Analyzing Online Education through the Lens of Institutional Theory and Practice: The Need for Researchbased and -Validated Frameworks for Planning, Designing, Delivering, and Assessing Online Instruction

Article excerpt

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to examine the (a) perceptions held by deans, vice presidents for academic affairs, and distance education administrators regarding online instruction; (b) impact of colleges' institutional contexts on their approaches to online education; and (c) extent to which research-validated frameworks are being used by colleges to guide their planning and delivery of online instruction. Results indicated that while academic administrators placed a relative high value on distance education, all administrators preferred face-to-face over the online learning environment and reported that the quality of online instruction is not as good as the one found in traditional, face-to-face instruction. In addition, a conflict between institutional myths and actual online instructional practices and facts exists. Consequently, the colleges' organizational structures for online education do not necessarily support and promote their learning outcomes. Because this study found that a framework for designing, analyzing, delivering, and assessing distance education was lacking in the institutions of higher education that participated in this study, a research-based and -validated framework was presented to guide educators in the planning and delivery of online instruction.

Introduction

Distance learning has existed for more than a century. European correspondence courses are the earliest form of distance learning (Flores, 2004). The increased demand for online courses has resulted in a significant growth in the number of institutions offering such courses (Labonty, 2005). In 2006, the Sloan Consortium reported that more than 96% of the largest colleges and universities in the U.S. offered online courses and that almost 3.2 million U.S. students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2005 term (Allen & Seaman, 2006). Much has been written about online instruction. Perhaps the most comprehensive review of literature related to online learning was conducted by Tallent-Runnels et al. (2006) and was divided into four major topics: course environment, learners' outcomes, learners' characteristics, and institutional and administrative factors.

Olson and Hale (2007) surveyed academic administrators from five academic institutions within the University of Texas System and found that faculty support and encouragement are essential factors in faculty involvement in online instruction. Academic administrators reported that high quality instruction can be achieved in online courses and were interested in increasing the number of online courses available. While academic administrators believed that online courses overcome the schedule and traveling barriers experienced by students, concerns existed related to the large amount of time and resources required by faculty to plan and deliver online courses, students' self-discipline factors, and issues of academic dishonesty.

Cox (2005) conducted a study that examined online education through the lens of institutional theory. The study analyzed the institutional contexts that have structured online education approaches used by colleges. Findings revealed that colleges are "interpreting and responding to a set of taken-for-granted ideas about online education. These ideas have taken on the status of myth and have played a powerful role in guiding and legitimating colleges' online activity" (¶1).

McCombs and Vakili (2005) claimed that concerns exist in the educational community about the lack of research-based and -validated frameworks to guide the planning, design, and delivery of online instruction. A learner-centered framework for e-learning was presented to address those concerns. This framework was built upon knowledge related to human learning, motivation, and development.

While much has been written about faculty and student perceptions of online instruction (Alexander, Zhao, Perreault, & Waldman, 2003; Gaytan, 2004), little has been written about perceptions held by deans, vice presidents for academic affairs, and distance education administrators regarding online instruction (McCombs & Vakili, 2005). …