Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Standards and Standardization

Should every section of an online class be the same?

I was fascinated to read about the HLC raising concerns about online courses at Scottsdale Community College because those same concerns are endemic to the industry.  From the IHE account -- which I’ll admit is a secondary source -- it sounds like the accreditors are concerned about inconsistency of delivery and quality across sections.  It calls for greater standardization.  The college responded by pointing to faculty contracts and academic freedom as constraints on how tightly they could control online classes.

In philosophy, these are called “incommensurate premises.”  If the two sides don’t agree on the ground rules, they won’t be able to come to agreement.  Or if they do, it will be fragile, because it will be based on a misunderstanding.

As an administrator, I had to sympathize.  It’s frustrating to be dinged for a lack of standardization when the local rules don’t let you standardize.  It’s a bit of a double bind.

To be fair, some of Scottsdale’s issues sound self-inflicted.  For instance, it’s apparently running multiple platforms at the same time.  There’s nothing unusual about a college picking a single LMS and requiring everyone to use it.  To my mind, that’s the equivalent of picking the classroom where a class will be held.  That’s a core, and necessary, administrative function.  Running multiple LMSs at the same time forces students to jump from platform to platform depending on who’s teaching, and it places a much greater burden on the helpdesk.  This one seems like an easy fix, at least conceptually.

Mandating training is more of a gray area.  I don’t see any reasonable “academic freedom” objection to requiring a basic “how-to” session for using a platform, any more than I see an academic freedom objection to observing fire drills or snow days.  Certain basic logistical functions require that everyone rows in the same direction.  But beyond the basics, the issue gets murkier.

I don’t expect every onsite section of a class to be interchangeable.  They should be similar enough in goals and standards that a student who passes Intro to Psych is ready for the next Psych class, regardless of who taught Intro.  But I assume some variation from course to course based on the style and pedagogical choices of the professor.  Student learning outcomes are goals that every section of a course should meet; how they get met is the domain of the professor, within general guidelines of ethical practice.  I don’t know why that same principle wouldn’t apply online.

We don’t typically require pedagogical training for onsite sections.  That doesn’t mean that anything goes; we still do class observations and solicit student feedback.  We also have peer-to-peer classified observations that don’t go into the personnel file, but those are entirely voluntary.  The mandatory observations are a sort of quality control, done to ensure that everything is at least at a professional level.  The voluntary observations are for the sake of improvement, of going from “already good” to “even better.”  As such, they can only work when the observed are actually willing to hear it.  And they’re premised on the assumption that some variation from one professor to the next is normal, natural, and fine.

Particularly for online classes, the gray area in which many of us struggle is in something like response time.  How long is it reasonable for faculty to allow inquiries to go unanswered?  How often should they check in?  

Honestly, my greatest frustration with online teaching isn’t too much idiosyncrasy; it’s too little.  Many publishers provide “e-packs” that are essentially canned courses, and over my career, I’ve seen too many faculty use them as a sort of autopilot.*  That meets the desire for standardization, but at the expense of real engagement, and students can tell.  I’d rather have professors actually engage, even if that means that Smith’s section has a different feel than Jones’.  Their classroom classes do, and we’ve survived that.

Maybe it’s the political scientist in me, but the best solution I’ve seen is a sort of federalism.  Yes, some things need to be standardized, such as the LMS.  Others may be set at the department level.  The rest should be open to customization.  The boundaries can get a little fuzzy, but the general shape seems clear.  Faculty aren’t robots, and I don’t want them to be.  Academic freedom applies to online classes, too.  

*I’ve seen the movie “Airplane” enough times that I can’t use that word without smiling...