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Diversity in Expectations of Quality and Assessment in Online Learning – Part 2 of 2 – The American Context

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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American and European cultures have similar values regarding the work-life-study balance, whereas there are no related statements in the Asian context.  The most striking difference emerged when researchers analyzed the learning preferences of the Asian students. 


The posting below is the second of a two-part posting that looks at the differences in expectations of quality and assessment in online learning within [E1] the Asian, European and American contexts. The first posting (#1788) looked at the Asian and European contexts and this posting looks at the American context. It is from Chapter 9 – Diversity in Expectations of Quality and Assessment, by Albert Sangra, Stella Porto, and Insung Jung in the book Culture and Online Learning: Global Perspectives and Research, edited by Insung Jung and Charlotte Nirmalani Gunawardena. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2014 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Theories That Connect Academic Advising, Academic Underpreparedness, and Student Development


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Leaning

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The American Context


Online learning has grown considerably since its inception 20 years ago (Aslanian & Clinefelter, 2012), “to the point that in the fall of 2010, almost one-third of US post-secondary students were taking at least one course online” (Hill, 2012, p. 85).  In a survey with over 3,000 online learners enrolled in 31 higher education institutions in the United States, Ralston-Berg (2012) found that the online learners focus on three main areas for overall quality assessment: interaction and facilitation, course materials, and learning activities.  The degree of interaction among online learners is a major contributor to students’ satisfaction, motivation, and performance.  Students expect clearly stated requirements concerning interaction with the instructor and peers, as well as prompt turnaround time for responses, grades, and feedback.  “Learners appreciate faculty who help them think creatively; change opinions and sharpen analyses; and encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning by helping them plan and produce meaningful work” (Moore, 2002, p. 59).  In addition, course materials that are current and relevant are absolutely important for the achievement of learning objectives (Palloff & Pratt, 2003).  Students expect that knowledge and skills gained through studying well-designed course materials and meaningful learning experiences will be long lasting and preferably applicable in the near future.  In particular, students expect learning activities to be meaningful to their own “personal and professional experiences, enhancing the value of prior learning, both formal and informal” (Sherry, 2003, p. 438). 

For American students, student services and support is another key area in judging the quality of online learning, given its impact on their motivation and retention (Moore, 2011).  Much like customers, American students expect easy and immediate access to “program information and institutional services – including feedback, tutorials, learning resources, advising, mentoring, testing, readiness and career placement, grade and transfer credit and transcript reporting, degree conferrals and technologies” (Moore, 2002, p. 59).  For the most part, American students are attempting to balance life, work, and study and thus expect accessible and efficient support toward successful program and course conception and value personalized attention and feedback. 

Although faculty members are still somewhat skeptical when it comes to students’ learning outcomes, there is evidence that beliefs are changing as to the potential of technology in providing students with rich learning experiences.  Acquired experience with online teaching has had positive influences in changing perceptions of faculty members (Bolliger & Wasilik, 2009).  Instructors who aspire to have meaningful interactions with students see the benefits of adopting technologies despite increased workload (Bolliger & Wasilik, 2009; Moore, 2011).   However, large classes, unprepared students, poor course materials, and outdated technology tools often bring challenges to the instructors who wish to offer superior learning experiences online and lead them to develop skepticism toward the quality of online learning. 

To ensure the quality of online learning, instructors need to be trained to use new technologies properly and effectively.  In addition, they should be made aware of the best pedagogical practices involved in teaching with technologies (Moore, 2011).  Because faculty success and satisfaction in online teaching often depends on the quality of the course design, competent instructors should be involved in the online course development and design phases. Whether provided with a template or fully involved in the creation of an online course, the instructors expect to be heard when it comes to feedback about the courses they are teaching.  They wish to be able to actively participate in an academic community of practice, be recognized, and possibly be rewarded for excellence in online teaching.  They should benefit from opportunities of professional development in their academic fields to enhance their online teaching practices (Moore, 2002). 

Online instructors perceive high-quality support from institutions, including administrative, technological, and instructional services, as an important quality factor for online learning.  They also see faculty evolution, which is a common practice in American institutions (Palloff & Pratt, 2008) as a fundamental component of overall course quality.  Instructors typically expect to be evaluated by students through standardized instruments.  However, given the high stakes associated with assessments and accountability in American higher education, there is still an evident schism between policy makers and faculty with regard to common standards for course evaluation.  Instructors often ask for other types of assessments that reach beyond the potentially biased student satisfaction surveys. 

When examining institutional views on the quality of online education in the American higher education context, one must consider issues of accreditation, funding, and regulations, which define a stricter set of alternatives when it comes to balancing the demands of cost, access, and quality.  In the United States, accreditation is decentralized and self-regulatory, built on “a patchwork quilt, with varying standards” (Bates, 2012, p. 1).  The growth of the for-profit providers in online education combined with the lack of official scrutiny has led to a pervasive distrust toward online education from the public.  Many of the decisions made within institutions regarding online course offerings are based on requirements from accredited agencies, which in many cases are not suited for, or aligned with, best practices in online education.  Such limitations are stifling considering the potential of online learning to widen the spectrum of academic achievers and develop the innovative business models in higher education (Farmer, 2012; Flanagan, 2012; Hill, 2012). 

According to the Sloan Consortium (n.d.), learning effectiveness and scale are two main institutional priorities in the United States.  It is widely accepted in American higher education that the effectiveness of online learning should remain compatible with that of traditional classroom practices by integrating appropriate interactive and collaborative online technologies, career-focused e-resources, well-prepared and engaging instructors, and authentic assessment methodologies.  Scale, on the other hand, relates to cost-effectiveness and institutional commitment such as improving services while keeping costs in check, reasonable tuition and fees, and resource sharing through partnerships (Sloan Consortium, 2003). 

Despite the ongoing efforts of institutions and policy makers regarding quality assurance in online education, major challenges still remain central in the higher education discourse.  The lack of common standards in the American higher education system has led to a mushrooming of benchmarks and quality models.  One such model is the rubric standard created by Quality Matters (QM), a nationally recognized, faculty-centered, peer review process designed to certify the quality of online course and online components in the United States.  The rubric has eight general standards: course overview and introduction, learning objectives (competencies), assessment and measurement, instructional materials, learner interaction and engagement, course technology, learner support, and accessibility.  Across these eight areas, 41 specific standards are used to evaluate the design of online and blended courses at the higher education level.  Even though this kind of model offers useful quality guidelines, the issue of standards becomes more complex with the expanding diversity of online learning providers and formats. 

For example, in the area of assessment, technology can provide a wide range of authentic assessments, but they may not be applicable or reliable in all online learning contexts.  When scalability is a necessity, assessment will probably require massive arrangements, where online exams and quizzes will play a central role in keeping costs low through the use of high-end technology for marking and preprogrammed feedback.  However, in certain cultures such as the United States where issues of academic integrity and avoiding and detecting cheating and plagiarism are serious concerns, institutions are greatly challenged to undertake a multipronged approach, including the use of technology and instructional design practices, to develop policies and procedures that help avoid, detect, and sanction cheating and plagiarism. 

Finding viable approaches to provide learning results analogous to those in conventional education while keeping costs down is still the main thread of all the debate concerning quality in online education in the United States, as Power and Morven-Gould (2011) noted. 


As expected, perceptions of quality in online learning tend to differ according to the sociocultural context.  Nevertheless, flexibility, the need for an appropriate and well-structured instructional design, and the delivery of good course materials are some of the common links that seem to be shared among all students as important for quality online learning experiences. American and European cultures have similar values regarding the work-life-study balance, whereas there are no related statements in the Asian context.  The most striking difference emerged when researchers analyzed the learning preferences of the Asian students.  Contrary to the current emphasis on interactive and collaborative designs in online learning environments, Asian learners give less value to these characteristics, focusing more on course content organization to enhance independent study.  Their preference toward a more instructor-led approach to online learning is quite different from that of American and European students.  In the Asian context, examinations are seen as a means to demonstrate virtue and merit.  In the American and European contexts, students give more value to alternative and continuous assessment methods compared with traditional examinations.  This suggests that different types of online learning assessments are necessary to respond to different teaching and learning methodologies and cultures.  It is clear that further developments are needed in this field. 

Skepticism of online teaching and learning is a common point shared by American and European teachers, as they consider a hybrid system blending online and face-to-face communications as a better form of online education.  However, we should not disregard the fact that many students may face constraints in attending a traditional classroom setting.  Rather than attempting to replicate traditional face-to-face teaching in an online format, online instructors need to be innovative in their methodologies.  To help online educators devise appropriate online teaching strategies to meet the diverse needs of learners, training is necessary.  Proper training and support for instructors to design effective online courses will increase levels of confidence in online teaching and thus lead to better perceptions of quality.  Regardless of cultural and contextual differences, a pedagogical shift toward more interactive online teaching and learning approaches may help improve people’s understanding of the benefits of online learning based on networked learning models and develop common quality standards in online learning. 

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