 27 questions, with four questions focused specifically on course development. Resulting means, standard deviations, frequencies, and percentiles of the groups surveyed (faculty, staff, administrators) were compared, contrasted, and aggregated to provide an overall picture of perceived quality of the course development process.
A descriptive, quantitative case study design allowed for holistic and conceptual examination of the online education environment. The complete survey instrument contained 27 questions, and was created using a 5-point Likert scale. The results discussed here relate to the survey questions specifically on the course development process:
1. Course Development Question 1: Guidelines regarding minimum standards are used for course development, design, and delivery.
2. Course Development Question 2: Learning outcomes determine the technology being used to deliver course content.
3. Course Development Question 3: Instructional materials are reviewed periodically to ensure they meet program standards.
4. Course Development Question 4: Courses are designed to require students to engage themselves in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as part of their course and program requirements.
Overall, the results indicated a disparity in responses between faculty, staff, and administrators (for the purposes of this article, the means of the staff and faculty were the most significant to discuss). For example, 31.7% of faculty disagreed (mean of 2.88) and 30.4% of support staff (mean of 3.56) agreed that the standards for quality were being met in the course development process. Significantly high numbers of faculty respondents selected "don't know" or "neither agreed nor disagreed" to statements pertaining to course development. In examining these differences question-by-question, the findings indicated:
1. Question 1: Guidelines regarding minimum standards are used for course development, design, and delivery. Mean score of the 87 participants was 3.07 (on a 5-point scale). 30% of faculty disagreed with the statement, while 30% of staff agreed and 21% of respondents indicated they "didn't know."
2. Question 2: Learning outcomes determine the technology being used to deliver course content. Mean score of the 87 participants was 3.03, and in this instance, faculty and staff were in agreement, on both sides of the fence (41% of faculty and staff disagreed, 38% of faculty and staff agreed) and 21% indicated they "didn't know."
3. Question 3: Instructional materials are reviewed periodically to ensure they meet program standards. Mean score of the 87 participants was 3.36; 31% of faculty and staff disagree and 44% of faculty and staff agree on this item. 30% of respondents indicated they "didn't know."
4. Question 4: Courses are designed to require students to engage themselves in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as part of their course and program requirements. Mean score of the 87 participants was 3.86; in this instance, faculty and staff were in agreement, with 38% of faculty agreeing and 39% of staff agreeing. 21% of respondents indicated they "didn't know."
The University's online program was clearly operating as discrete components, as evidenced by the differing perceptions of the faculty and staff who work with the program. The distinct differences in how faculty and staff perceive these items are important to investigate, as the bimodal distribution highlights the strong heterogeneity between and among the groups of faculty and staff.
Communication gaps were occurring among the individuals most committed to providing quality courses and key information about available services, support, and quality measures were not well communicated within the institution. Further investigation revealed that the "early adopters" (both faculty and staff) had worked to create pedagogically-sound online courses, but this information was not communicated to new faculty who were less familiar with the technology and online pedagogy. As Moore and Kearsley (1996) state, "as organizations become more understanding of the benefits of adopting a total systems approach to distance education, there will be an impact on teachers, learners, administrators, and policy makers" (p. 18). In order to do this, the University must adopt a holistic systems approach to integrating processes and communication. As decision makers consider evaluating their online programs, communication needs to occur between all stakeholders so that quality components (like course development) can be interwoven into a future-focused program. In creating a holistic, well-integrated program, significant changes in the quality of the course development process will "occur in the way education is conceptualized, funded, designed, and delivered. Not the least of these will be opening of access and improvement in quality" (p. 18).
If institutional planning for online education focuses on budget and personnel, not on critical pedagogical issues (Berge & Smith, 2000; Bothel, Spring, 2001), how are institutions to overcome the type of discrepancies we've seen in this case study? Porto and Aje (2004), assert that because faculty members play an integral role (in online course development, delivery, overall course quality, and the educational experience), institutions need to provide additional support to this group. Training should be provided to course authors that provides quality expectations and encourages self-reflection about the faculty member's own skills, work style, time, and suitability to develop an online class. Compensation and reward systems should be revised to respond appropriately to the needs of faculty involved in course development and encourage those who are not naturally driven to this task.
University and program administration should encourage the entire institution to adopt active strategies to ensure that all faculty are offered opportunities to learn and engage in online-delivered education. Colleges and departments should assess faculty needs, establish technology training, and actively engage faculty in the process of creating standards and goals for online course development. This approach would create learning situations that integrate organizational goals, encourage learning situations, collegial discussions and promote progressive learning (Padgett & Conceicao-Runlee, 2000).
For institutions that wish to improve the quality of online degrees and programs, it is important to: a) develop and distribute program information to faculty and staff to increase knowledge and understanding of the program, b) provide increased resources for faculty to continue developing quality online education, with opportunity and training on fully integrating pedagogy, evaluation, and assessment processes into their courses, and c) further bolster the availability and visibility of student support services. Faculty, as well as students, should be aware of the services provided throughout the institution.
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Robert I. Aceves, St. Cloud State University, MN
Aceves, Ed.D., is Assistant Professor of Aviation in the College of Science and Engineering.