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Standards and how they impact a change in course format

Suppose an instructor decides to offer a statistics course online–a course that was previously taught successfully face-to-face, who approves the change of format, and what do they look at?  Institutions of higher ed do not have one standard protocol for this, but I’d like to offer my own experiences.  As the Director of Distance Learning at various institutions, I’ve often had to review  and approve changes in the format of a course’s delivery from a face-to-face course to an online or hybrid course.   And, there are times when I’ve not approved the change of format until some specific problems were addressed.  I offer the scenario of a statistics course merely for the sake of illustrating some of the important questions that need to be asked when a change of format is put forward.

In general it comes down to a simple set of questions: what are the objectives; how are they assessed?  These are always the first and most important questions.  There are basically two types of objectives we need to be concerned with.  The first set are the instructor’s objectives for the course; the second set are the program objectives for the course.  In the cause of the later, the program objective for a statistics course might be that students will learn how to use SPSS, because courses that follow will be dependent on students having learned that software application.  What often happens, is that the instructor for the course either forgets or is unaware that a particular program has this objective.  Often, if the course has been taught face-to-face, students access SPSS on the college campus in a computer lab where the application has been installed.  They don’t purchase it themselves.  However, when the course is put online, students will still need access to the software application.  Is it fair to require students to buy the program, or does the college have to provide access to SPSS somehow?  That’s a question that needs to be asked.  Sometimes instructors, without knowing the need to use SPSS, opt to have their online students use a program readily available on the web, in many cases for free or very inexpensively (like ActiveStats, MiniTab, etc).  If no one asks about the software, the students who take the online course could find themselves behind in successive courses.

In regards to the instructors objectives, courses, whether taught online, in a hybrid format or face-to-face need to be equivalent in rigor, and need to match any of the program objectives that are relative to that particular course.  Students in statistics courses, or math courses in general, benefit greatly from hearing an instructor work out a problem and take questions.  It is often difficult for them to learn strictly from reading a textbook and doing problems. The instructor needs to find an equivalent method in the online environment for meeting these needs.  There are simple remedies, but unless someone points this out, it is often overlooked.  Instead instructors overuse discussion boards, post documents, and give quizzes.   Interactive applets, audio recordings and video taping of an instructor solving a difficult problem, or synchronous meetings online can all help.

In the case of the question “how are they assessed” there isn’t generally much difficulty with changing the assessments to an online format:  students can submit homework via the web, and take quizzes via the web, etc.  Assessment concerns are greater for courses that require things like role-play, presentations, oral articulation,  and hands-on construction.  When those courses whose assessments include something other than text, someone needs to ask:  how are you going to have students meet this assessment in the online environment.  Unless it’s thought through, there could be major frustrations on the part of both faculty and students.  Students, for example, who don’t have a particular application, or a microphone, etc.

As more courses are put online, I think it is vital for colleges and universities to have a standard set of procedures that require the course change in format be reviewed by an expert in the field of online education, not simply the content specialists (department chairs or curriculum committees).

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