Research-Based Best Practices for Online Programs: A Dual Administrative- and Instruction-Based Model

Research-Based Best Practices for Online Programs: A Dual Administrative- and Instruction-Based Model

Nicholas W. Farha
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-762-3.ch032
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This manuscript outlines a dual approach to online best practices that includes both the administrative side and the instructional (faculty) side of distance education. The majority of best practice documents focuses almost exclusively upon instructional best practices and ignores, or only mention in passing, the needed administrative best practices. The author of this research-based best practices manuscript believes that both, working concurrently, are required for a successful and sustainable distance education program. These guidelines are intended to be not only a set of recommendations, but also a policy document that can be readily implemented.
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The literature is replete with research on guidelines for distance education and identified best practices (see e.g., Orellana, Hudgins, & Simonson, 2009; Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2008). There are also entire journals dedicated to theory, research, and best practices in distance education such as the AECT’s Quarterly Review of Distance Education. Thus it might seem somewhat redundant to delineate yet another set of best practices. The following document however, differs in that it outlines a dual set of best practices developed to encompass both the administrative and the instructional perspectives in one manuscript. While many of the best practices documents focus on the instructional side almost exclusively, both aspects must be considered in parallel for a systematic understanding of the topic. Consequently, there is, in this researcher’s opinion, a need for a dual model of best practices based in research and the current literature.

These proposed guidelines have a three-fold purpose: 1) to recommend a research-based minimum standard or level of quality control for current and future online courses; 2) to provide standards which will insure a quality distance learning experience for students seeking online courses and degrees; and 3) to assist any institution in need of a published best practices policy document in preparation for a focus visit by a regional or national accrediting body aimed at receiving approval for new electronically offered courses, degrees and certificate programs.

While the vast majority of the published best practices allude to the need for administrative support (see e.g., Abel, 2005a; Simonson, et al., 2009) it is this researcher’s belief that administrative support is in reality one of two concurrent sets of best practices required for a successful online program. Thus, there are first, those best practices associated with overall administrative practices, and second, those associated with actual instructional practices.

Without major administrative/institutional support, online courses or degree programs could exist, but will be less successful, and likely would remain mired in mediocrity. Abel (2005b) states, “. . . the involvement of key leaders in prioritizing where to focus online learning development activities was critical and highly correlated with perceived success in these institutions” (p. 76).

A major study (Abel, 2005a) was conducted by the Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness (A-HEC) after which a summary of the study was published in the Educause Quarterly (Abel, 2005b). This study canvassed 21 institutions of all Carnegie classifications to identify those practices most likely to lead to successful online programs. Ranked most important among the “Ingredients for Success” was “executive leadership and support” (Abel, 2005b, p. 75). Therefore this document delineates two distinct but necessarily overlapping sets of best practices, which this author believes in tandem, will result in a quality online program that neither set could fully accomplish separately.

Further, this author strongly concurs with the A-HEC study which found that a programmatic approach is far superior to an individual course approach. Abel (2005b) says,

Probably the most significant finding was that institutions that focused on putting full programs online were about four times as likely to perceive that they had achieved ‘overwhelming success’ as institutions that focused their efforts at the individual course level. (p. 76)

What follows is a list of the ten major institutional support structures applicable to any size institution and believed to be essential to ensure a robust and sustainable online program capable of delivering high quality online courses leading to online degrees.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Infrastructure: any support mechanisms in place that facilitate the delivery of online instruction including, but not limited to, network/communications software and hardware, helpdesk and other technical support functions for both faculty and students, training and professional development opportunities, etc.

Research-Based Practices: those practices documented in the seminal and recent literature.

Course Management System: a purchased or open source web-based software application that facilitates the delivery of course content and materials, communication and feedback, grading, and so forth in an online learning environment.

Distance Education: for the purposes of this manuscript, online or web-based delivery modalities particularly those utilizing a web-based course management system. This document does not consider telecourses, correspondence courses, teleconferences, etc.

Best Practices: any procedure or pedagogy generally accepted in the literature and by consensus to be the most appropriate, efficient and professional way to approach a teaching/educational activity.

Instruction-Based Model: the pedagogical activities that generally or exclusively are the purview of the faculty who develop and/or teach a distance education course e.g., rubrics.

Instructional Technology: for the purposes of this manuscript, any technology that facilitates distance learning including, but not limited to, course management systems, podcasting, blogs/wikis, audio and video streaming, lecture capture, etc.

Administrative-Based Model: the distance education oversight activities that generally or exclusively are the purview of the administration (Dean’s level and above) e.g., funding and strategic planning.

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