The term ‘accountability’ is tossed around like an office project that everyone agrees needs doing, yet no one wants to be the one to get it done. Part of the problem with this buzzword, especially when it’s applied to education, is that its use fluctuates from the abstract (e.g., “Hey, let’s hold schools accountable!”) to the more concrete (e.g., “Here are the statistics showing that our graduates are gainfully employed.”). The term is also closely allied with the blame-game, as in “Teachers must be held accountable for the success of their students.” Finally, the term is often used a bit more like a weapon to attack online schools with a goal of calling their credibility into question. A close examination shows that online courses can be at least as accountable as face-to-face versions and just as credible.
One of the better attempts at defining this term so that it could be operationally applied came from Education Week in a post by writer Michelle R. Davis. Although these steps are meant for virtual secondary schools, it may be valuable to consider their application to the postsecondary level, too.
In a sidebar, the following recommendations are made for “E-Learning Accountability Measures” :
1. Have students take exams in person to ensure they are doing their own work and absorbing information.
2. Assess how students are doing numerous times throughout a course and provide intervention strategies as early as possible
3. Use programs that can track detailed data on how long it takes a student to complete assignments, how often students are participating, and how frequently students and teachers have contact. (12 March, 2012)
Using these three recommendations as a guide can provide some insight into the accountability issue with online courses.
In terms of accountability in online education, this question of identity often comes up. Who is actually at the other end of the computer? Is the student enrolled in the class actually the one completing the coursework? Is the faculty member teaching the class actually the one evaluating student work? Who oversees all of this? Is there someone accountable for making sure all constituents involved are authentic? The problem is that the very blessing of online learning—being able to access classes from anywhere with Internet access at anytime—is also the curse.
Although requiring students and faculty to meet face-to-face (F2F) at various times of the year is worthy as a best practice, it’s not always possible. This can work well with a ground campus offering online classes. At one university where I used to teach, the online faculty in our department used to hold a first day orientation meeting to check IDs, to take and upload students’ photos to the course, to get a writing sample, etc. As Education Week suggests above, we did require attendance at midterm and for final exams. Quizzes and tests were also proctored through a special testing center. This was an ideal situation, however. The students at this school were predominantly traditional and living on campus; therefore, asking them to come to a physical location was not a problem.
On the other hand, the majority of online students are non-traditional students, working adults with families, military students perhaps stationed overseas, students with disabilities, etc. In relation to this, the more global the university, the more geographically diverse the student and faculty populations tend to be. As an online department chair, I have had faculty teach in my department who are not only scattered across the continental United States, but also across six of the seven continents. Can they reasonably be required to come to a ground campus location? Overwhelmingly, I feel confident in saying that the vast majority of participants in e-learning are sincere.
What is perhaps more feasible is the second suggestion from Education Week: Weekly assessment and intervention strategies can be an effective way to keep students and faculty both engaged in the teaching and learning process; intervention strategies can make the difference between a student withdrawing or failing a course and succeeding. What many perhaps fail to realize is that this can be done as effectively in an online learning environment as in a F2F classroom.
Most learning management systems (LMS) provide the ability for faculty to track the amount of time students spend on each unit; ideally, this could be broken down further into time per activity. Although this isn’t foolproof (e.g., a longer time may indicate a child needed the parent-student’s attention rather than trouble with a unit), in general, it can be a good indicator for faculty to assess whether or not students are spending too much or too little time on an activity. In relation to this, in most LMSs, faculty can see the frequency of student access of the course. Are the students checking into the class at least the recommended number of times/days? Finally, faculty and students can track student progress via the gradebook, which automatically updates as assignments are added. Faculty can review the class as a whole or the grades of individual students to see if any potentially negative trends like missing assignments are occurring.
Although many F2F courses and institutions make use of an online LMS more in hybrid fashion, the level of individual student focus and accountability is typically not at the same level as with an online course. For example, students in a F2F classroom discussion may participate minimally or not at all and still make a passing grade whereas students online must participate, and each receives individual feedback from the instructor.
Furthermore, department chairs and other administrators can easily peek into the online courses in their department to see on a near daily basis what is transpiring; this can’t be done to the same extent in a F2F environment. Administrators can see how much time faculty are spending in the classroom, what sort of engagement the instructors have with discussion boards, what sort of supporting materials have been posted, the quality of feedback being provided, grade distribution, etc. On the other hand, it’s humanly impossible to be in multiple places at all times a course is offered to check on F2F courses. As someone who has been a department chair at both a ground campus and an online university, I found it much easier to maintain accountability of instruction in the virtual world than in the F2F environment.
There are more global ways to track and collate detailed data on student and faculty activity. Again, this is more easily done in the online environment, as reports can be generated from most LMSs that flag students and/or faculty who are not responding to discussion boards or accessing the class. These reports can also provide information on success/failure rates, etc. As an online department chair, these reports were available to me on a weekly basis. As a ground campus chair, I received one grade distribution report as a favor from the registrar on one occasion in a decade. The virtual world seems more readily accountable to me in this area as well.
Because we want to ensure that students receive a quality education, accountability is certainly important as a topic. However, a functional definition must first be agreed upon with considerations for the various types of schools. Second, the positive steps already being taken by schools need to be acknowledged and encouraged. Assumptions about what certain types of schools do or do not do should also not be made because they distract and detract from the goal of quality education. In reality, online schools and courses are at least as accountable as F2F ones.
Image source: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=721
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