COLLEGE STUDENTS' PERCEPTIONS OF QUALITY IN DISTANCE EDUCATION: The Importance of Communication

Article excerpt

Quality in distance education has been studied mostly from a top-down approach, from administration and faculty to students. This study was an attempt to understand quality through the eyes of the distance learner. This study identified undergraduate and graduate students' perceptions about quality in distance education, examining factors affecting the quality of a distance education course from the student's point of view. Communication was the factor identified most as contributing to quality in distance education courses. Students also indicated effective and ineffective ways communication tools-electronic mail, discussion groups, and chats-are used. Students' responses point to the importance of building learning communities and of faculty providing timely feedback.

INTRODUCTION

The increase in access to digital and online technologies represents a new challenge for educational institutions. Faced with developing not just distance education programs but quality distance education programs, educational institutions search for better ways of implementing the use of new technologies. Quality in distance education has been thought of in terms of teaching and learning activities and all the components of these processes: course design, support services, and interaction, as well as administrative practices that can encourage students to fulfill their educational goals. But what does quality mean for students taking a distance education course? How are distance education students' expectations being met?

Studies on students' perceptions of quality in distance education have used different instruments or scales, in which the concept of quality is indirectly communicated to the students through specific questions or survey items. But when students complete such surveys or questionnaires, they evaluate issues important for faculty (Richardson, 2003; Richardson & Price, 2003; Steyn & Schulze, 2003) and administrators (Rangecroft, Gilroy, Tricker, & Long, 2002; Trippe, 2001; Valentine, 2003). Because these evaluations follow a top-down process, from administration and faculty to students, it is difficult to know if students actually deem as important the same aspects of quality as administrators and faculty do, or if they are merely evaluating those aspects which have already been determined a priori.

Researchers have reported on sets of standards and guidelines to be used when developing distance courses, standards that should be met to establish and maintain quality (Alger, 2002; Mayadas, 2001; Moore, 2002; Ragan, 2003; Varlejs, 2003). Interestingly, many of these quality standards seem to focus on the concept of communication, as expressed in terms of the level of organization, interaction, and responsiveness of various actors and entities involved. For example, Alger (2002) suggested that to "ensure conformity with previously established traditions of course quality and relevance of programs" the following factors should be met: "course development and approval, selection of qualified faculty to teach, pedagogical determinations about appropriate class size, [and] oversight of final course offerings" (p. 6). He also stated the importance of having "substantial interaction among students and faculty" and the "need for socialization and interaction" (p. 2). Alger also indicated "the student-faculty ratio must be considered even if the technology makes it possible to reach a much larger number of students than a traditional course" (p. 2). These indicators address communication and its importance among all sectors of the distance education environment.

Ragan (2003) defined quality in terms of the institution's values and mission. He indicated quality in distance education programs involved the institution's ability to articulate goals and objectives-taking into account the intended audience-and the purpose for the course or program. Ragan presented a set of five quality standards for online courses, including user interface, media elements, software, permissions, and accessibility, for quality to be achieved. …