February 25, 2011

How can states assure quality in online and blended courses?

As several states are moving towards making available additional online courses, particularly through a variety of providers at the single course level (as opposed to full-time online schools, or a single state virtual school providing the bulk of supplemental courses), there has been discussion of how to ensure quality. The concept of ensuring quality makes sense, of course. We are concerned, however, that policymakers believe they are much more able to assess quality before the course is given than we think is really possible.

Quite a few states are creating, or have created, course review processes. Educators and administrators review the course content, which may include evaluating the course against standards such as those created by iNACOL. What seems to be lost in the discussion of these course reviews is that so much of the learning in online courses is due to active involvement by the teacher, engaging with students either in groups or one-on-one. This teacher engagement cannot be fully assessed by looking at the course content.

The idea that a state committee can look at an online course to determine its quality is akin to suggesting that the same committee could wander into an empty classroom, look at the textbook, wall charts, and additional instructional materials, and pronounce that a good course will take place here. What’s missing in this classroom example is obvious—the teacher and actual instruction. But we see this same line of thinking raised repeatedly as state policymakers say “we will address course quality concerns through a course content review process.” That process may be part of quality assurance, but it is certainly not sufficient. Arguably, it may not be necessary either, if better methods of measuring outcomes are put into place.*

The potential exists for much of the instruction to be handled by the course content itself, and for the teacher to play a different, and perhaps more limited, role. There may even be a few outstanding examples of courses in which this is already the case. Our belief, however, is that for the large majority of online courses that exist today the teacher is still an absolutely necessary component. That’s not a statement of values (i.e., we’re not saying that must always be the case for ethical reasons); it is a statement based on our observation and understanding of online courses as they exist today. Someday, perhaps, a group of evaluators will be able to look at the online course content and pronounce the course effective. We don’t think that day has arrived yet.

*The question of whether an outcomes-based evaluation method can ever completely replace inputs-based quality assurances is worth a separate post, and we’re not going into much detail on it here. Suffice to say that we are not aware of any state that has outputs measures that are good enough to replace all inputs-based quality assurance measures at this time.

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