Friday, July 01, 2005

Best Practices for Online and Hybrid Programs: Where are we now? Where are the gaps?

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After the publication of best practices for online and hybrid programs based on benchmarks derived from extensive longitudinal studies, online programs almost universally adopted them, modifying them to fit their individual needs.

Since that time, academicians, students, and online program administrators have started to identify gaps in the best practices, particularly as they apply to 100-percent online programs, blended solutions (part online, part face-to-face) and multi-delivery method 100% distance (audio-enhanced, etc.).

Nevertheless, they continue to serve a vitally important function as guides and a useful point of departure for programs and schools.

Below is an updated list of resources of current benchmark studies and articles on best practices. Sloan-C, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), the American Council on Education (ACE), the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC), and others help one determine an institution’s readiness to successfully develop and deliver distance education.

Many of the studies focused on the needs of adult learners. They have built on the following “best practices” which include “Principles of Good Practice for Alternative and External Degree Programs for Adults” (Principles 1990), and “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (Chickering and Gamson 1987). While some of the studies focus on undergraduate education, the principles have been applied to graduate programs.

In terms of online learning, many of the best practices or benchmark studies are organized in terms of categories. These topics, paraphrased and generalized from the literature, include the following: Committed Institution; Learner-Friendly Environment; Quality Courses, Curriculum, and Instruction; Faculty Support; and, Institutional Infrastructure.

While the categories are very useful in identifying strengths, weaknesses, and needs, when considered in conjunction with other best practices and benchmarking, they also give rise to possible gaps. These are not always straightforward or easily remedied gaps, but ones that typically span several categories, making it much more problematic to effect a quick fix or simply intervention.

Committed Institution
The learning organization must prioritize distance and flexible learning, and in doing so, must demonstrate support that is realistic, appropriate, timely, and expandable for the future.

Possible Gaps
Program “force-fit” to institutional mission. In their eagerness to offer online courses and programs, institutions may force-fit the program to the institution’s vision and mission.

Revenue generation perceived as more important than the education experience provided.

Learner-Friendly Environment
Students, faculty, and other users find the services provided by the learning organization easy to use, accessible, and thorough. The learning organization provides online services such as registration, records, bursar, and library access. Technology utilized is up-to-date and appropriate for the user’s actual environments and work patterns.

Possible Gaps.
Ambiguous needs assessments.

Always a half-a-beat behind the technology curve.

Quality Courses, Curriculum, and Instruction
The learning organization has an academic and instructional plan, which has been developed, reviewed, and approved by teams consisting of teaching faculty, subject matter experts, and governing / executive faculty members. Instructional strategies adhere to generally accepted principles of online and distance instruction, and rest upon a solid foundation of theory, practice, and experiential/research knowledge.

Possible Gaps.
Cookie cutter courses.

Unwittingly producing training, not higher education.

Flexible delivery modes should stress multiplicity of modes.

Lack of a plan, or coordinated instructional strategy

Jumping on the latest delivery mode bandwagon, even when not appropriate.

At-risk students left behind.

Failure to conduct objective periodic program reviews

Faculty Support, Capacity, Training, Mentoring, Compensation
Faculty members teach and develop courses in areas where they have demonstrated
expertise, experience, and/or leadership. When asked to instruct courses, faculty are provided support, training, and guidance in a proactive manner. Compensation is fair, and intellectual property issues are settled in a manner that is mutually agreeable.

Possible Gaps.
Failure to provide timely and appropriate mentoring and training.

Failure to review faculty credentials and evidence of growth.

When flexibility becomes rigidity.

Institutional Infrastructure: Partnerships and Alliances / Economies of Scale
Because the investment in online programs can be prohibitively costly due to initial investment in infrastructure as well as ongoing investments in expansions, upgrades, and change, many institutions cannot afford the cost of embarking on a solo venture. It is necessary for them to partner

Library partnerships that work.

Caught in a partner’s political agenda.

Guilt by association: when the partner is unethical.

Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. 1993. Distance Education in the California Community Colleges: An Academic Senate Review of the Social, Fiscal and Educational Issues .
Academic Senate For California Community Colleges, 1993, Curriculum Committee Review of Distance Learning Courses and Sections.
Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, 1997, Guidelines for Good Practice: Technology-Mediated Instruction.
Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, 1999, Guidelines for Good Practice: Effective Instructor-Student Contact in Distance Learning, with Sample Course Outlines.
Allan, E., Seaman, J. 2003. Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Learning in the United States, 2002-2003 (PDF Format). Sloan-C.
American Council on Education - Center for Adult Learning and Educational Credentials. 1996. Guiding Principles for distance learning in a learning society. One Dupont Circle NW, Suite 250, Washington, DC 20036-1193.
American Distance Education Consortium. (2001). ADEC guiding principles fordistance learning. Available:
Andersen, P.A., and Andersen, J.F. (1982). Nonverbal immediacy in instruction. In L. L. Barker (Ed), Communication in the classroom: Original essays. Englewood Cliffs, NH: Prentice-Hall.
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Berg, G. A. (2001) Distance learning best practices debate. WebNet Journal. April-June 2001.
California State University Academic Senate. 1996. Principles Regarding Technology Mediated Instruction in CSU. Attachment to AS-2321-96/AA/FA.
Chickering, A.W., and Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles of good practice inundergraduate education: faculty inventory. Available:
Chickering, A.W., and Ehrman, S.C. (1997). Implementing the seven principles:technology as lever. American Association for Higher Education. Available:
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