Laying the Foundations of Quality in Online Education

The last time the tools of education underwent a shift in paradigm as significant as constituted by online education, it was that daring move to chalk and slate. As such, the notion of higher education online is generally met with a degree of reactionary scepticism. So, when e-learning providers find themselves competing against their early detractors, there is really only one way to stem the flow of anticipatory cynicism – be the best, nothing less. And that’s the challenge.

Online education providers, especially higher education providers, know what they are up against. They have to deliver as effective an education to students as the traditional institutions who have had centuries to hone their craft(s). A student having completed an online degree or professional qualification needs to feel the credibility of that qualification, and that their own certified abilities as a result won’t be found lacking when it comes to beginning new phases in their career.

So, which checks and balances are pioneering online education companies putting into action to meet and surpass the expectations of the world at large?  

Like every company worth its salt, a serious amount of emphasis is put on internal operations and the aptitude of staff to tailor their daily duties to support the end company goal. As a serious international e-learning provider, last year we piloted a companywide strategy to include staff as well as faculty members in a specific and rather new performance evaluation known as Instructional Rounds.

Along with Continuous Programme Review (CPR) (the process by which every aspect of educational programme performance is continuously monitored and appropriately updated), and Annual Programme Review (APR), Instructional Rounds are a unique methodological approach to gathering observational data on the activity of students, lecturers, assistant lecturers, and support in the online classroom environment.

“Instructional Rounds are one of the most valuable tools that an educational institution can use to enhance teachers' pedagogical skills and develop a culture of collaboration.” (Marzano, 2011)

Unlike traditional HR-centric approaches to classroom observation and teacher evaluation, the end goal of Instructional Rounds is not to provide feedback to the teacher being observed, but more for the organisation to learn from what teachers and students are or aren’t doing, and how interactions happen online. The result is, for the most part, a non-evaluative and non-judgmental style of feedback, which in turn does more than just paint a picture of the performance of study programmes. It allows all involved to simply observe, and reflect, with a view to taking part in constructive criticism and discussion at the end of the protocol.

To this end, we correctly recognised that, unlike passive lecture theatre experiences and the traditional classroom settings Instructional Rounds were first developed for, what an online student experiences is a markedly more active yet compacted result of all the contributions by those working to bring an online programme to life. It is therefore essential for Instructional Rounds to be appropriately adapted to e-learning. That’s why participants in our version of Instructional Rounds came from the customer support department, content management department, marketing, examinations department, to name but a few. In applying this process to e-learning, focus on the interactions between those involved in particular online study groups and discussion forums, and in turn their interaction with the tutors and the learning platform itself, provided invaluable insight into the entire student online learning experience that every company department must be aware of.

The upshot is, with every member of the organisation acutely aware of the nature of what it means to learn online, the quality of the production and delivery of study programmes is enhanced, with future enhancements becoming more and more efficient in their implementation. The non-evaluative nature of observation serves to form a culture of constructive criticism within the organisation, and expand open and inclusive opportunities for staff to contribute outside of their departments. The continual beneficiaries are the students.

However, as we’re not the only e-learning provider, it is going to take a concerted effort by all e-learning providers to adapt tried-and-true performance evaluation processes to the online environment in order to build a reputation of uncompromising quality across the industry. “Pioneering” is not too strong a word to use to describe these companies. E-learning providers can benefit across the board by incorporating Instructional Rounds into project planning when implementing larger initiatives, much like the 95% Campaign we are currently running on student satisfaction rating. Not least because, despite any scepticism, more top-tier universities are offering their courses online through partnerships with companies like us, and they definitely don’t compromise on quality.

About the author

Jeremy C Bradley is the Director of Academic Affairs at Study InterActive. He oversees InterActive’s portfolio of undergraduate, postgraduate, and executive education programmes. Jeremy studied for an interdisciplinary bachelor's degree in biology, philosophy, and communications before completing an MBA in public policy and finance.