Thursday, September 08, 2005

Best Practices Gaps, Part I


Best practices and online learning benchmarks are good, but limited. They fail to identify the places where institutions are likely to fall short, and they do not provide the kind of information that one needs when all systems fail, and students, faculty, support staff, and administrators are at their wits' ends because demand has outstripped capacity, and the only way to meet commitments is to go desperately into the red (fiscally speaking), and to ignore learner outcomes, although they are now mandated by the State in which the institution makes its home. This article explores gaps. This is Part I.

Committed Institution

Overview. 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. The vision and mission of a university may be grounded in face-to-face interactions, and the philosophy that underlies the instructional strategy may require an environment that the faculty and staff understand only in terms of face-to-face instruction, or in traditional bricks and mortar arrangement. This becomes problematic because it creates a culture gap within the institution.

Although there may not be open resistance, the institution could find itself confronting underground backlash, and troubled with factions, divisive camps, and a breakdown of the vision itself. In this case, the institution must remember that it is reshaping the vision, and for it to be effective, all stakeholders must have buy-in. In other words, they need to have a role in shaping it, and mapping it to their own lives and agenda.

---Revenue generation perceived as more important than the education experience provided.
Although there are few people who believe this any more, the early days of online education were typified by the academic equivalent of get-rich schemes. Later, it became clear that the initial investment of online courses can be steep, and it requires ongoing maintenance and operating expenses, as well as what can be quite steep costs for instruction and student services. When expectations are not met, there is a tendency to try to retrench and cut costs. What results is a focus on costs rather than quality. Further, it becomes tempting to outsource services and to obtain open-source content that has not be reviewed or adapted to one's own instructional and institutional goals.

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. A successful online or hybrid program requires clear and realistic alignment with learner needs. In order to accomplish this objective and to attune courses and delivery with learner needs in the present (and not the past), it is important to utilize multiple methods of collecting data to gain understanding of the needs of the students. Current needs are important, as are what are projected to be important needs in the future. Focus groups, online surveys, random surveys, and interviews are effective methods and should be done on a regular basis.

---Always a half-a-beat behind the technology curve. It is false economy to have outdated technology, or to think that investing in online infrastructure is a one-time expenditure. Some of the most common ways that institutions find themselves behind the technology curve are:

-Insufficient bandwidth, and no plan to do "edge computing" to "load-share" surges in volume.

-Old, unworkable home pages and portals, with outdated java applets, javascript, etc.

-Old websites using out-of-date plugins (old versions of flash or shockwave, etc.)

-Failure to update software, holding on to old versions of learning management systems.

-Failure to hire adequate numbers of appropriately trained staff, support staff, and faculty.

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