Quality standards for online programmes

NACOL_progamsI’ve recently begun working with a tertiary institution to help them work through the process of working in the online environment, translating courses previously only taught face-to-face. For those who have done this sort of thing before you’ll realise there’s a lot more to this effort than simply putting the course material up onto a learning management system and giving students access.

The trend to moving courses online isn’t confined just to the tertiary sector. After nearly two decades of working with clusters of schools in NZ, and the development of the Virtual Learning Network, I noted yesterday that Clutha will now be recognised as NZ’s first fully virtual school, after a consortium of southern secondary schools and polytechnics, led by Catlins Area School at Owaka, was one of five applicants chosen to open trades academies in 2011.

All of this activity is very exciting, and certainly moving in the direction that I strongly believe is where we need to be heading, but it is going to require significant changes in policy, programme design and teaching practice in order to succeed – and none of that happens easily, or without confronting the tensions that exist when the way we’ve done things for years are suddenly being challenged and changed, and when our relative autonomy as teachers becomes ‘exposed’ in ways we’re not used to.

So it was with great interest I read this week of the release of the National Standards for Quality Online Programmes,  published by the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL). This publication is designed to provide states, districts, online programs, accreditation agencies and other organizations with a set of over-arching quality guidelines for online programs in several categories: leadership, instruction, content, support services and evaluation. This is the third in a series of publications from NACOL, the first being Quality Standards for Online Courses (PDF) and the second being Quality Standards for Online Teaching (PDF).

In the work I’ve been doing over the past 15 years in this area, I’ve seen lots of attention given to the development of effective online courses, and participated in discussions around what makes for effective online teaching – but in this publication we have what I regard as something that’s been missing, the emphasis on whole programme design and implementation. This is surely a sign that the whole area of online provision is maturing beyond the point where we’ve got collections of ‘pilot’ courses that are part of a larger programme. For us to truly move online learning onto centre stage we must be addressing the range of issues that are highlighted in this publication.

I now look forward to a fourth publication – Quality Standards for Government Level Policy Developers. We certainly need that in New Zealand, where the current policy framework within which initiatives such as the Clutha Virtual School and the Virtual Learning Network must struggle to become established is based on a 20th century view of schooling. For example, policies around the way funding is provided for students and staff, how assessments must be attested to, how ‘attendance’ is regarded and how resources are allocated are all based on a ‘physical school paradigm’, and will continue to be problematic until they are changed.

4 thoughts on “Quality standards for online programmes

  1. Wondering if the Clutha school will be Globally available? Over here (in Bahrain) at The Education Project conference, concern coming from delegates globally was the need to be able to access quality education online as one way of eradicating education inequity. Would they take students from Asia, Africa or the Pacific Rim?

  2. Thanks for that Derek. Obviously a great area of interest for the VLN and an area of focus for one of the VLNC working groups recently set up just before ULearn

  3. Hello Derek, thanks for highlighting this interesting piece of information. As you know, we are all now at that stage of looking at how we can make what we are doing through the VLN more effective for our learners. It does take some time to even start our journeys and start changing our own thinking around how we need to work in this environment, and I find my thinking changing but evolving at the same time into a clear picture of where I want to be heading and now need to work out how to get there. These quality standards sound a good platform to launch from and to guide us.

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