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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Best Practices Gaps, Part 2


This article addresses gaps that emerge between best practices and benchmarks, and the actual conditions and results of distance and flexible learning in institutions of higher learning. This part focuses on problems that emerge in the production of courses, curriculum and instruction, and in the area of faculty support, training, and mentoring.

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. Developing courses quickly, efficiently, and at the lowest possible cost becomes the most important issue, rather than providing the flexibility required in order to produce a course that is not just a bundle of information, but a true learning experience.

---Unwittingly producing training, not higher education. Problem-solving, analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking skills are cornerstones of higher education, and the various stated outcomes that one finds in college-level courses display these skills. However, it is easy for colleges to fall into the trap of producing an e-learning experience that requires little or no actual synthesis of information, and which does not make connections from one discipline to another. Further, courses often fail to provide scaffolding for more future courses.

---Flexible delivery modes should stress multiplicity of modes. It is tempting to succumb to an "all or nothing" approach and to offer courses in only one delivery mode. However, learners need flexibility in order to accommodate their lifestyles and the reality of work, travel, access, and schedules. Thus, institutions must be able and willing to offer not only face-to-face instruction, online, and hybrid, but also variations that include CD-ROM and PDA (or pocket PC) for mobile computing. Content should not be confined to the visual, but should also incorporate downloadable audio, such as mp3 files (podcasts).

---Lack of a plan, or coordinated instructional strategy. Because many institutions find themselves playing "catch up," they are often scrambling to deliver what students say they want (or at least what they wanted six months before). In a "catch-up" situation, institutions lose their ability to plan effectively, and find themselves correcting mistakes made because of moving too fast, and without a coherent, well-mapped out and coordinated plan.

---Jumping on the latest delivery mode bandwagon, even when not appropriate. Institutions waste time, money, delivery efficacy, and faculty competency when they jump onto a trend without doing a thorough needs assessment, SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), or a clear analysis of their capabilities and capacity. As a result, institutions have found themselves trying to produce and deliver streaming media classroom lectures, synchronous chat and whiteboard lectures, interactive video game-based simulations, even when neither they nor their students have the bandwidth, computing power, or access to really be able to do it. This does not even begin to touch the problems of instruction in that sort of environment, with such high-power needs, and such a steep learning curve for instructors.

---At-risk students left behind. The online environment can be a sink-or-swim world where only the hardiest and most adept learners stay afloat. It is important to accommodate all learning styles, and to understand the real environment and conditions of learning of at-risk students. This is not simply a matter of making things ADA compliant. It means creating instructional strategies and activities that build community and camaraderie, do not require "extreme" technical skills, and which give individuals multiple ways to do the same task.

---Failure to conduct objective periodic program reviews. The successful launch of an online program is usually accompanies by a huge sigh of relief, coupled with a state of near catatonia (or post-traumatic shock syndrome) over the next several months, even years, as faculty, staff, and information system support seek to recover from the shock of close encounter with "disruptive technology." However, this fails to take into consideration that the nature of disruptive technology is to change the way that people think about tasks, and how they approach it, now that the technology has changed. In order to be successful, it is imperative that one continue to look at one's goals, vision, mission, and desired outcomes and to determine how those have been affected by the technology and the delivery approach.

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. Not only do institutions fail to provide mentoring and training, they also fail to require instructors to undergo the training. In failing to do so, they do the instructors a disservice, particularly in a world that is increasingly dominated by a class of distance professors who have taken the time and effort to equip themselves with the latest equipment and skills to be effective online / multi-modality instructors.

---Failure to review faculty credentials and evidence of growth. In part, this is a legacy of a tenure system that allows professors, once tenured, to become complacent, or to "retire on the job." It is also a case of expediency. It is not easy to find professors who are early adopters, or who keep themselves up-to-date with technology. They can be good facilitators, but are they staying current in their subject matter? Or, are they continuing to inform themselves of best practices and effective methods to achieve desired learning outcomes? Further, if an institution requires evidence of growth, they have an obligation to support it materially, philosophically, and psychologically.

---When flexibility becomes rigidity. This is a paradox that it, unfortunately, not uncommon. Institutions that start out being flexible by offering students the opportunity to take online courses, may, in fact, become rigid as they invest in learning management systems, templated courses, and a "one way only" instructional design / subject matter expert model for developing courses, and then require the professor to teach in one certain way, to accommodate the technology rather than learner needs.

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