With the continued growth in postsecondary distance education, quality assurance in such programs is necessary as they affect an increasingly significant proportion of students. Given the numerous advancements in technology, learning sciences, competency-based programs, and distance learning pedagogy, the 21st Century Distance Education Guidelines were developed to ensure satisfactory levels of quality in distance education.
The guidelines were developed with accreditors and other organizations and are designed to apply to a wide range of institutions. They were completed after a study by the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS).
Impact of Distance Learning
The 21st Century Distance Education Guidelines cite “the numerous advancements in technology, learning sciences, competency-based programs, and distance learning pedagogy, along with the increase in distance education programs, the need for high-quality credentials, sand the economic realities facing families and states” as the impetus behind a new set of guidelines.
Iqbal Ahmad is the founder and CEO of Britannia School of Academics and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). “The digital revolution in the last couple of decades impacted a lot of sectors, and distance learning providers were surely a major beneficiary,” Ahmad says. “The sudden shake-up caused by COVID-19 further highlighted the importance of distance learning, initially because of traveling and social distancing restrictions.” After gaining more experience with distance education, though, he says additional advantages were discovered. For example, “professionals working from home now have much more time to spend on continuing professional development.”
New experiences in remote and hybrid learning have exposed teachers and students to various tools and new ways of delivering content and engaging with students. The Guidelines recognize these new opportunities and options while also supporting some basic tenets around effective teaching.
The Proposed Guidelines
The Guidelines focus on some critical elements for ensuring quality in distance education:
- Institutional capacity—“including financial resources, technology infrastructure, data security, content expertise, instructional design, support for students and assessment of, and access to information resources.”
- Institutional transparency and disclosure include a clear description of programs and learning outcomes, costs, required skills for using technology tools, authenticating student identification, expectations for student engagement, support services available, and information about professional licensure requirements as appropriate.
- Academic programs—ensuring the academic team includes instructors with expertise in the subject matter; that the institution “collects, analyzes, and uses data on student engagement, achievement, and feedback for improvement”; that programs are offered in multiple modalities; and that “learning activities and assessments are aligned with measurable learning outcomes.”
- Student support—ensuring that academic and support staff can successfully guide students to the support services they may need and that these services be available and easily accessible remotely.
- Program review—regular review of distance learning programs, including external perspectives and the documentation of improvements.
- Academic and institutional integrity.
Another potential change is in how these assessments will be carried out.
Quality Assurance in a Digital Age
Before the pandemic, Ahmad notes, “every quality assurance or compliance visit had to be performed physically, even if the providers were offering courses online.” Now, though, he says, “we have not had a single site visit for almost two years because of the COVID-19 outbreak.” It’s not that the criteria for visits and reviews have changed; he says, “it’s just that the awarding organizations and regulatory bodies have adapted to conduct reviews remotely.”
The world is changing—educational guidelines need to change as well.
Christopher Emdin Ph.D., is the Robert A. Naslund Endowed Chair in Curriculum Theory and Professor of Education at the University of Southern California, where he also serves as Director of youth engagement and community partnerships at the USC Race and Equity Center. “The higher education institutions that I work in and with recognize that meeting the needs of students requires guidelines that may not have existed just a few years ago,” says Emdin. He says that faculty buy-in for engaging in 21st Century Distance Education has not been a significant challenge.
While buy-in might have been more challenging before the pandemic, he says, “COVID-19 has made it essential for any educator who wants to teach effectively to learn new ways to engage students and not just utilize but optimize whatever platforms and tools that are available.” The guidelines, he says, “offer a lens through which those who teach can build infrastructure within institutions to support learning and student engagement.”
There will, of course, be some who may need more support and encouragement to buy into the new proposed guidelines fully.
The chief way to get buy-in for those who may not align with or see the value in the guidelines, says Emdin, is to focus on ways that distance education enhances instruction. “I share that distance education is not going anywhere. It is not just a pandemic-based pedagogy. It is an approach to learning that will be necessary post-pandemic,” he says. “If professors are to be effective at teaching, it is essential that they learn to pivot to new technologies and align their instruction with new methods for information delivery.”
Distance learning still offers some challenges, but it also provides some new opportunities.
“The biggest challenges being faced is the expectation that online or digital learning will automatically make the instruction better,” Emdin says. “In reality, a poor instructor is still a poor instructor. They just so happen to be teaching poorly online.”
Another challenge, he says, “is educators who are unwilling to utilize the endless tools at their disposal once engaged in distance learning.” After being introduced to one platform, some teachers never go beyond that platform to explore other options.
Today they have plenty of options to consider—some that may not immediately come to mind but maybe especially engaging for students.
The newest opportunities, says Emdin, come through social media. He points to tools like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter as channels that can complement traditional online or distance learning. “Utilizing hashtags on these platforms has democratized the learning and allowed different people to gain access to and benefit from discussions that just years ago were only happening in college classrooms,” he says.
The world is changing—rapidly. Educational approaches, guidelines, and evaluations need to change along these shifts. The proposed guidelines are a good starting point and an opportunity to open or continue discussions around the evolution of education in a digital world.