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Assessment is a key to success in many walks of life, and in higher education, it is a must because the risks and rewards are so high when dealing with the lives of students. In recent years, online education has undergone significant scrutiny. While it no doubt has become a mainstay in higher education, the effectiveness of such programs is still sometimes debatable.

The impact of COVID-19, however, has clearly demonstrated that online programs must be top quality to keep students enrolled and learning. And to achieve that goal, the assessment of such programs must also be of good quality.

An organized assessment can help raise your e-learning programs to the level you need them to be, especially given the uncertain future. Your goal should be to discover how well students are achieving, how they feel about the program, how effective the instructional staff is and, finally, whether the program is successful over all when evaluated in various areas.

A group composed of both faculty members and administrators should organize the assessment so that everyone has the opportunity to voice their opinion on the delivery and evaluation of the results. Ideally, an outside consultant would conduct the assessment, but not all colleges and universities may have the financial resources for this luxury. Whoever performs the evaluation, the institution's top educational officer, such as the provost, should be involved. Without that person’s buy-in, no changes from the results of the assessment will truly happen.

I’ve detailed below the four key areas that you should assess when it comes to online learning at your institution.

Assessment area No. 1: student achievement. You should first evaluate how well students who chose to take online classes have performed and how the grades they received in those classes compare to traditional ones. You can use student grade point averages in this evaluation: obtain a record of the yearly GPAs for all students who took at least one online class in the past two semesters and then compare them with the GPAs of those who did not take any online classes. You should also compare the grades that students received in their online classes with their traditional class grades. While some people question the use of grades and grade point averages as a measure of learning, I feel comfortable recommending that you examine such data as one aspect of a four-part study.

Assessment area No. 2: student attitudes. Students’ views can impact many areas of education, not the least of which might be their grades. One instrument you can use to measure this area may already be in place: some colleges and universities -- as a service to students, not a mandatory test -- offer a free multiple-choice questionnaire that asks students questions about their academic behavior and attitudes. The final score is an indicator of the students’ readiness for online classes.

To assess your e-learning program, you can administer such a test or instrument to all students who take online classes for one year. The results can reveal a wealth of pertinent information. Most important, they can show you if students with poor performance in online courses are the same students who were predisposed to low scores according to the instrument. If that’s the case, it would be difficult to blame low scores for the students solely on an underachieving instructor or a subpar class.

In addition, the instrument will demonstrate if an overabundance of students who would best be served by traditional classes are signing up for online classes. That information could lead to policy changes about who should be permitted to enroll in online classes. You could also use it as promotional information if the students are succeeding in the online classes despite the roadblocks they may face. By turning an already-in-place instrument around, your institution can gain a wealth of information about online education and the students who take such courses.

Assessment area No. 3: instructor effectiveness. You should also assess the online instructors themselves, as they can obviously influence whether a student prospers in an online class or decides to go a different direction. Issues such as how well an instructor connects with students or how responsive they are to questions can signal their effectiveness.

If you are assessing an online instructor, certain principles should guide the process. Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson developed the “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” which you can apply to your online program evaluation. Those principles can help you assess whether the instructor:

  1. Encourages student-faculty contact;
  2. Encourages cooperation among students;
  3. Encourages active learning;
  4. Gives prompt feedback;
  5. Emphasizes time on task;
  6. Communicates high expectations; and
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

The assessment should come from two different directions and include both qualitative and quantitative information. First, after one year, give students a questionnaire at the end of the class that addresses the seven principles. Ask them to rate the instructor on a scale of one to five on each of the principles and provide an opportunity to include additional comments.

In addition, ask a faculty member or administrator to evaluate the instructor at least once during the year. This person should provide comments about each of the seven principles and how the instructor did or did not meet them. Hearing in this way from both students and administrators/faculty members will allow you to address any shortcomings and encourage any strengths of the instructor.

Assessment area No. 4: overall program effectiveness. Finally, evaluate the different aspects of the program to determine which are a strength, weakness or simply need to be removed. You can use the elements advocated by Rena M. Alloff and Keith Pratt in The Virtual Student: A Profile and Guide to Working With Online Learners -- and shared by Amany Saleh and Marcia Lamkin -- as a guide. Those elements include:

  • The overall online course experience;
  • Orientation to the course and course materials;
  • The content, including quantity of materials presented and quality of presentation;
  • Discussions with other students and the instructor;
  • Self-assessment of level of participation and performance in the course;
  • The courseware in use, ease of use and ability to support learning in the course;
  • Technical support; and
  • Access to resources.

You should gather information from any student who has taken at least one online class at the institution over the past five years. Send a questionnaire covering the eight principles suggested by Saleh and Lamkin to all such students -- both current and former -- with a scale of one to five used to assess the eight areas. Possible scores of a minimum of eight and a maximum of 40 will come from this part of the questionnaire. Also, allow students to offer additional comments on any issue, not just the eight areas. Obviously, attempting to glean this information from former students is a major undertaking. But with the events of recent months, it is worth the effort to make your online programs as strong as possible.

Administrators like the president, dean of instruction and e-learning director should share the results and then forward them on to any relevant department heads. You should also make the survey results available to all faculty members to help them identify their own strengths and weaknesses. In that process, however, don’t include specific names of the instructors or courses to anyone but the institution’s senior administrators. They will be responsible with sharing specifics concerning instructors and classes with deans or department heads.

In addition, to ensure the report will not sit on the shelf, the evaluator should ask administrators for a link to be placed on the website with a summarization of the results after a period of six months. That will ensure that your institution has time to develop a plan to correct any weaknesses that are found.

Ultimately, you should emphasize that the purpose of any such an assessment is to identify any weaknesses in the e-learning program and work within your institution to make sure that program is thriving and succeeding. With such an emphasis, you will develop a spirit of collaboration that leads to one goal: quality education for the students. Education is a vital commodity, and few people doubt that it can be a life-changing product. Hopefully, the data you find in your assessment will show your e-learning program will, in fact, change lives positively for many years to come.

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