Like last week’s hallmark, Hallmark 7 of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s Interregional Guidelines for the Evaluation of Distance Education is both obvious yet challenging. It provides criteria for student support at institutions offering online programs. The hallmark states, “The institution provides effective student and academic services to support students enrolled in online learning offerings.” There are ten “Analysis/Evidence” points supporting the hallmark. Some of these points, such as the one stipulating that the support offered to students should be offered in a format appropriate to online learners and another that states that online students must demonstrate proficiency in using online forms of learning resources, are fairly straightforward. I’d like to discuss a few of the other, less straightforward points pertaining to this hallmark individually below.
- The institution’s admissions program for online learning provides good web-based information to students about the nature of the online learning environment, and assists them in determining if they possess the skills important to success in online learning.
While adding such information to program websites seems like a relatively basic requirement and one easily met, not very many institutions offering online education programs currently do provide information about the nature of online learning, much less assistance in helping potential students to determine whether or not their needs are best met in a distance learning program, on their websites. Some schools certainly do, but many more do not.
Still, there are questions that arise with respect to such a requirement. For example, where should this “good web-based information” be located on the institution’s webpages? Should it be provided on an institutional homepage, available to any potential students who might be seeking information about the institution’s online programs, or should it be contained in, for example, a student prep course that is made available to students after they’ve enrolled in the program? Common sense would seem to dictate that this information should be made available to potential students so they can make an informed decision about their enrollment in any given program, but since the requirement does not clearly make such a stipulation, it’s possible that institutions may choose to provide it via a student orientation course after the students have enrolled in the program.
Another question is what constitutes “good” information. How much information is “good”? What kind of information is “good”? How should assistance be given in helping students to determine whether or not they are suited to online learning programs? Should students who are not suited to online learning be turned away by the institution, or is it a “buyer beware” scenario?
For institutions, thinking through these questions is important; the answers should help shape the information provided to potential online students on the institution’s website. Ideally, any such information will be included on the institution’s main page and should be easy to find rather than buried beneath an obscure link. Providing interactive quizzes or, at minimum, a series of questions students can ask themselves as they consider online learning creates solution that is extremely appealing; again, though, these questions should be posed before students have already enrolled in the program and thus should be featured on the main webpage of the institution.
- The institution provides an online learning orientation program.
On the whole, this seems to be one requirement that many, if not most, institutions have already met. Student orientation programs across institutions (and sometimes within institutions) vary wildly, however, from actual “programs” to individual, self-paced tutorials or courses that students are “required” to take. In many cases, though, there is no actual enforcement of the requirement and thus large discrepancies in terms of the actual orientation of students to the program.
Ideally, each online program would have a comprehensive orientation program that provided students with information on the entire program, including support services (such as registration, advising, information resources, and student services) as well as the structure of the program (degrees, certificates, and programs of study available, along with information about the deans, chancellors, or directors of each program) in addition to more basic information about online learning (what to expect, how to participate in an online course, and what the workload is like) and the learning management system used by the institution. Such information could be provided in a few ways, but the most effective, according to research, would be to put the information into the LMS so that students experience the system as they are being oriented. Video tutorials, audio messages, and other multimedia tools should be used to help students become familiar with the system while simultaneously gaining knowledge about the institution and the resources available to them.
- Students are provided with reasonable and cost-effective ways to participate in the institution’s system of student authentication.
This point is a bit more complicated, but it is a terribly important one. It could pertain both to student authentication for logging into the learning management system as well as to authentication for testing and submission of work. In online learning, authentication for testing is and has been a big issue, and some of the solutions range from the relatively simple to the extremely complicated and expensive. At a conference I attended last fall, I visited an exhibitor’s booth that featured a new system for student authentication—it was a webcam that looked like a big ball on top of a black box. Many of the other visitors to the booth raised the same questions I had—how was such a system compatible with student privacy, and how much did it cost. The system was about $150, a cost that the exhibitor assured me was not much more, if any, than the cost of a textbook. In fact, the cost is significantly higher than the cost of any textbook I’ve ever used, and it’s exponentially higher than the cost of many e-textbooks.
Other methods for student authentication can be integrated directly into the LMS and thus do not burden students directly with having to find additional funds for such technology. The use of programs that ask authentication questions such as the ones you answer when you set up a bank account—“At which of the following addresses have you lived?”—or bio=signature programs that ask students to click on a series of types of images to create a unique “signature” for themselves is usually a cost bundled into the cost of the courses or overall online program and thus may be easier for students to manage. Ideally, online programs will feature more solutions such as these that are integrated seamlessly into the LMS to the extent that students barely notice them. Requiring students to purchase special equipment or purchase and download special software is not a long-term, viable solution.
Jennifer Golightly, Ph.D.
Academic Trainer & Consultant