2.1 Best Practices in Online Learning

License: Creative Commons Attribution license (reuse allowed) Attribution: Designing Online Learning by Innovative Learning

Incorporating best practices into online courses is often times the focus of an instructional designer working in an academic setting.  Following nationally recognized best practices, the instructional designer will find guidance on how to meet or exceed their institution’s quality assurance standards in their online course design.

Learning Objectives

  • Apply contemporary approaches to quality assurance and quality standards.
  • Tailor quality assurance standards to the organization’s needs.
  • Identify quality by design, and apply best practices in an online setting.
  • Identify each step in the instructional design process.
  • Understand what accessibility means in an online environment, why it is important, and what standards
    and policies are in place to support it.

E-learning is characterized by the evolution of educational tools in a transitional period, that is, the use of computers for learning. Organizations produce checklists and guidelines to ensure quality from the early stages of design. By applying predefined quality factors to educational systems engineering, quality can be ensured. This is what we mean by quality assurance by design: ensuring that mechanisms allow human capabilities to further expand.

In general, quality refers to fitness of purpose. In e-learning, quality refers to learning (Stephenson, 2005), something excellent in performance (EFQUEL, 2005). In particular, quality in e-learning means providing the right content at the right time, enabling learners to acquire knowledge and skills and apply their learning to improve their performance, whether as an individual or within an organizational framework (ASTD & NGA, 2001). Stephenson (2005) proposed that quality depends on its interdisciplinary nature, and the identification of quality factors for a given environment depends on the chosen perspective. As there are two essential levels—the pedagogical and the operational—the target for return of investment must therefore be viewed as long term.

National bodies and international organizations have now developed principles, guidelines, and benchmarks to describe quality based on the international developments in the field (QAA, 1998; CHEA, 2001; USNEI, 2001; ISO-9000, the Benjamin Franklin Institute, 2001; EFQUEL, 2006). Furthermore, importance is also attached to national standards resulting from the globalization and universal access of learners as customers and taxpayers.

 Quality Assurance

Quality assurance (QA) is a planned and systematic review process of an institution or program to determine that acceptable standards for learner-centered education, scholarship, pedagogic culture and expertise, infrastructure, and organizational strategy and vision, are being maintained and enhanced. This would include expectations that mechanisms of quality control for benchmarking are in place and effective. QA provides the means through which an institution ensures that conditions are such that students can achieve the standards set by that institution or other awarding body. Benchmarking provides signposts against which outcomes can be measured. Subject benchmark statements allow the academic community to describe the nature and characteristics of programs in a specific subject. They also represent general expectations about the standards for qualifications at a given level; they articulate the attributes and capabilities that those possessing such qualifications should be able to demonstrate. Benchmarking is therefore a prerequisite for quality assessment.

Quality assessment is a diagnostic review and evaluation of teaching, learning, and outcomes based on detailed examination of curricula, structure, and effectiveness. It is designed to determine whether or not the institution or program meets generally accepted standards of excellence, and to suggest further quality improvements.

Quality improvement refers to expectations that an institution will have to plan, monitor and improve the quality of its programs. In most cases, the quality assurance of an accrediting agency requires established procedures to ensure an ongoing process (CHEA, 2001). According to Pond (2002), the new educational online paradigms are learner-centered, tailored, open, collaborative, qualitative, and flexible. They may also be locally differentiated. These criteria meet a universal set of quality e-learning criteria. Online education should therefore provide:

  • continuity between advertising and reality
  • continuity between purpose and practice
  • preparation for external credentialing/further study
  • personal/professional/academic growth for the learner
  • relevant
  • rich, multidirectional interaction
  • functional, user-friendly interface
  • adequate resources for: instructors, learners, curriculum
  • appropriate assessment methods/opportunities

Pond’s criteria seem to be eminently constructive for a learner’s development. In conclusion, quality assurance, assessment, and improvement require sets of performance, benchmarks, and indicators based on evaluation tools and techniques. The latter need specific criteria anchored in quality factors. E-learning quality factors describe these systematic reviews and evaluation of principles, guidelines, and benchmarks. However, there is a problem related to labour-management issues during collective bargaining vis-à-vis quality education. It is important that to be in alignment with the international, national and organizational targets need to be in alignment. This is the major challenge.

Instructional design (ID) is a process of resolving instructional problems through systematic analysis of learning conditions. ID is a systematic, repetitive process of activities aimed at creating a solution for an instructional problem. The systematic instructional design process can take hundreds of hours of development time.ID starts with the initialization and project planning phase (how the instructional design is carried out); the design and development phase (appropriate strategies and approaches in targeted contexts); a QA phase is focused on evaluation and deployment.

Learner-centered design (LCD) is focused on making users more effective e-learners, user-centred design (UCD) is focused on making e-learners effective users in order to free them from cognitive and physical constraints, making the system easy to use. When designing systems for e-learning, we must first determine the goal, the intention, and specifications by collecting the relevant information. As a result, learners will be free to justify why they use the applications and their reasons will need to match the organization’s intentions.

Quality assurance by design is to raise awareness of the importance of quality, and attempts to propose frameworks in order to ensure quality by design. E-learning quality derives from interdisciplinary approaches on learner-centered and social frameworks, and depends on organizations’ infrastructure, strategy, and vision. Quality assurance is also driven by good instructional design principles.

National Standards

Nationally recognized Instructional Design best practices from Quality Matters, and even state boards like The Tennessee Board of Regents, indicate that all weekly or unit learning modules should contain an Overview, Module/Unit level Objectives, an Assignments list, and supplementary learning material. All assignments can be linked to the Assignments area inside the Learning Management System (LMS) Learning Module. A Learning Management System or (LMS) is a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting and delivery of electronic educational technology courses or training programs. Canvas, Blackboard, EdX, Schoology, Moodle are popular examples of learning management systems. This will enable the students to access everything they need for the week/ unit in a single place.

These standards are identified by Boise State University and Quality Matters  below.

Overview: A general statement about the nature of the module and its relation to the course as a whole. The introduction should not only introduce the topic of the module, but should also forecast the content and organization of the module itself.

Module Learning Objectives: These objectives should be the specific outcomes that relate to each individual module, not the objectives that relate to the entire course. Students should be explicitly and clearly told what they are expected to learn in each module. It is very important to make sure that the module outcomes align properly with the assessments in the same module.

14 Essential QM Standards II.2: The module/unit learning objectives describe outcomes that are measurable and consistent with the course-level objectives. Module/unit level learning objectives are critical to the overall structure of the online or hybrid course and serve to focus the student on what’s important this week. These objectives should also be written in measurable terms so that the student knows exactly what he/she should learn and so that the instructor has a clear target for assessing learning. Module/unit level objectives may be written by the instructor or taken directly from the textbook.

Content, Lectures, Readings, Assignments, etc.: This can be a very broad area to cover and may include multiple topics. Therefore, you may want to separate this material into sections (lectures, discussion board forums, PowerPoint presentations, reading requirements, self-assessment activities, and so on). Again, these can be linked to the Assignments content page inside of  an (LMS).

Additional Resources: Supplemental or complementary materials relevant to the module.

Implementing these nationally recognized standards in your course(s) will improve the quality, learning outcomes, and the overall effectiveness of your course design.

General Instructional Design Principles

The systematic instructional design process can take hundreds of hours of development time. Factors such as the course’s complexity, the course management system used, the availability of resources such as instructor notes, the team members’ experience, team dynamics, and whether suitable design specifications exist, can all affect how much time is required.

We will only briefly touch on the principles of instructional design here, as we will cover the ADDIE model of instructional design in more depth in Chapter 3. With most projects, you will begin your design by identifying instructional goals. Instructional goals are general learning outcomes that break down into specific measurable skills. Before identifying the instructional goal, you must first define the actual problem, gather the information for defining the problem and identifying the instructional goal through a needs assessment.

Needs assessment

A needs assessment is a method for determining the actual problem, rather than the symptoms of a problem. Be sure that you define the real problem rather than a symptom of the problem. Needs assessments can be accomplished by use of the following tools and techniques; interviews, observations, surveys, group meetings, and a review of any existing documentation.

A needs assessment is a valuable tool for:

  • gathering information;
  • understanding potential users;
  • consulting users; and
  • ensuring involvement, ownership, and fewer surprises for all affected individuals.

Your needs assessment should result in a precise definition of the problem. There should be a clear distinction between “what is” and “what should be”. Be sure that the real problem has been identified, rather than a symptom of the problem.

Goal analysis

A goal analysis includes classifying the instructional goal into the domain, or kind of learning that will occur and results in a visual statement of what the learner will be able to do. To analyze a goal, describe in detail the consecutive steps the learner will complete to achieve the goal. A general rule of thumb the task should involve five to 15 steps. Focus on what learners need to do or perform, rather than what learners need to know. Goal analysis includes classifying the goal into the domain, or kind of learning that will occur. The domains can be verbal information where learners state, list, describe, name, etc., intellectual skills such as learning how to discriminate, identify, classify, demonstrate, generate, originate, create, etc., psychomotor skills where learners make, draw, adjust, assemble, etc., and attitudes such as making choices or decisions, Fenrich (2005). Establishing the domain is important in determining what instructional strategies to use in subsequent steps.  Subsequent steps may include a subordinate skills analysis, a hierarchical analysis for intellectual skills, or a procedural analysis for psychomotor skills.  Additionally, subordinate attitude skills should also be analyzed.

Next, we move on to identifying entry skills and learner characteristics.  For learning to be effective and to avoid frustrating learners, you must create a match or balance between the instruction and the learners’ capabilities. The instruction must be designed for the target population, defined as the widest practical range of learners. Determining the learners’ abilities, language level, motivation, interests, and other relevant factors is essential. You can obtain this information by interviewing teachers and learners, testing learners, and reviewing existing documentation such as test scores. The result should determine the entry or basic skills that the target population learners have mastered before the instruction begins. In other words, these preliminary skills will not be taught. In this step, you may also discover other factors that may influence the instructional design.

Learner analysis

learner analysis involves asking questions that elicit information about the learners’ abilities, language skills, motivation, and interests as well as observe typical learners is a way to determine learner’s entry skills. This can help in selecting relevant and meaningful examples, choosing appropriate role models, and  avoiding inappropriate stereotyping. To ensure your materials are aimed at the correct student population, consider the learners’ abilities, language capabilities, motivation, interests, and human factors.

Writing learning outcomes

Learning outcomes or objectives are specific measurable skills and are more specific than instructional goals. For example, if a goal is to be able to speak conversational English, a learning outcome could be to conjugate the verb “to be”. Learning outcomes communicate to learners, instructors, and other interested people, what the learners should be able to do, compared to their current skill  level. Success occurs when learners achieve the planned outcomes. Learning outcomes help learners organize their studying, avoid becoming lost, make appropriate decisions such as whether to study a section or not, and maintain their motivation. If you inform your learners of the learning outcomes, they will, on average, attain slightly but significantly higher results. Even though some learners do not read learning outcomes, include them for those who do want and need them. It is critical for you to define specific learning outcomes since they form the basis of the subsequent instructional development process. Accurate, well-written learning outcomes can save development time and money by helping to keep the process on track.  Without specific learning outcomes, it is easy to start branching off on interesting tangents, which could make it impossible to finish a project within the constraints given. Many projects have failed because of poorly written  or non-existent learning outcomes. Check all learning outcomes for flaws. If a learning outcome is not specific and measurable, do not proceed with further design and development. Even when you define the learning outcomes, there is no guarantee that you will successfully teach them. In order to ensure that learning takes place, you still need to follow five instructional design steps.

  • Decide on content area, use action verbs to identify specific “observable” behaviors that can produce measurable results.
  • Specify the content area after the verb.
  • Specify applicable conditions, identifying any tools to be used, information to be supplied, or other constraints.
  • Specify applicable criteria, identifying any desired levels of speed, accuracy, quality, quantity.
  • Review each learning outcome to be sure it is complete, clear, and concise. Have content experts and learners to review them.

Learning outcomes, or objectives, are specific, measurable skills that communicate to learners, instructors, and other interested people, what the learners should be able to do after completing the learning. Success occurs when learners achieve the planned outcomes. Learning outcomes form the basis of the subsequent instructional development process.

Designing with Accessibility in Mind

Great efforts have been made to give every student equal access to high-quality learning, and to remove barriers for people with disabilities. However, most of these efforts are focused on the traditional, face-to-face classroom experience. Less attention is devoted to those taking courses fully online, and their ability or inability to cope with web-based interactive content. While standards and guidelines have been developed to support and assist with accessible web design, their primary focus has been on technical specifications, assistive technologies, or legal issues. Fewer studies have been conducted to investigate how that “accessible” content is perceived from a learner’s perspective, and how helpful it really is. As distance learning adapts to new technology, instructors should be innovative in their relationship with students and in the methods for developing educational content, accommodating the diverse needs and learning styles which will be beneficial for all, regardless of their (dis)abilities.

Universities are increasingly becoming involved in technology-based education programs. The level of sophistication of such offerings (cohort organizations, electronic learning) is accelerating rapidly. However, persons with disabilities, taking courses off campus, are not always provided with the same rights of access and program accommodation as those on-campus. In some cases, slow Internet access is a problem, and in other cases, electronic course offerings coming from the university have not been coded to support adaptive technologies (like screen readers, Braille display, enhanced print size, voice-over, sip and puff control, etc.). The end result is an unfair imbalance in academic access.

Conformance with the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C, an international organization for developing Web standards) and its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 will enhance the market share and audience reach of programs by increasing their general usability. Adoption of WCAG 1.0 recommendations also demonstrates a commitment to social responsibility and equity of access to education, information and services. These changes do not have to be substantial to be successful. Web accessibility is usually achieved by careful planning and attention to details. This all translates into Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a practice of designing web pages so that they can be navigated and read by everyone, regardless of location, experience, or the type of computer and technology used, In addition, it means providing educational material with flexible goals, instructional and assessments strategies that apply to different learning styles and practices.

Legislation

In the United States, a law called Section 508 requires federal agencies to ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to information in electronic systems as people without disabilities.

“Section 508 requires that when Federal agencies
develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and
information technology, Federal employees with
disabilities have access to and use of information
and data that is comparable to the access and use
by Federal employees who are not individuals with
disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed
on the agency. Section 508 also requires that
individuals with disabilities, who are members of
the public seeking information or services from a
Federal agency, have access to and use of information
and data that is comparable to that provided
to the public who are not individuals with disabilities,
unless an undue burden would be imposed on
the agency” (Section 508, 2006, Subpart A—General,
para. 1).

Background

The term “disability” is very broad, and can include persons with sensory impairments (blind or visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing), learning disabilities, motor functioning problems, or neurological impairments. The number and severity of challenges increases with the age of the population served—especially in the area of sensory impairment. The main goal is to improve usability and to provide online learners with disabilities, who were academically qualified, with full, fair and equal access to all university services, and programs. It means either redesigning the existing electronic content or developing a new one with accessibility in mind. Usually, you need to do both.

The first step is to carefully look at the courses or modules and determine their level of accessibility. Consultation and collaboration with users, advocacy groups, other university and government agencies, and various experts is very helpful. During this process, it is important that the work does not entail any modification of the academic standards of the university or elimination of the academic evaluation of students.

Making online courses accessible to students with disabilities, i.e., providing easy and consistent navigation structure, and presenting the material in a clear and organized way brings benefit to all students, regardless of their physical and mental condition. Every student is different; everyone has different levels of comfort with new technology, from computer-shy technophobe to web-savvy expert. Every effort made to increase accessibility will help to disseminate information on accessibility issues and provide a basis for raising awareness. Almost every online accessibility accommodation strategy designed for students with disabilities also helps additional students. For example, English language learners (ESL students) frequently use screen readers that were originally created for people who are blind or who have visual impairments. They benefit from hearing the text spoken out loud as they read a passage of text. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles which builds upon universal design concepts from other fields (such as; architecture and urban planning and applies them to learning situations) assists students with disabilities, certainly, but also assists students who are non-native language speakers, students with different learning styles, students with different levels of Internet connectivity and access to technology, and even students who require more assistance with self-motivation.

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology is essentially any software or hardware that can be used to help overcome a disability. A pair of glasses could be considered assistive technology, as it helps the user overcome poor vision.

Instead of thinking about assistive technology in terms of types of disabilities it assists, let’s look at it from the point of view what kind of help it offers. Assistive technology could provide:

  • help with accessing a computer
  • help with reading
  • help with writing (composing, spelling, typing)
  • help with communication
  • help with learning
  • help with hearing and vision
Activity Issue Assistive Technology Examples

Computer Access

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When a student cannot access a computer with a standard keyboard and a mouse, he may need special input devices. These devices are commonly used by students with physical, visual, or cognitive disabilities. Software: OS accessibility features, word prediction, keystroke reduction, voice recognition, on-screen keyboard.

Hardware: Keyguard, arm support, trackball, trackpad, joystick, alternative keyboard switch with Morse code, switch with scanning.

Communication

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For many autistic people and some with learning disabilities, augmentative & alternative communication devices may be helpful. They use symbols, pictures and printed words. Software: Symbol browser, art activities, games on the computer.

Hardware: Voice output devices or devices with speech synthesis for typing.

Reading

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The low resolution of monitors can cause fatigue and eye strain for all users. For those with vision or learning issues, reading onscreen can be an added deterrent. Keeping track, following a line of text, understanding and remembering can be problematic. Software: Talking electronic device/ software to “pronounce” challenging words, electronic books, mindmapping, talking calculator, voice recognition.

Hardware: Single word scanners, scanner with OCR and talking word processor, hand-held scanners, hand-held computers.

 

Writing

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There are two different accessibility issues when using computers for writing: 1) physical problems with typing, and 2) cognitive problems with composing and organizing ideas and converting them into written expression. Software: Templates, word processors, voice recognition, talking dictionary, spelling & grammar checker, multimedia software for expression of ideas.

Hardware: Alternative keyboards and input devices used for Computer Access (above).

Learning

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Students with learning difficulties may have problems with attention and with organizing ideas. Software: Multimedia software for expression of ideas, mindmapping, electronic organizers.

Hardware: Hand-held computers.

Hearing & Vision

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Assistive technologies for visually and hearing impaired students may either increase the signal or replace it with something else. Software: Screen magnifier, screen color contrast, screen reader, captioning, computer-aided note taking.

Hardware: Braille/tactile labels, alternative keyboard with enlarged keys, Braille keyboard and note taker, signaling device, phone amplifier, personal amplification system/hearing aid, FM or loop system.

Some students with disabilities may require additional time to complete tasks such as self-tests and quizzes. A student using an alternative keyboard may not be able to type as fast as his classmates. Extend the allotted time for that student, or remove the time requirement. Chat rooms are often inaccessible to users reading screen readers. Make sure that chat room participation is not a course  requirement, or make arrangements for a disabled student to participate using other means such as a discussion room.

For audio, the accessibility alternative may be relatively simple; if the audio file in question is spoken word, it is sufficient to provide a text transcript. For music, provide lyrics and, if appropriate, a description of the piece and an explanation of its significance.

Video files are a great way to present information. These can be short video clips that you create yourself, or links to web-based videos that a peer has made. If you use a video file that has no audio track, let your students know that there is no audio right in the link to the file. That way the students will know that they do not need speakers and deaf and hard of hearing students will know that they do not need captions. When adding video to your site, accommodations need to be made for both vision and hearing-impaired users. For visually impaired users, audio description (AD) of the contents of a scene is important. For hearing impaired users, any key information provided in the video should be represented in the text equivalent.

A transcript is one way that you can provide your audience with a second format for your content. Transcripts are easy, and can be created by anyone. If you are the creator of the video, chances are you have a script that you can provide. In some cases, a script may not need any modifications to be a full transcript. If you need to write a transcript from scratch, it isn’t hard, but it is time-consuming. Load up the video, and your word processor and get typing. Before long you will have a transcript to publish.

A transcript usually consists of one file with the whole content of the video. On the other hand, captions and subtitles are synchronized with the video stream, and as such require more effort, and time to create.

Subtitles are a textual representation of the speech in a video clip. The focus of subtitles is to state what is said, not what is audible. Subtitling does not attempt to provide information about other aural cues, such as a ringing doorbell. Captions attempt to provide a textual representation of all the audio in a video clip. This may include speech as well as sound effects (for example, a ringing doorbell) and background music. Captioning is something that you can do yourself, but due to the amount of time necessary it may be more practical to hire a professional captioning company to caption your video.  This can be expensive, but in the end you may find the price worthwhile.

Key Terms

  • E-learning is characterized by the evolution of educational tools in a transitional period, that is, the use of computers for learning. Organizations produce checklists and guidelines to ensure quality from the early stages of design.
  • Quality Assurance (QA) is a planned and systematic review process of an institution or program to determine that acceptable standards for learner-centered education, scholarship, pedagogic culture and expertise, infrastructure, and organizational strategy and vision, are being maintained and enhanced.
  • Quality Assessment is a diagnostic review and evaluation of teaching, learning, and outcomes based on detailed examination of curricula, structure, and effectiveness.
  • Quality Improvement refers to expectations that an institution will have to plan, monitor and improve the quality of its programs.
  • Learning Management System or (LMS) is a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting and delivery of electronic educational technology courses or training programs. Canvas, Blackboard, EdX, Schoology, Moodle are popular examples of learning management systems.
  • Instructional Design (ID) is a process of resolving instructional problems through systematic analysis of learning conditions. ID is a systematic, repetitive process of activities aimed at creating a solution for an instructional problem.
  • Overview: A general statement about the nature of the module and its relation to the course as a whole.
  • Module Learning Objectives: These objectives should be the specific outcomes that relate to each individual module, not the objectives that relate to the entire course.
  • Additional Resources: Supplemental or complementary materials relevant to the module.
  • Learner-Centered Design (LCD) is focused on making users more effective e-learners, user-centred design (UCD) is focused on making e-learners effective users in order to free them from cognitive and physical constraints, making the system easy to use.
  • Needs Assessment is a method for determining the actual problem, rather than the symptoms of a problem.
  • Goal Analysis results in a visual statement of what the learner will be able to do.
  • Learner Analysis involves asking questions that elicit information about the learners’ abilities, language skills, motivation, and interests as well as observe typical learners is a way to determine learner’s entry skill.

Key Takeaways

  • Quality assessment is a diagnostic review and evaluation of teaching, learning, and outcomes based on detailed examination of curricula, structure, and effectiveness.
  • Best practices recommended from Quality Matters, and even state boards like The Tennessee Board of Regents, indicate that all weekly or unit learning modules should contain the following: an Overview, Module/Unit level Objectives, an Assignments list, and supplementary learning material.
  • Instruction design is a systematic, repetitive process of activities aimed at creating a solution for an instructional problem, which can take hundreds of hours of development time. The process includes conducting a needs assessment, an analysis of instructional goals, and writing learning outcomes.

Exercises

  1. Your company human resources department asked you to assist in designing some harassment training for all employees.  The majority of the tutorial is now complete, but the HR Director visits your office with a new challenge that did not exist at the beginning of the design process. There is a new employee that has just been hired, and this new employee is blind.  How can you adapt this training to meet the needs of this new employee? What assistive technologies might provide this employee the same training and knowledge base as all other company employees? Your deadline to have this training complete is less than two weeks away. With a firm deadline and the budget almost totally spent, what will you do?

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Experiential Learning in Instructional Design and Technology, Chapter 2.1 Best Practices in Online Learning. Provided by: the authors under an Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.

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