Why Quality Matters in the Battle for Online Education’s Future

Why Quality Matters in the Battle for Online Education’s Future
Dr. Susan Aldridge, Senior Fellow of AASCU delivered this speech, titled “Why Quality Matters in the Battle for Online Education’s Future”. It was delivered at TxDLA Conference, Galveston, Texas.

Although online education has been around for 20 years now, the MOOC phenomenon has suddenly sent educators running to jump on the bandwagon, turning skeptics into converts almost overnight. But as MOOCs gain momentum among high profile providers, institutional brand has quickly become a substitute for effective teaching and learning, ignoring decades of groundbreaking distance education research and practice. Consequently, most of these massive experiments fail to capitalize on the real power of technology as an exceptional tool for engaging learners in active and authentic learning experiences. In moving past the hype, Dr. Susan Aldridge takes an in-depth look at how online pioneers can refocus the spotlight on quality, and why our efforts are so critical to the future of online education.

Seriously though…you have a great deal to celebrate. In true Texas fashion, this is now the largest distance learning organization of its kind in the country…with more than 900 forward-thinking members…who have had a big hand in forging the great frontier that is now online education.

Thanks to your pioneering spirit and extraordinary vision, we have come a long way since the early days of Web-based education…when our course modules were little more than a series of hand-outs published and delivered online.

In fact, you continue to blaze new trails in the use of evolving technologies that customize the learning experience and optimize the learning environment. You have also made it possible for your institutions and organizations to provide high-quality academic and professional development opportunities that transcend the boundaries of time and space.

And I daresay there are millions of learners out there, who are beyond grateful for your phenomenal expertise, tremendous innovation, and unwavering commitment. Even in the face of what has often been at best, blatant disbelief…and at worst, scathing criticism about online education.

But with the advent of MOOC mania, your efforts have finally been vindicated.

While many of you have been at this for nearly two decades now, MOOCs have suddenly burst onto the scene…sending educators running to jump on the distance learning bandwagon…and turning skeptics into converts seemingly overnight. Even the traditional publications of the academic trade are using words like revolutionary and tsunami to herald the coming of a new virtual era in higher education and professional development.

Of course, the concept itself is not all that new. As early as the 1990s, America Online and Compuserve were offering Internet access to free educational content. The millennium then gave rise to the open educational resource movement…and more recently to iTunes University…TED talks…YouTube…and Khan Academy.

And the very first Massive Open Online Course was actually developed and delivered in 2008, by a group of Canadian online learning experts…Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Dave Cormier.

Needless to say, their inaugural effort was, by design, both interactive and learner-centered…while also focused on creating social and intellectual capital…by connecting like-minded learners in building knowledge networks of value.
Thus, the term cMOOC was coined. And although this model has met with modest success among experienced distance educators like us, its younger sibling…the infamous xMOOC…has quickly grabbed the spotlight…catapulting elite institutions like Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and MIT into the e-learning business.
Unlike its more collaborative counterpart, the xMOOC is grounded, for the most part, in the “drill and grill” instructional methodologies of old. Yet in spite of their questionable pedagogical practices, xMOOC providers like Udacity, Coursera, and edX continue to attract universities of all sizes and statures…not to mention millions of learners worldwide…intent on embracing the next big thing in education.

And to show just how big it is, venture capitalists have underwritten some one hundred million dollars in start-up costs for these three companies alone.

Of course, this meteoric ascent has raised legitimate red flags among those of us who have fought long and hard to drive technology-enhanced learning into the mainstream of education.

In addition to unbelievably low completion rates and the absence of credit for successful completion…the even greater concern revolves around what I will call the quality factor…which has prompted us old-timers to point out that current course models are, for the most part, self-service learning and crowd-sourced teaching.

Or in other words, most of these massive experiments fail to capitalize on the real power of technology to engage, empower, and educate…in a way that meets each individual’s unique learning needs.

As a result, courses are being pulled and professors are walking away. One of the latest casualties is…of all things…a MOOC entitled Fundamentals of Online Learning…because of glitches in its technology.

It’s hardly surprising, though. We all know that the current crop of xMOOC institutional partners earned their reputation around research and not teaching…and certainly not in the virtual environment.

In fact, these are the same universities that have in the past claimed that online education is inherently inferior to the face-to-face varietal. So it’s difficult at best to make the case that institutional brand is necessarily a substitute for quality distance teaching and learning. What’s more, by keeping credits off the table, MOOCs are still flying below the regulatory radar…at least for now.

On top of that, individual faculty members are often asked to develop and produce their own online courses, thus engaging in what e-learning expert Tony Bates calls the Lone Ranger approach. And I’m sure we would all agree that effective virtual learning environments are the end product of extensive teamwork among, at the very least, content experts, course designers, and assessment specialists.

There are certainly efforts afoot to produce MOOCs that are learning-optimized…with start-ups like Udacity placing greater emphasis on learner success. Likewise, content providers are beginning to see the light when it comes to supplementing their offerings with interactive exercises and other digital enhancements.

In the meantime, however, there is no real process for vetting course design…resulting in vast numbers of non-completers, who believe that MOOCs are exemplary of e-learning in general.

Which means that accomplished online educators run the risk of losing major ground in the bricks versus clicks debate…after years of meticulous and certainly innovative research and development.
Still, MOOC mania has opened an enormous window of opportunity for all of us…at a time when the Babson Survey Research Group reports that one out of every three students has taken an online course…and seventy percent of academic leaders claim that e-learning is critical to their long-term strategies.
So how can we capitalize on this renewed interest in online education…to turn the focus squarely back on quality?
To begin with, we must use our own research to make the case for quality on campus and in the boardroom…at professional conferences and in the media.

For years now, e-education has been seen as an alternative…an add-on…or, in some cases, an experiment…rather than a fundamental and certainly valuable component of the learning culture.

Indeed, until very recently, the business models for virtual education have been grounded primarily in such practical strategies as reaching non-traditional students…or providing convenient access to continuing education.

Yet as consummate professionals, all of you have conducted copious research… applying sound methods and appropriate metrics…which demonstrates the many positive academic benefits of high-quality technology-enhanced education for all learners. And your efforts have produced tremendous innovation in both technology development and the learning sciences.

The problem is that, for the most part, we are sharing that research with each other at conferences and in publications…created specifically to advance the e-learning field. So without verifiable data to consider, our more traditional colleagues are still making instructional decisions based on personal experience or professional bias…political expediency or just because everyone else is doing it.

But with the spotlight in our corner these days, you have a unique chance to take control of the discussion. As resident experts in a field of your invention, you can offer to present your findings at conferences and in peer-reviewed journals, geared to broader audiences of traditional educators and training professionals.

You can also contribute to blogs and reach out to reporters in mainstream media outlets…including those in the academic arena. And of course, this will be an excellent time to secure foundation grants and service contracts with which to conduct and publish new research in quality distance education.

Equally important, you can make significant inroads in your own institutions and organizations by using what you know to promote increasingly popular forms of hybrid learning. You are the experts in this field!

As the bricks versus clicks debate continues to gain traction, I suspect we will see a growing number of educators…at every level…looking for opportunities to exploit the best of both worlds. Especially given compelling evidence to suggest that well-designed hybrid courses are actually the most effective way to achieve high-performance learning environments.

Like MOOC production, however, hybrid course design in most places relies far too heavily on the Lone Ranger approach…because specialists like you are often siloed in IT departments or wholly separate continuing education units. So quality is, more often than not, sacrificed for expediency…and student performance continues to suffer.

But with virtual education in the headlines, there has never been a better time to break through the silos…and market your expertise.

In fact, the emerging popularity of hybrid classrooms offers a perfect opening for us to move the online discussion away from merely access and convenience…to underscore what we all know is the real benefit of technology-enhanced education–the learning experience itself…which is why quality matters.

By joining forces with our face-to-face colleagues, we can promote the team-driven approach that we know from experience produces all the elements of a quality learning experience. From relevant learning content and well-articulated learning outcomes…to interactive technologies and meaningful assessment tools…to applied learning activities and reusable learning materials.
And to ensure that hybrid instructors are ready to take full advantage of these elements…you can also offer to create quality professional development…that not only simulates the hybrid learning environment, but also fosters an online community of practice for sharing resources and reinforcing new skills.

Of course, we can always take our cue from that old adage…if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. And once you have…show ‘em how to do it better.

No doubt about it. MOOCs offer far greater economies of scale than ever before…enabling us to reach thousands of individuals at a much lower cost over time. Which certainly suggests that when thoughtfully conceived and well-designed, MOOCs can pave the way for all sorts of interesting possibilities on our campuses and in our organizations.

At the postsecondary level, we can develop high-quality casual courses that serve as teasers for prospective students or promising vehicles for alumni engagement.

Moreover, with tuition costs rising, you might take a page from your own University of Texas system and use MOOCs to provide low-cost access to entry level courses that are typically oversubscribed. The same goes for furnishing remedial coursework…free of charge…as a precondition for college enrollment.

For K through 12 schools…these massive online courses offer an interesting way to supplement…and in some cases supplant…face-to-face instruction…particularly in Advanced Placement courses.

By the same token, secondary schools could form statewide alliances to develop and deliver MOOCs that prepare graduating seniors for the rigors of college…by reinforcing good study habits and time management skills.

And as blended learning continues to expand at every level of education, cMOOCs are a great way to connect emerging hybrid instructors…across dozens of campuses…in self-directed professional development communities. And in doing so, enable them to co-create, capture, and share new knowledge and best practices through permanent learning artifacts like blogs, wikis, and podcasts.

Likewise, the cMOOC model furnishes industry trainers with a logical format for employees to use for learning and collaborating in teams…while building productive alliances beyond the workplace, with other like-minded individuals in their fields.

MOOCs also provide an interesting platform for learners to test-drive quality online learning before actually investing in it. For example, Texas-based Academic Partnerships created MOOC2Degree. By offering the first credit-bearing course free of charge…to thousands of students at a time…the company hopes to turn completers into full-fledged, tuition-paying students.

But perhaps the most important benefit of home-grown MOOCs is the capacity they afford for experimentation. By that I mean they allow us to greatly extend our research potential, by developing, piloting, and evaluating new technologies and promising practices on a massive scale. Take intelligent tutoring systems for example.

One of e-learning’s greatest advantages is its ability to customize the learning environment…making it easier for learners to connect the dots between what they know…what they must learn…and how they need to learn it. So over the years, we have embedded sophisticated digital systems that spontaneously adapt course content and teaching methods to reflect the pace at which lesson concepts are mastered.

Now think about taking that technology to an even grander scale…by designing courseware that massively individualizes learning. And then using what we have learned to produce high-quality course exemplars with which to inform MOOC development, going forward.

By the same token, MOOCs provide a virtual practice field for experimenting with technology enhancements that encourage active and authentic learning. For instance, Longwood University in Virginia has teamed up with the learning platform creator Badgestack to offer a MOOC that helps high school students get a head start on career success.
And in keeping with its commitment to quality distance learning, Longwood has incorporated gaming technology to provide hands-on exercises and continuous feedback…both of which create an engaging and effective learning experience. So much so, in fact, that most of the twelve hundred students who signed up for the first run last semester successfully completed it.
It goes without saying that as the online education space becomes increasingly crowded, the competition for resources will only get stiffer…especially with well-endowed universities and venture capital-rich companies entering the ring.

But let me leave you with this thought.

Competition is what will keep us on our toes…and push us to even greater heights of achievement….regardless of where we fall out on the learning continuum. It will also validate our ideas and help us educate our market…which in turn will stimulate increased demand for what we as experienced distance educators have to offer.

Even more important…it will focus our mission…improve our products…and force us to work harder and smarter in making our case for quality…and making it successfully.

So maybe it’s time to think more along the lines of coopertition.

As hokey as that may sound, it’s actually a strategy that works quite well. Because it encourages collaboration where it makes sense…among rival players with a common synergy…who are willing to bring value to the table…that furthers everyone’s competitive advantage.

In fact, the State of Mississippi has adopted this tactic for encouraging regional economic development that paves the way for attracting job-creating businesses.

Consequently, we must be willing to reach beyond our own institutional and organizational walls…and across well-established educational sectors…to share resources and build stronger coalitions.

We must also stop thinking in terms of disruptive innovation…and begin embracing the concept of continuous innovation…to produce the high-quality products that delight our consumers…by engaging, empowering, and educating them. Indeed, when they win, we all win.

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