POLICY ISSUES IN IMPLEMENTATION OF ONLINE COURSES
Hi, and welcome to my presentation on policy issues in online learning. I have been working at a lab at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada where we develop and implement courses using online technologies. We support distance education style courses where the students never have to set foot on campus and we also support on-campus courses where the instructor wants to implement some aspect of online technology in a course they teach.
I am also working with a group of researchers who are looking at the policy implications of implementing online courses and telelearning initiatives in post-secondary institutions. We are collecting documents from institutions and governments across Canada as well as conducting interviews with practitioners, administrators and students. In the process of doing this, similar issues arise over and over again as people attempt to implement online courses. In this presentation I hope to map out the landscape of these issues so that practitioners of online education will have a map to aid in the planning and implementation of their online course.
I am relying greatly on the work of our Telelearning Policy Initiative team, Dr. Brian Lewis, Dr. Richard Smith and Christine Massey (MA). For more information on the project you can view our web site. http://www.sfu.ca/tpi/
We begin with by examining of this landscape of telelearning issues, and the first thing we see is that these policy issues are multidimensional. Each issue is articulated differently by administrators, faculty, support staff or students. If we take an issue such as access to technology we may find that a faculty member feels that 'adequate' access to technology includes a state-of-the-art PC with extensive multimedia development software, while an administrator may feel that same PC is only 'appropriate' in a faculty support lab where graphics and web specialists will package content provided by faculty. Support staff may shudder at the broad range of 'recommended' systems that students, faculty and staff will be expecting to use. Teaching assistants may find themselves working on low level computers with low speed connectivity, but expected to monitor and evaluate a flood of student email and electronically submitted projects. Students may question the 'need' for the extra expenditure on computers when they can barely afford textbooks. As we continue to examine these issues, it is important to keep in mind the multiple impacts across these varying groups.
Another aspect of this landscape is that many assumptions are often unquestioned. In our research on telelearning policy we are dividing issues into the categories 'Doing Things Right' and 'Doing the Right Thing'. Many discussions about using online technologies are about which technologies are better than others. These 'Doing Things Right' questions are about effective implementation, which tools we choose and which support structures we create, after we have decided on objectives and goals.
The 'Doing the Right Thing' issues are much sketchier. These policy issues encroach on the very foundations of universities, what the goals and objectives of the various stakeholders are. These policy debates are about the broader implications of implementing online technologies into educational systems. In examining these issues we encounter our beliefs on what we expect these institutions to become.
In the course of our research we have established a set of issue categories which define this policy landscape:
(Like any developing research tool, these categories may or may not encompass every policy issue. I am presenting only the primary categories that we group other issues within.)
1) Doing Things Right:
At SFU we offered a Business MIS course in an online version. The faculty member teaching the course had also taught at another institution in Finland. As a result of this, students from Finland expressed interest in taking this equivalent course online for credit. Technologically, this was not a problem. These Finnish students had adequate access to required resources, spoke English and had the required academic pre-requisites. However, in order to get SFU credit, they had to be SFU students.
This meant they would have had to apply for admission to our institution. They would be competing with local students for access to a campus they would never attend. In addition, the timelines for admission and the setup of registration are tuned for accepting local students who are planning to attend campus full time. Even with a two month lead time, the admission system could not accommodate them within normal procedure. This was just one of many issues which forced both institutions to be extremely flexible in terms of defining and giving credit for the course.
The other side of accessibility issues are financial accessibility, cost barriers, access to internet service, and computer literacy skills. The technology can erect new barriers to access even while breaking down other barriers, by defining expensive technologies and limited service areas.
I will give one example of accessibility as it refers to Teaching Assistants (TAs) in online courses. At SFU we use a tutorial system for many courses where a Teaching Assistant (usually a graduate student in the department, school or faculty) works with small groups of students on a regular basis. These TAs also undertake the marking and evaluation of student work. When we move to an online version of a credit course, many of those courses still use TA's.
The TA can find themselves in a situation where they are now required to have excellent computer skills in addition to their content expertise. However, as graduate students, many TAs have very limited access to their own computer hardware. Even if they have equipment equivalent to the students they are teaching, they have to evaluate assignments online, access and update material and sometimes they are helping students solve their computer dilemmas. Issues such as receiving computer virus in student assignments is common. The TA can get dozens of viruses in a single week. Each group in the online course process from course author to student will have different access needs.
Many institutions are attempting to solve some access issues through a process of mandatory computer ownership. I will pick up this idea again in the examination of infrastructure issues.
Curriculum Development and Evaluation:
Many early adopters of online technologies take on the production of multimedia materials themselves. Lecturers begin producing web pages, PowerPoint presentations and the like. Later on, many of those same people are unable to maintain those initial presentations due to the sheer amount of work required. Students compare the presentations of faculty against the filter of highly produced television and software they have come to expect. Suddenly content experts are spending time learning graphic design, Photoshop and typography.
A recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia examined this element of online course design:
ONLINE COURSES NEED TO LOOK GOOD TO BE GOOD: Researchers at the University of British Columbia have concluded that to be effective, the appearance of an online course is as important as the content. "We paid attention to the feeling and tone of the course, not just the content and teaching processes," says one of the researchers. "It's like going into the supermarket -- the food might look all right, but the music drives you crazy, so you leave." The study, "Best- and Worst-Dressed Web Courses: Strutting into the 21st Century in Comfort and Style," includes a "Madonna Award for Best-Dressed Course," which was granted to an American history course at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The researchers evaluated 127 courses using 43 criteria. http://www.usq.edu.au/dec/decjourn/demain.htm (Chronicle of Higher Education Feb.27, 98)
The whole issue of teaching and learning effectiveness is key to the successful implementation of these technologies. If style is indeed critical to communicate substance, is the effort required to create and run those courses worth the cost? Putting courses online also entails a number of critical grading/evaluation issues. Issues such as testing and cheating become very large course design issues in the online environment.
We can authenticate through passwords and login id's that a person has the correct access, but we cannot tell if they have a panel of experts (or a sibling who already has completed the course) sitting with them while they write a test online. The ability to quickly send and receive information across the internet means students can share previous exams, old papers and other resources to an extent not possible before.
Many practitioners of online courses use collaborative models requiring group work for the completion of assignments. In each case, instructors must carefully craft both the assignments and the evaluation to ensure fair marking.
Support, Labour and Course Maintenance:
Students will claim knowledge of a certain piece of software, but may only be using a small proportion of its features or be using it inefficiently. Student and faculty exposure to computer training is often self initiated, therefore the support staff can only have the most basic expectation about the computer literacy of the diverse groups they are supporting.
Getting any online program running for the first time can require an inordinate amount of support just to get the participants familiar with the technology. The content of the course can easily become sidelined by the efforts to learn the technology. Within that technological literacy or proficiency lies the subtleties of learning to communicate using online technologies. Learning the social rules (netiquette) of email and discussion groups takes time, and support structures and course designs must take this into account.
The computers here at Wake Forest are part of what the university calls the "Plan for the Class of 2000," for which each student pays $3,000 in extra tuition each year. Much of the money goes toward the computers, networking, and technical support necessary to make "ubiquitous computing" a reality. The university has also added more faculty members, to keep class sizes down... ...the prevailing mood here is that the program is worthwhile. Professors are trying out new teaching methods; students do more work outside class, mostly by participating in on-line discussions; computer costs can now be figured into financial-aid calculations; and everyone in the program has equal access to computers. Previously, only half of Wake Forest's students owned computers. (Chronicle of Higher Education Dec.5, 1997 p.A33-35)
This mandatory use of computers is an interesting case, but it does require a constant infusion of money to keep students at the leading edge of technology. The costs mentioned in the article add up to $12,000 over a four year education. With the current costs of computer hardware a student could buy a new desktop computer, software and private dialup internet services for considerably less. It would not entail the convenience of a laptop, but the work could still be done. The extra costs are easily accounted for in the provision of networks services and support by the university. The question becomes how much are students willing to pay for their university networking infrastructure and support and how do these costs get passed on to students?
Something as simple as dialup access to campus networks can become and issue when offering an online course. If the university subsidizes dialup access, should it give more subsidy to those students who are participating online and are not using other campus based resources? Existing modem pools can become overused with only a small number of online course offerings.
2) Doing the Right Thing
Future of Education Issues
These shifts result in the speculation about the future role of the university in teaching. Issues around the socialization functions of the university, the role of distributed learning, contracting out of teaching to others, competition for students all challenge our notions about how this institution we call a university operates. What its boundaries are and what its imperatives are.
The policies that affect the use of these online technologies, must first be identified before we can adapt existing policies or create new ones. It is my hope that the readers of this presentation will have a better idea of the broad scope of policy issues that they may engage the policy makers at their institution to clarify their objectives for teaching, learning and research at their institution. I thank you for your most valuable asset, your time, and look forward to hearing your feedback.
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