Evaluation of online courses questioned


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As the popularity of online programs grows, universities nationwide still differ in how they evaluate web-only courses — and some have few standardized methods at all.

At the University of Iowa, professors use only student evaluations to measure the quality of their programs, typically receiving a 65-75 percent return rate.

“This is a fairly good response rate for surveys that are not a required response,” said James Maxey, an evaluation consultant for Distance Education at the UI.

But some experts argue schools need more than just student-input to decide if they’re teaching courses in the best way possible.

Kaye Shelton, the dean of online education at Dallas Baptist University, recently developed a standard scorecard that lists 70 quality indicators across nine categories for university administrators to use when evaluating their courses.

“The quality scorecard evaluates the administration of an online program, whereas student evaluations evaluate the way that program is taught,” Shelton said.

Interaction between faculty and students is a key indicator of the quality of an online program, but it shouldn’t be the only factor a school looks at, said Janet Moore, the chief knowledge officer at Sloan Consortium, which helped Shelton develop the scorecard.

Paying members can use the scorecard on the Sloan Consortium’s website.

At the UI, officials said they are unsure if a “scorecard” is an immediate need.

“I don’t know if [the scorecard] has much utility or value for the instructor to say, ‘What do the students think about what you are doing?’ ” Maxey said.

But he didn’t rule out the possibility of using one in the future.

In fall 2010, the UI offered 281 sections of online courses, with 4,960 students enrolled, according to the Division of Continuing Education.

UI senior Lauren Medwed, who has taken three online classes, said she believes officials should take more than just student input into account when evaluating classes.

“A better measure of quality would be to look at the requirements of the class and compare the level of online coursework with the level of in-class coursework,” she said.

At other schools, officials differ in how to best evaluate online classes.

Ray Schroeder, the director of the center for online learning research and service at the University of Illinois, said officials there conduct annual performance reviews for faculty members as well as student-evaluation forms to assess online programs.

“[Students] provide much more feedback in online evaluations than they do when they are rushing out of the classroom,” he said.

Iowa State University uses a similar practice to the UI, asking students to evaluate the class and working with instructors to continue improving courses.

The University of Kansas is still formulating a system to evaluating distance learning. For now, each college handles its own assessment. The University of Wisconsin-Madison said it uses the same process for both distance and in-person courses.

These differences are precisely why Shelton and her colleagues set out to create a standard system, after cowriting a book about online learning.

“We tried to write a chapter on quality and could not adequately wrap our heads around it,” Shelton said.

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