Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Assessment of Learning Outcomes in an Online Environment

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Assessment of Learning Outcomes in an Online Environment

Article excerpt


This paper looks at the challenge that online instructors face to assess the actual learning outcomes of their students. While it may be possible to simply use lessons learned in instructional design and institutional support to create preexisting conditions that should lead to a satisfactory learning experience, the nature of non- face-to-face instruction places more emphasis on the student to be an active participant in the learning process, so necessarily it is the process of learning that should be emphasized. The online environment presents us with new opportunities to deliberately influence and assess student achievement throughout the duration of the course. One way to do this is by designing courses with a specific pedagogical theory in mind (i.e., constructivism, transformative learning, etc.), and then creating activities that try to answer certain Outcome Questions. The result is a rubric through which to view each participant's online `behavior' and the degree to which they learn not only the course content but also are successful in the learning process.


It can be argued that simply connecting to the WWW is a learning experience in itself, as there are immediately infinite sources of information available for consumption. However, the online environment is increasingly being accepted as a viable method of not just content delivery, but of formal instruction. Online learning in this case is synonymous with "web-based," "Internet" or "e-" learning, and refers to educational programs that are delivered via the Internet, or World Wide Web (WWW), using a graphic user interface. In particular, it refers to the deliberate use of the Internet to provide structured learning environments that can be accessed by many different people, independently, from different locations. Given the increase in educational opportunities available through via the Internet, it is essential that valid methods for assessment of student achievement be determined by the instructor and/or institution, and communicated to the learner at the outset of the program. Assessment of student performance in the online environment therefore requires an awareness of instructional design and pedagogical features that influence the desired outcomes. Additionally, opportunities for assessment should be built into the design of the course.

As with traditional modes of instruction, evaluation can occur on many different levels, by different people for different reasons. It is helpful to make a distinction between evaluation and assessment which are often used synonymously (Calder, 1994). Assessment in this context refers only to student (or teacher) performance, whereas evaluation looks at the context of organizational structures within which student performance occurs. Instructors and students assess each other, but they evaluate course content and institutional support. Administrators assess the performance of instructors, but instructors may also evaluate the program policies or design.

There are also different reasons to conduct an evaluation. Administrators might evaluate the viability of distance learning as a means to increase revenue or visibility. They may also use summative approaches to identify program costs/revenue, student demographics and completion rates. Instructors and students engage in mutual formative evaluation throughout the duration of the course in order to modify activities and improve outcomes. External evaluators are often used to look back at a program in its entirety to make recommendations about future directions or improvement. Above all, outside investigators from the government, external consultants, and even parents also scrutinize distance learning programs to evaluate if they are achieving adequate results compared to their traditional campus-based counterparts. Indeed, actually determining the learning outcomes of the students is often one of the most difficult aspects of online learning. …

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