Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Caveat Emptor

Nancy Parker, in introducing Chapter 16 of her book The Quality Dilemma in Online Education, says the following:
With the proliferation of online learning providers and the challenges presented
by the distance education sector to state regulators and accrediting bodies, it
is not surprising that “buyer beware” is the watchword for students,
institutions, and public agencies alike.
I agree with her. Buyer beware may be the best overreaching measurement we have to gauge quality in education, online or not, at least until the Internet revolution stabilizes.

The varying ideas on what makes up quality online education that we’ve read this week only underline the buyer beware mentality. Though there may be some general consensus on what elements make for quality education, both Parker and the authors of Quality on the Line: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-Based Education agree that “quality” has to examine both the static and dynamic aspects of what makes up good practices and the willingness and ability of individual institutions or collaborative efforts to uniformly apply the agreed-upon standards.

For my goals and objectives in taking this particular course, I am going to give more weight to the standards that are outlined in Quality on the Line, simply for the fact that I can see, through the report, how they’re being applied, that they’re not being applied uniformly, and that some things that are regarded as standards are being challenged as institutions, teachers and students move together to decide where quality lies. (Of course, since the report was completed in 2000 on studies in the late 1990s, the data is outdated. I’d be curious to see how students, teachers and institutions would react to the same questions today, after passing through a decade of evolving online practices and accompanying technology.) I also appreciate how the ideas of continually clarifying and honing the more dynamic aspects of online education through the window of quality is outlined throughout the report. On page 14, for example:
Because of increasing student interest in Internet-based distance education at
some of the institutions in the case study, administrators revealed that
policies are being developed to catch up with practice. One administrator said
simply that the institution is moving ahead without all of the answers. While
some institutions were farther ahead in their planning than others, some
institutions that are struggling to keep up with the demand for Internet-based
courses have made a conscious decision to serve students immediately and plan
Maybe to some this sounds scary – going to work immediately without making sure the full plan is in place. But to me, it makes an awful lot of sense. I’ll frame my argument this way:

One of the questions I’ve asked a few times through the course of this class is to find out how much teachers cooperate in shaping online courses. The general response I’ve received is that, online or not, the trend is for teachers to cooperate as much as each other is willing in order to make classes effective for students. That’s a healthy attitude. It also shows me that, in general, teachers recognize the dynamic aspects of what they do. To shift gears just a little bit: computer programmers who use the agile programming approach have a general idea of what they hope to accomplish with one iteration of software. They move forward quickly into achieving their vision, knowing full well that once they’ve reached their aforementioned goal, the dynamics of the situation will have changed so they’ll have to start the entire process over again. By taking this flexible approach, they can shape their product to the demands of the marketplace much more quickly than if they rigidly plan everything out and do not alter the plan to account for the dynamism in the situation before the end goal is achieved.

I am a neophyte teacher. Were I to take the course I’m designing into reality, I’d be scared to death to do it. I imagine I’m not alone. But I’d do it anyway, out of a desire to see what works, what does not work, and where I, my students, and my peers might find room for improvement. With the help of my peers, I can avoid obvious pitfalls. With the help of my students, I can smooth out the practical, operational bumps. Planning too rigidly eliminates that room for experimentation. As is said on page 25 of Quality on the Line:
Many faculty and administrators recognized the potential for the Internet to
transform the teaching/learning process and any benchmarks that inhibited their
ability to innovate and experiment were rejected.
But I like that benchmarks are part of the conversation. Overplanning is a rigid thing. Underplanning leads only to chaos. Let me plan enough that I can experiment within a framework that guarantees a balance between dynamic and static quality elements.

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