In order to satisfy the needs of growing numbers of adult learners, the availability of well-designed, effectively implemented, and efficiently delivered online courses is essential (MacDonald, Stodel & Casimiro, 2006; Palloff & Pratt, 2001). Despite the demand and prevalence of e-learning, there are still concerns regarding the quality and effectiveness of education offered online (Carstens & Worsfold, 2000; Noble, 2002). Too often, in an “effort to simply get something up and running” (Dick, 1996, p. 59), educators have been forced to compromise quality and design. Intensive competition among educational institutions has resulted in quality assurance becoming a critical issue for promoting learning and learning programs. Within this economically motivated environment, online learning has not escaped the scrutiny of quality standards. Quality in online programs is generally defined in terms of the design of the learning experience, the contextualized experience of learners, and evidence of learning outcomes (Jung, 2000; Salmon, 2000). However, the plethora of online learning courses and programs with few standards to ensure the quality of content, delivery, and/or service creates a challenge. The resulting variance in quality makes it difficult for an organization or learner to choose a program that meets their needs and is also of high quality.
The need for quality standards to ensure the academic integrity of e-learning programs has been tackled by several researchers (Benson, 2003; Carstens & Worsfold, 2000; DeBard & Guidera, 2000). However, establishing quality standards is marked by contestation. In her qualitative study with participants from six different stakeholder groups engaged in developing an online degree program, Benson found that although everyone wanted quality courses, stakeholders brought different definitions of quality, which impacted the planning process and shaped the learning experiences. These challenges point to the need for evaluation as an integral part of program design to assure quality in e-learning programs. Rovai (2003) notes that evaluation is critical for program improvement and long-term success. Similarly, Marquardt and Kearsley (1998) suggest that “evaluation is particularly important in the context of technology use because it [technology] is highly susceptible to fads and marketplace trends” (p. 246).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Demand-Driven Learning Model (DDLM): An e-learning model that is grounded within a constructivist framework and defined by five inter-related dimensions that, in concert, create a high-quality e-learning experience: superior structure; three consumer demands of content, delivery, and service; and learner outcomes.
Learning Community: In a virtual learning community, a group of learners comes together for a set period of time to engage in a formal structured e-learning experience. This type of online community is characterized by joint learning tasks and outcomes that motivate community efforts.
E-Learning: Learning that takes place via the Internet. Adapting Khan’s (1997) definition of web-based instruction to reflect a sociocultural emphasis on learning, these terms refer to instructional experiences that utilize the Web to create a meaningful environment where learning is fostered and supported. This phrase is often used interchangeably with online learning or web-based learning and may apply to synchronous or asynchronous learning experiences.
Blended Learning: Blended, or hybrid, learning often refers to a mix of face-to-face and Web-based learning components (i.e., Rovai & Jordan, 2004a).
Adult Learner: Adult learners are individuals who perform roles associated by society with adults (worker, spouse, parent, responsible citizen), perceiving themselves to be responsible for his/her own life (Knowles, 1990).
WebCT/Vista: An e-learning platform and online course management system used extensively in colleges, universities, and other educational institutions. WebCT/Vista supports online tools such as discussion forums, e-mail, live chat, and whiteboarding, as well as content in various formats (e.g., html documents, web pages, etc.). Vista and Blackboard are just examples of leading online asynchronous software.
Quality Standards: Characteristics or specifications used as benchmarks to measure properties or degrees of service, design or outcomes in an e-learning event, resource or program.