How to Evaluate Online Education Programs
When you walk into a classroom, you have an instinctual feel for the quality of teaching and learning. How can we do the same for online education?
Quality Matters, a nonprofit dedicated to improving online education, offers some useful guidelines in its rubric for K–12 courses. Whether your district is designing an online course program or adopting an outside program, here are some important things to keep in mind:
1. The Expectations Are Clear
In the regular classroom, ground rules for behavior and learning come first, and it’s important not to ignore these essentials in an online setting. The instructor should introduce him- or herself just like any other class and state the purpose of the course and the expectations for class “Netiquette.” For example: How do students respond to one another in class forums or discussions? What’s the best way to ask a question (email, course software, etc.)?
2. The Learning Objectives Are On Target
It may seem obvious, but it’s important for all stakeholders, including the instructor, students and administration, to understand the learning outcomes of the course, and for those outcomes to be relevant, measurable and on grade level. In other words, the purpose of an online course shouldn’t be simply to do an online course but to engage in ideas that will challenge and engage students. The technology is in the background, the course material in front.
3. The Assessments Make Sense
Assessments may look different in an online course, but they don’t all have to be quizzes or written assignments either. Virtual presentations, digital collages and video are just some of the ways to leverage technology in doing online assessments. The important thing is to have a flexible plan in place to measure student progress and to accommodate different learning styles.
4. The Course Materials Are Varied and Interesting
If you are using a specific platform for your online course that includes student articles and assignments, it can be easy to fall into the trap of using only those materials and not bringing in outside reading or projects. It’s the digital equivalent of not straying outside the textbook. Be adaptable when thinking about course materials, as long as they are deeply connected to what you are teaching.
5. Students Actively Engage With the Instructor, One Another and Course Content
Yes, in an online course both student and teacher are sitting in front of a computer. But that doesn’t have to mean a skill-and-drill approach to learning. Online courses should be filled with vibrant conversation (in-class discussion forums or even private social networking groups (like Edmodo, Schoology or Facebook groups), hands-on projects (captured on video) and student collaboration (via tools like Google Docs that allow them to work together in real time). And participation should be required so that no student falls through the cracks.
6. The Technology Doesn’t Get in the Way
All tools used in an online course should facilitate learning and generally make life easier for teachers and kids. If the instructor has to spend most of his or her time explaining that you have to click the red button to upload an assignment, not the orange one, or the system crashes again and again, that’s a sign that the tools have taken center stage while real learning waits in the wings.
7. Kids Feel Supported
One of the biggest criticisms of online education in the K–12 space is that nothing beats the relationships and oversight of the traditional classroom. But anyone who’s ever taught an online course will tell you that very real, meaningful teacher-student relationships are possible in the online setting. The key is communicating how students can get help when they need it, whether it’s via email, text or a support center, as well as check-ins from the instructor on how things are going.
8. The Course Is Accessible for All Learners
Alternative ways to access course information is available with auditory and visual support, as well as easy readablility and a help center for students who may need more accommodations. Students should be able to use assistive technology when needed. The goal should be that learning online is available for everyone.
Interested in learning more about standards for K–12 online education? Check out Quality Matters’ rubric standards and certification program.