Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

The Academy on the Web: Preparing to Evaluate Online Courses

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

The Academy on the Web: Preparing to Evaluate Online Courses

Article excerpt


Web-based teaching and learning require evaluation in order to assess the effectiveness of online curricula and courses in providing good learning. Although Web-based courses offer access and new opportunities for forming collaborative learning communities, they also present pitfalls related to course design, students, teachers, administrators, technology, technical support, and funding. This paper examines a wholistic case study model for evaluating online courses, and provides numerous questions for evaluators to consider before assessing Web-based teaching, and online courses in particular.

1. Introduction

During the past five years educators have seen extensive development of virtual classrooms. Cyber-courses sometimes mimic traditional lecture courses with posted lectures that students read online. Some traditional as well as virtual courses use interactive modules that encourage students to experience virtually what had previously been available only through physical encounter, e.g., the dissection of a frog http://curry.edschool.Virginia.EDU/go/frog. In addition, faculty members install online syllabi, create Web directories, use software to administer and score tests, and collaborate online.

All of these activities sound modern and exciting. But to some, computer mediated communication (CMC) presents daunting problems for teaching and learning. What, they ask, is the basis for "good learning" online? Are teaching and learning online really different than in a traditional classroom? How can a teacher know who is actually doing the assignments? Do online courses, or modules embedded in traditional courses, deliver comparable education to that delivered in a face-to-face (f2f) environment? Learners in both online and traditional classrooms may be exposed to the same information but learn it differently.

Skeptics frequently raise the possibility of incomplete transfer of knowledge through CMC (Ahmad, et al. 1985). In the traditional classroom a student can ask a question directly of the instructor. Online, and in the asynchronous situation of most Distance Education (DE) classes, the student typically an email message to the instructor or posts it to an electronic bulletin board. The instructor answers the query, presumably within 24 hours or so. But the teachable moment, that brief period when the f2f instructor's answer to a student's question immediately enlightens the student, as a later response would not, disappears. And if the response were prolonged, the teachable moment would most likely be diluted as the student loses interest, or the key relationships between the lecture materials and the student's question weaken. On the other hand, online in a prolonged response period, both student and teacher have time to question and answer more thoughtfully and thoroughly than may be possible in a traditional class. Case study evaluation can assess all of these issues because it approaches the scene from so many angles: observation, interview, surveys, data review, etc. The course, which becomes the "case," includes content, online functions, students, instructor, institution, and anything else connected to the course; all are "fair game" for case study evaluation.

Online course design also causes consternation among certain faculty who complain that they can't teach students they can't see. Or they complain that in an online seminar they cannot encourage critical and creative thought if all the members are not able to interact immediately. They also worry that an institution that encourages putting courses online threatens those instructors who are not "computer savvy"; they often fear that they will lose their jobs. In order to respond to such worrisome complaints, faculty, researchers, and institutions must conduct both summative (here's what we find) and formative (here's what we could do to improve)evaluations. Such studies can help all concerned to clarify the distinctions between traditional and online teaching and learning, to discover important causes for success and disappointment, and to help develop ways to improve instruction and provide good learning. …

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