Sunday, December 13, 2009

Standards for Online Instructors

Most instructors/faculty have gone through some type of training to teach face-to-face classes. The goal is to prepare them to present course content in a pedagogically sound manner and hopefully introduce and give them a chance to work with multimedia. Not so for many if not most online instructors. I would hazard to guess that most instructors who are presently teaching online, never took a course or had training on effective online practices. As institutions began gravitating towards offering online courses many instructors were asked to teach these courses because an instructor was needed for that course or an additional section. Many institutions online offerings have organically grown from a few courses to many without their faculty ever being required to know and learn that f2f and online courses have differences in best practices. There are more differences than the ones provided below, but the lists lay out the basic concepts.

Face-to-face courses are generally:
- Synchronous
- Communication takes place after class or outside of class during instructors set office hours. Sometimes email is used
- Lecture based, sage on the stage model
- Paper-based materials with some multimedia
- More spoon-fed content. Learners do not need to be extremely self-motivated
- Question and answer time during class
- Papers may be required
- Some online resources may be included
- Tests and quizzes determine the bulk of a grade

Best-Case Online courses are generally:
- Asynchronous
- Communication takes place 24/7. Instructors continually interact with students and students can ask questions via email or discussion threads when needed and instructors get back to them within 24-48 hours.
- Independent/self-motivated learning experiences
- Digital text-based and targeted multimedia content presentation
- Utilize discussions to stimulate communication, engagement, develop critical thinking skills and become more fluent in the subject matter. Discussions are use to measure students learning
- Papers are included as a means to evaluate students understanding of concepts
- Online resources are included to provide extended learning opportunities
- Tests and quizzes are secondary methods to evaluate student knowledge and are used more to allow students to see gaps in their knowledge

An instructor who has taught f2f classes then migrates to online without proper training may still try to use the f2f methods causing all manner of issues. I have witnessed instructors: Mailing all students CD's and communicating exclusively via personal email rather than use a learning management system, Using only course packs for course content and allowing students to read and take tests when they want allowing students to finish a course in a week or two of a 12 week course, Refusing to use discussion threads because they don't think there is anything to discuss in their course, Swearing up and down that their methods are effective even when shown research that disputes it, Making students meet at a specific time to listen to their lectures, Relying almost exclusively on quizzes and exams and going so far as to require proctoring of tests, and the list goes on. When I see courses of this type I shudder to think of the lack of rigor, student to student communication and collaboration, student to instructor communication and mentoring, resistance to any change in pedagogy, and the list goes on.

At some institutions teaching online has become a way to make an extra buck. Some time ago at a faculty orientation I attended, I was new and unknown to the group. I had one instructor who set down beside me say "If you want to make easy money, then teach an online course" and he went on to elaborate on how much there was to be made. I was appalled, but kept silent until I was introduced as the person who would be helping to provide needed standards for online teaching and learning. Needless to say that faculty member was a bit embarrassed.

Teaching online is neither easy or quick. Studies have shown that it takes just as much if not more time to teach online and changing mindsets and practices is sometimes like trying to get sheep back in a pen when they've all been allowed to wander where they choose. if you've ever tried herding sheep without a skilled sheepdog, you know it's downright impossible. Sheep will follow the lead sheep even if they head in the wrong direction. You get the idea. Change is always difficult and sometimes scary to some. We get comfortable where we are and can resist even good changes.

The premise of this post is to bring forth the idea that there should be a set list of standards that online instructors and courses should adhere to. Whether they are nation state or institution wide is the question. Whatever the case this is a call for dialogue on providing quality and consistency in online courses.