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Should We Standardize Online Education?

snugent
Lamplighter II
5 22 2,375

This past week this article, Standardization in Online Education, came by my social media feed. It was particularly interesting to me because we are knee deep in discussing the very issues that are discussed in this article. I have very mixed feelings about standardization of online education. I want course sites to adhere to accessibility and usability standards because this makes the design of the course site more inclusive to all students. However, on the other hand I don't want instructors shoehorned into teaching with a course site that is totally locked down by a Blueprint master course. Some of the best teaching and learning often happens outside of the Canvas using other software that wasn't specifically designed for teaching and learning. We are also discussing how to use more open educational resources in place of textbooks and it seems to me that these two subjects are intertwined in our discussions. Not long after reading the previous article this blog post, This is not the online learning you (or we) are looking for by Alan Levine showed up in my social media feed. Wow what a juxtaposition from the first article! This brings up many questions in my mind. I feel like these are tough questions to answer for my self and my institution so I'm curious to see what other people think about this issue.

  • How do we "standardize" online learning while providing flexibility needed for teaching and learning? 
  • What professional development really works and has successful outcomes? 
  • How do we build a culture of open pedagogy using open educational resources? 

 

22 Comments
kona
Community Coach
Community Coach

Wow... way to bring up some great, but difficult topics! I'm honestly not sure, but I'm going to review these articles when I get a chance and will post my thoughts. Looking forward to some good discussion on this!

laurakgibbs
Surveyor

I read through the follow-up piece at Inside Higher Ed which was very useful too:

Experts weigh in on standardization as accreditor dings Arizona community college 

I have LOTS to say about this, but for now, I will just limit myself to this: it WILL NOT WORK to create a standardization regime and quality regime that applies to online courses only. We need to be talking about pedagogy broadly, across all courses.

Then, AFTER we have decided what quality is in terms that apply across the board, we can start talking about how to adapt that general strategy to modes of delivery (f2f, online, hybrid), to different class sizes (I personally think is the most important differentiator), to different student populations (also very important), etc.

To subject online courses to specific scrutiny without starting first with a look at all classes is just wrong.

I refuse to have my classes put under a microscope if people teaching face to face are getting a free pass.

kmeeusen
Community Coach
Community Coach

Hi laurakgibbs

I could not agree more! Many of us have long argued that standards for online courses, should also be applied to all other delivery models including F2F. We have also talked about the need for pedagogically-sound standards. 

As for draconian, locked-down, our-way-or-the-highway templates/blueprints, I find myself on the side of flexibility. Even though I have seen some truly horrid course design examples out there. No time right now, but I will read the other references you have listed soon, and get back.

Kelley

snugent
Lamplighter II

laurakgibbs‌ I knew you would have visceral reaction to article. Smiley Wink I agree that standardization will solve nothing. It just seems this issue is incredibly difficult for institutions to get the all the moving parts working together on same desired outcome which is ultimately student success. I will look into the follow up article. Thanks for the link. 

laurakgibbs
Surveyor

Given that Instructure insists on the sameness principle pretty strongly (and I strongly disagree), I was struck by this remark from Deb Adair at QM:

If we mean that, from the perspective of an online course, standardization requires the very same look and feel for learners, then I am aware of no significant research that supports this.
laurakgibbs
Surveyor

Quick item this morning: instead of talking about standardizing anything, we should be having THIS discussion. I don't agree with everything Derek Bok says (it bothers me that he raises the spectre of grade inflation, as opposed to pointing out the limitations of grading itself #TTOG ), but still, he raises the critical issues, and there are NO easy fixes, especially at a big research school like where I work:

G+ post with article link: I am a proud member of this "TEACHING FACULTY" 

screenshot of post

myerdon01
Adventurer

Can't wait to read these articles because these are the exact same questions we are wrestling with at our institution. Should we use a template for courses so they all have the same look and feel and easier navigation for our students? I did talk one class, a general orientation class with many sections and taught by many different instructors, to pilot using a blueprint course this semester. So far all went well, but we want those classes to all be similar, and we did not lock anything down (but we did not tell the instructors that!), so they can be personalized by each teacher. We use a modified QM rubric for internal reviews of our online courses, but find that even that needs to be updated as we take more classes totally online. We would love to explore the use of OERs to save our students money, but the bookstore is a money maker, in theory, for the school. Looking forward to this discussion!

laurakgibbs
Surveyor

Hi  @myerdon01 ! There are some great comments by Deb Adair from QM in that follow-up piece at Inside Higher Ed.

In terms of the spectrum, I'm at the far (far far far FAR) end of preferring difference to sameness: my goal is not just for instructors to personalize courses as their own, but for the STUDENTS to make choices to create their own courses. That's why I love teaching online and being asynchronous: it really does give my students the time/space to make their own choices about the reading, the writing, all the assignments... and then we have a blog network where they connect and share and learn from each other. I've been documenting my blog network in detail this semester here at my Canvas blog:

https://community.canvaslms.com/people/laurakgibbs/blog/tags#/?tags=network2017 

I know not everyone will go to the far end of the "think different" spectrum, but I still like to provide testimony that it IS possible to succeed at the way-out-there end of the spectrum. The more choice I give to the students, the better the courses become, while my job is supporting their choices and giving them feedback. Which is why I love my job: I never know where the students will take me, and that makes it a good learning adventure for me.

one cat looks up, one cat looks down

(from the Growth Mindset Cats)

dwillmore
Learner II

I am not defending lock-down standardized courses, but I will advocate for some expectations that should be universal to courses at an institution.   Notice, I did not differentiate courses by modality.

In my non-faculty reality, I should be able to expect that courses:

  • Meet advertised objectives
  • Prepare me for future courses in a program if applicable
  • Lead to a respected diploma, paper, etc.
  • Have a syllabus that is followed
  • Have a grading system that is plain to understand
  • Be ADA compliant
  • Have great instructor presence

I have taken online and F2F classes that have failed most of those expectations.  

I am also for faculty training, but that means so many different things to different people that I don't know how to quantify and qualify training.

Standardize on an LMS system?   If the instructor properly structures the class, the technology will not get in the way.   Students of today must learn to work with a multitude of technical systems today to be marketable.   Gone are the days of knowing one company's system to be fluent in the world.   Many F2F classes now have assignments submitted online so I don't see how they can use this to refuse certification of programs.

laurakgibbs
Surveyor

Agreed,  @dwillmore ‌! That is a good list, and it sounds a lot like the direction that QM takes (my school is not a QM school, but I've used their free rubric that is available to all, which is all I really know myself about QM).  @myerdon01  will be able to tell us more about the QM approach. I'm not even sure if QM is for just online, or for all classes. Well anyway, as David points out, there is some kind of online component (or should be) to pretty much any kind of class these days!

In addition to instructor presence, I also vote for student presence also; see this new research paper that Canvas is circulating; so much good stuff here: Canvas by Instructure PDF link : INCREASED SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS THROUGH DIGITAL PEER LEARNING

 @jared ‌ is one of the authors:

social learning article screenshot


Canvas is serving K-12 and higher ed, of course, which is one of the things I really like about the

Canvas Community: it's a natural meeting place for people in both K-12 and higher ed, and also for making international connections. That's another great way to make diversity and difference into a learning opportunity. I get most of my new teaching ideas from K-12 teachers, and that's in large part because of the serious problem with higher ed teaching that Derek Bok is writing about in the article I linked to above that was in IHE today. We need more higher ed faculty to participate here at the Community, for example, but that is not likely to happen when teaching is so undervalued at so many schools.

akinsey
Explorer

I think I have a different concept of standardization. We are in the process of encouraging our instructors to break out of the course shell and to personalize their courses. The idea of standardization, for me, is that 1 - a student is having the same experience no matter the section of the course they are in, and 2 - students aren't lost in varying designs of courses. From my point of view, then, the idea is to provide a standard experience for students. Yes, be indivdiual and innovative and creative and personalized, but give the student an accessible and comprable experience, no matter the course or section.

That being said, to lock down online courses so that instructors do not have a way to try new things or experiment is to suffocate the learning environment. And that is not acceptable. 

myerdon01
Adventurer

I like the looking at things from different angles and sameness does not always work for everyone! I come from a background as a paraprofessional helping students K-12 with learning disabilities and had to advocate for them in the classroom and finding ways that worked for THEM. I am now at a small community college using Canvas (I'd say 90% or more of classes are using it in some way) and I have lately heard from students that "I don't know where to start, find things, know when things are due..." which has sparked the conversation that maybe sameness would benefit our students, at least in terms of navigation, basic course structure (using modules), grade book use, etc. I am seeing some of this argument with my own family right now. My husband and son are both taking classes in Canvas and both have different outlooks on it. My husband is a bit "old school" and thinks that there should be a preset course template and work should be laid out the same each week. He would thrive in a Canvas world that had a reading, discussion forum, and quiz each week and do NOT deviate from that! My son, on the other hand, has classes where students can choose a quiz or write a paper, answer homework questions or make a video, participate in a discussion or write a blog. He loves having the choice! I have several instructors that are exploring mastery paths, flipped classrooms (just bought a bunch of lecture capture devices for them!), and active learning environments. HOWEVER, we do have a lot of faculty stuck in the same old routines and methodology and it is so hard to get them to even consider anything new. Again, I can't wait to see what this conversation brings!

siouxgeonz
Community Member

I don't think standardization is the answer, but a simple reality is that many online experiences exclude learners who get lost trying to navigate them.   It is excruciatingly easy to create something that "everybody" knows how to use and not remember/realize that ... well, actually, they don't.   

kona
Community Coach
Community Coach

My thought is too much of anything is bad... except dark chocolate... but back to the topic at hand.

After reading through everything I think what we do at our College would meet the needed standards without compromising faculty's ability to customize their courses and make them their own.

What we do...

  • Mandatory Instructor training that is standardized. Because our Instructor training course is online we know that the information the faculty are getting is the same across the board.
  • Online Course Review Rubric. This is a rubric we use to assess all new online courses and any course built by a first time online teacher. It's similar to quality matters in that it focuses on the overall quality of the online course and setting up best practices for student-teacher interactions, but it isn't prescriptive in that you have to meet the goals in a certain way. This allows some flexibility for faculty to be creative. So yes, you need a welcome to the course, but how you do that is up to you. Yes, it needs to be clear how to get started in the course, but that's once again up to the Instructor as to how they want to structure/make this work.
  • Ongoing evaluation of online courses using the Online Course Review Rubric. We have a two year cycle where all of our online Instructors going through a peer review of their course(s) using the online course review rubric. This is done by a committee of faculty and Online Learning staff and involves a written report of the findings and a sit-down meeting where the committee talks with the Instructor.

As a side note, I've been a student in an online program where EVERYTHING in the courses was standardized. The format of the course, where things were located, pretty much the only difference between courses was that the actual content was different but everything else was the exact same. As a student it was nice to know exactly where to find things in all my courses, nice to know that the format of the course - one discussion each week, one "homework" assignment each week, etc... would be the same. But, I have to admit it felt slightly Institutionalized. As to it didn't feel like an authentic learning environment. I will say the more amazing teachers were still able to be amazing, but I wondered what they would have changed/done differently (and made the course even more amazing) if they would have been allowed to design and fit things to their teacher style and personality.

laurakgibbs
Surveyor

And it's not just online! Students are also often lost in the classroom, in the library, even in the textbook. We just don't see it (and often don't want to see it).

So, it's not about online templates and course navigation. It's way bigger than that! We need to start with the students, what they know (and don't), what they need (and don't). Navigating SCHOOL, both literally and metaphorically, is a huge challenge. To help students meet that challenge, we need to get to know them as individuals, and then help.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

At least, that is my experience in teaching online, and I prefer teaching online because, unlike the classroom, I can in fact connect with students as individuals and try to address their individual needs. I spend a full week working with my students to make sure they are ready for what is coming in my classes. My guess is that classroom classes probably require a week of orientation too. More than just handing out the syllabus. The syllabus is just the beginning!

Orientation Week:

Online Course Wiki / orientation 

laurakgibbs
Surveyor

Hi Kona! Training, support, and evaluation are GREAT. My school doesn't have any processes like that in place, but they should. The thing is that since they don't do training, support, and evaluation like that for classroom classes, it would be hard to get faculty to agree to any of that for online courses. And it also wouldn't make sense (in my opinion); start with pedagogy first. Then start working on modes of delivery. And other things.

About being institutionalized: when I first wanted to try teaching online, I taught for a program like that for one semester.

It was awful. I was so frustrated. The students were not frustrated, but they were bored... although they were not complaining about being bored, because the course was easy, took no time, and did not strain their brains. They just wanted to get it done; learning was not the goal.

Based on that experience I knew exactly what NOT to do with my courses. 

That was in 2001. I still feel the same way. 🙂

Bobby2
Community Coach
Community Coach

Brilliant topic Susan. And super comments by everyone. Such an important topic to consider and keep considering. I'm more that happy to be allowed to be as creative as I can be with teaching in a blended learning environment and appreciate the trust people have in me to carry it out appropriately. I do understand how bamboozled others are by using an LMS, in their case a template is the best gift ever. My hope is that once the template is in place then they develop the confidence to be more creative and think outside the tetrahedron.

laurakgibbs
Surveyor

Ha ha, now I am going to think about OUTSIDE THE TETRAHEDRON whenever I see someone sharing one of those Bloom's taxonomy pyramids. Thank you,  @Bobby2 ‌! 🙂

emily
Learner II

We started getting serious about "reducing extraneous cognitive load" via course standardization in a brand new, 100% online degree program. Each course was only 7 weeks long, and we didn't want to waste 2 weeks per course for students to figure out how each new prof laid out the course. Do I look in Modules? Or Assignments? Or Calendar? Or do I have to go into Assignments, Quizzes, and Files every week to figure out what to do? It's a nightmare, and students shouldn't have to burn brain cells just trying to FIND what they are supposed to learn. Once the faculty saw how helpful it was to work within a structure that the students already understand, they started using a similar structure for f2f courses in the same program. 

From there, we expanded the idea of standardization to another, bigger program. (f2f, many more faculty, much more concern about academic freedom, much greater variety of courses) We took a "soft template" approach: we decided on a minimum set of tools (syllabus, assignments/gradebook, and calendar) that we really want all courses to have. Then we added a few other tools in a standard order (announcements, link to lecture podcasts, etc.) and made a standard course "home page" with a logo, instructor info, and links to school-wide policies. All these are saved as a course in the Commons, and when course shells are provisioned automatically before each term, someone goes in and applies this template to all courses in the program.

Faculty are free to modify however they see fit - but for the bulk of them who aren't interested in trying to figure out which of the 20+ tools available, not to mention major design considerations like "do you organize via calendar, modules, or files?", they are happy to use the suggested template. Others use it as a starting point and customize from there.

We figure if 75% of their courses work basically the same way, then students only have to "figure out" a couple courses each semester. This is a really big deal for our students who will take about 135 courses over their four-year degree. And this leaves flexibility for the other 25% to innovate and do what suits their courses' needs.

I've not explored the new course templates too much; my concern is they are will be too rigid, but I need more experience with them before I can tell.

Emily

siouxgeonz
Community Member

laurakgibbs‌  You are my go-to person for keeping me thinking about those connections and creative ways to grow them Smiley Happy  

laurakgibbs
Surveyor

My concern is this: exactly because the focus is so much on the tools, using this tool or that tool has replaced the discussions we need to be having about pedagogy, in my opinion.

Worse: if there is not an obvious LMS solution for a type of learning activity, it is discounted as a possible activity to do in a class. 

So, discussions about tools and navigation have not only replaced the discussions we should be having about pedagogy, but they are also driving the choices people make based on what's available in the LMS or, even more narrowly, what the template has activated.

What I think is a nightmare for students is not poor course navigation: the nightmare is poor course content.

Cognitive overload is not the enemy, at least not in my experience teaching.

Boredom is the enemy.

Busywork is the enemy.

Meaninglessness is the enemy.

Which is why, often, I see standardization as the enemy too.

lturner2
Community Member

@Susan Nugent

This is a great topic, and I believe it will forever for a topic of debate (at least it has been in my world for nearly 20 years).

  • How do we "standardize" online learning while providing flexibility needed for teaching and learning?
    What I have seen is the necessity to have a base standard (Policies and Procedures) of what the minimum requirements are; ie, Syllabus, Discussions, Grades, etc. But beyond that, personally, I believe there is a level of engagement that is desired for other components to be included. One school I consulted at decided not to allow the Chat module within their LMS under any circumstances. Not only was it not included in the list of available modules or functions that a teacher could add, but I was asked to make it administratively disabled. A story then emerged of students sharing inappropriate content, so I understood their concern. While I didn't agree, the final decision wasn't mine.
    I think there will be the baseline functionality that will be decided on as a template, but then there should be other technology, built-in or external, that can and should be tied in to help engage students. These will vary based on the school. Also, thanks to Canvas, there are Blueprint courses, like Templates, that can be developed per discipline/department. We could see how a math class would use different modules than a nursing class. We should all do due diligence to ensure a useful and robust blueprint for each department.
  • What professional development really works and has successful outcomes?
    Incentives. I know you were hoping not to hear that, but it does work. Many schools have needed to offer financial incentives to instructors in order to initiate online course development. Also, for every unique course, incentives should be offered. If a thousand dollars if unrealistic, then offer something valuable...an iPad, a Fitbit...instructors need perks. We already expect a lot from them, and everyone likes to get something new and jazzy. One more thing, not instead of, but in addition to, is a professional certificate, signed by the online Admin and maybe the Academic Admin, that says that this instructor has met all criteria to be certified to teach online courses. Instructors love to hang things on the wall - give them something. Give them some credit.
  • How do we build a culture of open pedagogy using open educational resources?
    These are often really fun tools that can be presented at Lunch-n-Learn's or Faculty Showcases. It is even more effective that they be presented by the instructors, rather than the Online Admin or IT techies. In doing this, while I love to present and I'm good at it, I have learned that instructors often learn (or listen?) better from each other. I had to accept that when I present, or one of the IT presenters, many faculty are left thinking, "oh yeah, sure, of course they can figure that out..." and I wanted to eliminate the excuses and the fear of researching applicable open educational resources, appropriate to their course and discipline.