Published on 2014/08/15

Quality: The Real Benchmark of Value in Technology-Enhanced Learning (Part 1)

The EvoLLLution | Quality Is the Real Benchmark of Value in Technology-Enhanced Learning (Part 1)
By following a few simple steps, higher education administrators and educators can ensure technology-enhanced learning experiences are of equal or greater quality than traditional, face-to-face options.
Over the years, online education has sparked many a lively and often contentious debate around the halls of academia. Yet, given the tremendous impact of interactive technology on our personal and professional lives, it’s becoming increasingly obvious — even to the naysayers — that these digital tools can indeed transform the way we learn.

In fact, evidence is mounting to support the claim that well-designed, technology-enhanced learning is every bit as good as — and, in some respects, even better than — its in-person counterpart. Likewise, survey after survey reports the growing number of students, educators and employers who are becoming true believers in the merit of an online degree from a reputable institution. In other words, quality is and always will be the real benchmark of academic value, regardless of how we deliver the education.

While it’s true that quality means different things to different people, you know you’ve hit the mark when your students have acquired the expert knowledge and complex skills they need to hit the ground running in an ever-more-sophisticated workforce. Cognitive science reveals that the best way to achieve this outcome is through active, authentic and customized learning experiences that integrate problem- and knowledge-based instruction. And with the amazing array of available technologies, online educators are now far better equipped to create these experiences.

Here are three key factors to consider in evaluating quality:

1. Self-paced should never mean “on your own”

There’s no doubt we’ve come a long way since the early days when course modules were little more than a series of hand-outs published and delivered online. Back then, virtual study was a lonely experience, for the most part, predicated solely on a student’s ability to passively absorb information. Still, for many, it was an acceptable tradeoff for the privilege of learning from anywhere, at any time.

But we now have the capacity to actively engage online students, individually and collectively, in meaningful learning experiences that strengthen such important career skills as written communication, perspective taking and creative problem solving. While quality courses offer students the advantage of learning at their own pace, they also provide multiple pathways for connecting and collaborating with fellow classmates through a variety of interactive digital applications, from discussion boards, shared documents and social media to videoconferencing and virtual worlds.

At the same time, instructors are always on hand (via email, discussion board and phone) to offer ongoing feedback and clarification, both of which are essential for deeper learning. In addition, quality online programs provide round-the-clock digital access to high-tech, high-touch support services, including academic advising and library resources, writing assistance and tutoring.

2. The learning space should readily accommodate diversity

Given the growing emphasis on continuous education, today’s online student demographic is increasingly multicultural, multigenerational and multidimensional. That’s why robust virtual learning environments integrate a variety of intuitive technologies across multiple platforms chosen with diversity in mind — from age and ability to cultural tradition and learning style.

That said, course materials and activities are customized to meet the unique preferences of individual students for interaction or independence; oral or written expression; simulated experience or stimulating lecture. For instance, videoconferencing technology is not only easy to use, but also supports the face-to-face social exchange so many of our students genuinely need and enjoy. What’s more, there are intelligent systems that spontaneously adapt course content and teaching strategies to help struggling learners grasp difficult concepts.

3. There should be ample opportunities to learn by doing

This is perhaps the most important of the three points. Most of what we do in our professional lives — from performing an intricate medical procedure to negotiating a complicated business deal — requires repetitive practice, under various conditions and with plenty of feedback from others. That’s why quality online courses promote authentic learning by incorporating hands-on virtual experiences grounded in real-life problems and real-world scenarios.

Educational videogames, multi-level simulations and remote access technologies make it possible for students to learn by doing, as they apply expert knowledge and practice complex skills within a safe but challenging virtual environment. Equally impressive, these facsimiles are designed to generate tremendous amounts of data for instructors to use in assessing performance and personalizing instruction.

This is the first of a two-part series by Drexel University Online President Dr. Susan Aldridge exploring quality in technology-enhanced education. In the conclusion, Dr. Aldridge shares case studies exploring some of the most innovative and effective uses of technology to enhance the learning experience.

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Readers Comments

Sandra Christensen 2014/08/15 at 10:10 am

What we need to do as educators is create industry-wide standards to define “quality” in online or technology-enhanced education. The issue I see right now is that technology is progressing faster than our curricula and teaching styles. As a result, instructors (like myself) often feel a bit behind the times and, when given the opportunity, will jump on any new technology in an effort to bridge the gap. Unfortunately, these attempts at using technology to enhance the learning experience don’t always produce results. Having set standards, codes of practice, etc. might go a ways to changing that.

Elena Cole 2014/08/15 at 11:04 am

One area I’d like to see developments in is game-based learning, which expands on Aldridge’s point about simulations. Experiential learning is a necessary aspect of future education, as it not only helps to reinforce the subject matter and improve knowledge, but also contributes to a student/graduate’s job readiness.

Amy Smith 2014/08/18 at 9:40 am

We’ve come a long way since the days Aldridge describes, when “self paced” meant learning on your own and distance education was delivered via TV. It’s great to see how higher education as a whole has become more responsive to students’ needs with the potential for customization. Of course there’s still work that has to be done, including, as Aldridge says, expanding our notion of diversity in learning, but I think we can celebrate the progress we’ve made.

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