The Quality Assurance Initiative s Effect on Barriers for Success and Engagement in Online Education at a Community College

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1 The Quality Assurance Initiative s Effect on Barriers for Success and Engagement in Online Education at a Community College Kathryn Miller Associate Professor Big Sandy Community and Technical College Introduction Colleges and universities have rapidly migrated classes to the online arena. An estimated 4.6 million students took at least one online course in fall 2008 (Mortland, 2007). Barriers to engaging and teaching students have been identified since the beginning of distance education. In order to assure quality in online courses, Big Sandy Community and Technical College has recently introduced a Quality Assurance initiative in order to diminish the previously identified barriers for online student success. Big Sandy Community and Technical College is a member of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and is located in a rural community in eastern Kentucky. The initiative began as a result of a statewide committee for distance learning s suggestions for good practice. A rubric was developed to use as a check list for class creation and validation. The college enlisted twelve distance learning veterans to act as mentors and reviewers in this initiative. Each distance learning course must be reviewed before it is put on the college course schedule. The initial push for courses to be reviewed began in fall of 2012 and continued into spring of The students that participated in this study were randomly selected from registered students for summer The purpose of the study was to evaluate the student and faculty perceptions of the barriers and the effect of the Quality Assurance process had on courses being taught online. Literature Review As a response to the migration of classes to the online environment it is important to identify all of the variables that can stifle the success of the students. At different intervals since the inception of online learning there have been several identified perceived barriers to success and engagement. Some barriers seem to be constant while others have evolved with technology over time. This review identifies the perceived barriers in online courses over the last twelve years. Flexibility has been identified as the initial reason for most students to try classes in the online format and the courses were initially designed in a way which was student centered (Institute for Higher Education Policy, 1999). In the beginning of the online education era some of the barriers for success and engagement were identified as the inability to use technology and the lack of face to face contact between students and the instructor (Perreault, 2002, p 314). Another factor that was identified was the lack of research of effective methods for online teaching and learning. The goal of Perreault et al (2002) was to seek effective methods of teaching and learning in order to publish the findings to share with the distance education community. At this time faculty support ranged from none to having mentors as well as graduate assistants to aid in developing courses. The current trend is to have instructional designers on staff to help the faculty members create courses that are effective for teaching and learning. Instructional barriers were identified again in 2006 to include needed professional development by instructors, extensive time demands in converting traditional courses to online courses and no clear way to teach kinesthetic materials online (Zirkel, 2006). Some of the identified student barriers also included was isolation, computer literacy, interactivity between students and instructors and poor time management skills. In a study that was completed a year later, student perceived barriers were identified as isolation and no sense of community involvement (Xiaojing, 2007). Yet another study concluded that the latest barriers from the faculty perspective was been identified such as the inability to use technology, lack of support from administration and difficulty in learning to use tools to create engaging content (Hannum, 2010, p 74). Some of the barriers over time have remained constant while others have dissipated. 131

2 Hypothesis The hypothesis of the research is that the Quality Assurance initiative will diminished some of the previously identified barriers that deter learning in online courses. New methods of engagement are being used in online education. The Quality Assurance rubric has built in ways to scaffold and engage students. Communication strategies between students and with the instructor are embedded within the rubric. The usage of course management systems which include forms of asynchronous and synchronous communication is required. The evolution of distance learning has changed the barriers to create more successful online educational experiences. The guiding questions of the research are: What will students identify as barriers to success? What affect did the Quality Assurance rubric have on success rates of students? What is the faculty s perception of the barriers to success for both faculty and students? What are the most engaging activities for online courses? Methodology The methodology used in this study was a mixed method. To investigate the barriers perceived by students and faculty two surveys were used that included both closed and open-ended questions. The student survey consisted of 20 questions while the faculty survey was made up of 14 questions. The first survey was sent via to 138 students that were randomly selected from the BSCTC summer schedule. There were 35 student responses to the survey. The faculty survey was sent via to 128 full-time faculty members. Only 36 faculty members responded to the survey. The surveys were created as a result of the findings of previous research in the literature review and the researchers experience in distance education. Quality Assurance Rubric The Quality Assurance Rubric (QA rubric) consists of six major areas of review. These areas include: course introduction and navigation, course design and organization, course and learning outcomes, instructional design and delivery, technical support with resources and compliance, and finally assessment with evaluation and feedback. The college has also identified a simplified course template in order for all of the online courses to have the same menu items. The goal was to make navigation easier for students to go from course to course. The course management system that is currently being used is Blackboard. The rubric is used by QA mentors that evaluate and work with faculty members on each course being taught online at BSCTC. The QA mentors are also members of the local Distance Learning Team at the college. These members have been identified as leaders in dealing with Blackboard and teaching online. Each section of the rubric has four to six areas of concern. The courses are carefully evaluated and each item is given a yes, no, or needs work. If the reviewer deems that the course needs more work, then the mentor will help the faculty member get the course up to college standards before the course is put on the college schedule. Some of the items that are covered in the QA rubric include promoting interaction and ways to communicate with peers and instructor, activities to enhance student learning and involvement with critical thinking and problem solving as well as strategies of awareness of current progress. Other areas that are covered include support information, ADA compliance, correct usage of copyright laws, and the usage of Early Warning system or a similar process to alert students about poor performance. Also the rubric covers items such as posting class/course expectations, logical organization of course content and grade center, learner engagement through instructional strategies and the usage of at least three technologies throughout the course. The technologies can include but are not limited to multimedia events such as videos, visual presentations, audio files, Softchalk exercises and other learning technologies. Initially there was resistance to the rubric implementation. Several faculty members felt that it diminished their academic freedom. Faculty Member Findings The online teaching experience of the faculty participants were that 23 had over 10 years of experience while 7 members had between 5 and 10 years of teaching experience and only 5 had between 2 and 5 years of experience. The faculty member participants were 49% female and 51% male. The participant s ages ranged from years. The number of male and female participants was approximately equal with 48.6% male and 51.4% female. 132

3 Faculty Member Demographics Online Teaching Experience < 1 year 11.4% between 2-5 years 28.6% between 5-10 years 48.6% over 10 years 11.4% Gender Male 48.6% Female 51.4% Age % % % % 60 or older 25.7% When faculty members were asked the open-ended question of what their most engaging activity included in their online courses, a wide range of responses were given. The most prominent response was discussion boards. Almost 37% of the faculty members identified discussion boards as their most engaging activity. Other activities that were prominently identified included research papers, blogs, Facebook interaction and self-reflection exercises. The faculty members were asked if the QA rubric initiative had affected their success rates 17% of the faculty members identified that it had positively affected them. Another 42.9% of the faculty members stated that they didn t really know how it had affected their success rates and 40% answered that it had not affected their success rates. 62.9% of the faculty deemed that they need more tools (and knowledge to use them) to create more engaging content for online courses. In another survey question, faculty members were asked if they would like to attend professional development activities that include strategies for engaging online students and 82.9% said yes. When asked if faculty were supported by administration in the creation of online courses the response was yes for 82% of the participants. Of the 36 faculty participants, 91% answered that their course was engaging to students. The instructors were asked to identify in and open-ended question the perceived barriers for their success as a teacher and the responses were varied. The most prominent responses were lack of time, tools, software and professional development to create engaging materials. Lack of face-to-face contact with students was also mentioned several times. The bulk of the rest of the responses included ideas that contained deficits of the student such as lack of time management skills and interest. In another question faculty were asked to identify possible barriers for success of the students. There was a myriad of responses to this question. The responses included items such as technology, lack of self-discipline, time management skills, motivation and knowledge of taking online courses, while several faculty members identified no barriers to success for students. Student Findings The findings for the student s surveys were very different than the answers of the faculty members. The survey respondents were 76% female and 24% male. The student ages ranged from 18 to 64 with the largest percentage being in the range. 133

4 Student Demographics Ethnicity Caucasian 91.4% Black or African American 5.7% Asian 0.0% Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander 0.0% American Indian or Alaska Native 0.0% Other 2.9% Age 18 to % 25 to % 35 to % 45 to % 55 to % 65 to % 75 or older 0.00% Gender Female 74.30% Male 25.70% The students were asked if they had ever felt isolated within an online course and 37.1% of the students responded yes. When asked about communication mediums used in their online courses 100% of the students identified . Students also identified discussion boards and blogs as being used. In another response, 61.8% of the students acknowledged that their instructor had created a community environment in their summer online course. Students were asked to identify barriers to success in online courses and only 18 of the students responded. The most common response was lack communication and/or feedback from instructors. Several students identified the lack of face-to-face contact with other students and the instructor. Also, there were 6 students that stated there were no barriers to success for students in online courses. 134

5 In an open-ended question format students were asked to pinpoint the most engaging activities in which they have participated in their online courses. A wide range of answers were given with discussion boards being the most prominent. Other responses such as MyLabs and Learn Smart were given as well as team projects, computers and assignments. 83.9% of the students responded that they were motivated by course materials and design in their summer online course. In the last questions the students were asked if they had taken courses before the QA initiative had been in effect and only 22 students had a prior online course. Of these 22 students, only 6 of them stated that their summer course experience better than previous courses. Five students stated that the courses were not better than previous courses and the rest of the students either didn t answer the question or didn t take courses before the QA initiative began. Conclusions The faculty perceived barriers to their success have remained constant throughout the life span of distance learning. It seems that faculty members are constantly striving to learn strategies and technologies that will make more engaging courses. Professional development is needed to keep up with cutting edge technologies and how to use them in education. The perceived barriers of students that were identified by faculty have changed somewhat. The burden of responsibility is seen to be on the student instead of the course or faculty member. Courses are now more student centered. The students pinpointed barriers to success that did not match the barriers found in the previous research. The biggest concern of the students was lack of communication with the instructor. The students put the brunt of the barriers to success on the instructors. Faculty members and students as a whole would like the face-to-face contact that comes with traditional courses. Both faculty and students perceive discussion boards as a highly engaging activity in online courses. There is enough evidence from this research to determine that the Quality Assurance rubric has been successful in the endeavor to affect quality in online courses. A group of students and faculty did recognize the benefits of the changes in the courses. Students have also inferred that they have experienced engaging courses. 135

6 References Berge, Z. L., Muilenberg, L. Y., & Van Haneghan, J. (2002). Barriers to distance education and training: Survey results. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 3, Institute for Higher Education Policy. (1999). What s the difference? A review of contemporary research on the effectiveness of distance learning in higher education. A report prepared for the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, th Street, NW, Suite 400,Washington, DC Irvin, M. J., Hannum, W. H., de la Varre, C., & Farmer, T. W. (2010). Barriers to distance education in rural schools. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 11(2), Mortland, S. (2010). Colleges diversify offerings with more online classes. Crain's Cleveland Business, 31(7), 3. Perreault, H., Waldman, L., Alexander, M., & Zao, J., (2002), Overcoming barriers to successful delivery of distance-learning courses. Journal of Education For Business, 77(6), 313. Xiaojing, L., Magjuka, R. J., Bonk, C. J., & Seung-hee, L. (2007). Does sense of community matter? Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 8(1), Zirkle, C., Norris, C., Winegardner, A., & Frustaci, E. (2006). Distance education programming barriers in business education teacher preparation programs in the United States. Career and Technical Education Research, 31(2),

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