Online courses have shown to have many benefits, such as higher levels of motivation, expansion of educational access, increased opportunities for high-quality education, improvement of student results and abilities, efficient administration, and diversity of courses; however, many critics doubt whether or not these benefits are as effective as they are made out to be and point out that the available research to support these conclusions are scarce (Cavanaugh, Barbour, & Clark, 2009). Much of the available literature on virtual schooling reports that online education has serious problems in regard to “student readiness and retention issues (Cavanaugh, Barbour, & Clark, 2009).” According to multiple studies conducted over the last ten years, “only students who were typically successful in online learning environments were those who had independent orientations towards learning, who were highly motivated by intrinsic sources, and who had strong time management, literacy, and technology skills (Cavanaugh, 2007).” Those skeptical of online learning will point out that holding students accountable for attendance, cheating, truancy etc. is far more difficult in a virtual setting than a physical classroom (Archambault, Kennedy, and Bender, 2013). Furthermore, an analysis of 196 studies, only seven of which were conducted in a K-12 public school, showed that only three demonstrated significant benefits with online courses (Barth, 2013). Another significant challenge in the current state of virtual schooling is the accreditation of online courses because many employers, educators, and administrators view online programs with a negative stigma compared to traditional degrees (Berge & Clark, 2005). Clearly there is a fundamental issue in the nature of online education, and addressing this issue will become essential in the future of this nation’s educational system, especially considering that online learning is on track to become a major player in the future of education.
Although there are a myriad of issues surrounding online education such as the digital divide, high attrition rates, lack of social interaction, etc., this blog proposes a policy of treating virtual classrooms as a fundamentally different setting from physical classrooms in order to address the issue of accountability in online education, and believes that significant steps to improve the quality of online education include formatting assessments differently to better suit a virtual environment, making use of available technology to supplement lessons, and requiring teachers of online courses to undergo preparation programs designed specifically for virtual classrooms.
One of the major concerns surrounding accountability in online education lies in the effectiveness of assessments. Due to the nature of online courses, it is inevitable that students will make use of notes, corresponding textbooks, or even google to answer questions on exams for online courses. Essentially, all online exams will be unavoidably open note. Because of this teachers of online courses need to design their assessments differently to measure student ability. For example teachers should set time limitations on online exams in order to help ensure that students will be able to quickly recall information as opposed to spending as long as necessary to search for the correct answer. Furthermore, instead of focusing on questions based on recall teachers should phrase questions so that they force students to demonstrate critical thinking and a mastery of the content area as opposed to simple knowledge recall, which can be easily facilitated with the use of a smartphone or other electronic device.
Another major criticism in online learning’s accountability lies in log-in time requirements as a stand in for seat-time requirements. In a physical classroom, a teacher can easily determine whether a student is physically present or not in a classroom; however, in a virtual setting the same is not necessarily true. Keeping track of and ensuring student attendance in online courses presents significant challenges. Measuring the amount of time that students have logged on their virtual accounts would not be an effective means of measuring student progress because students could simply leave the browser window open as the timer runs up the clock. Due to the nature of virtual schools, students can log on to work on their courses at any point in the day or night from anywhere, “and the only common denominator among them is progress completion. What takes one student to complete in 1 hour may take another student 3 hours (Archambault, Kennedy, & Bender, 2013).” Instead Archambault, Kennedy, and Bender suggest that virtual schools establish a system of attendance based on student progress via completion of assignments towards earning credits. This progress model requires students to complete the same number of assignments for a given online course and holds students accountable for truancy issues.
The progress model assumes that the goal is students passing classes. It then divides that requirement over the course of weeks, and ultimately days, in the school term. Based on this goal, MVHS school officials determine the required percentage of increase in each class per week toward full completion. Most students take a minimum of five classes each semester. School officials divided the total percentage of completion needed to earn credit by the number of weeks in a semester and multiplied it by five classes. This equates to a 25% increase needed (cumulatively considering all classes) per week for attendance. After deliberation and consideration, MVHS administration collectively determined that each 5% increase amounted to one school day based on a 5-day school week, as is found in traditional schools. For example, if a student fails to make 10% progress in a particular week, that student would be considered absent for 2 days
Based on the aforementioned progress models, virtual schools can establish a system of holding students accountable for their “attendance,” and it should be noted that there will be an effort made to assist students who are struggling academically to achieve progress as opposed to students who simply put no effort into a given assignment. “Using progress as a measure allows MVHS to monitor who is struggling academically as well as those who are absent/truant. In either case, identifying students who are struggling to progress is vital (Archambault, Kennedy, & Bender, 2013).”
Another major concern in accountability in online learning is determining whether or not the person registered for the course is in fact the person taking the course. The most common method to verify student identify for online courses involves “issuing each student a unique login and password. However Hilbelink acknowledges that there are ‘instances where students have purposely given out their login and passwords to another person who takes their exam or posts for them on discussion boards (Venable, 2013).'”
To prevent fraudulent abuse of virtual classrooms, several online institutions are implement various measures to ensure the student registered for the course is the one taking the course. Current methods of verifying student identity rely predominantly on requiring students to take “tests at on-ground testing centers” where ID is required prior to taking the test. New methods however, are cropping up constantly. In Strayer University’s online courses students are required to answer two random multiple choice challenge questions such as “prior street address or zip code” to verify student identities (Venable, 2013). At Proctor University students are connected to a “with a live proctor via [their] web camera [who] will ask you to show a photo ID (Venable, 2013).” Online course management services like eduKan is currently experimenting with biometrics to identify students through “fingerprinting, voice recognition, and retinal scans (Venable, 2013).” Another experimental software, VProctor, attempts to “flag ‘triggers’ such as ‘opening another browser window, talking on a phone, talking to someone else in the room, or using a book (Venable, 2013).'”
In order to implement these suggested methods across U.S. schools to improve the accountability in Online Education, a number of steps will be required. Teachers and proctors would have to become familiar with new software. Large amounts of funding needs to be allocated to developing programs and purchasing usage rights. The National Educational Technology Plan, the “flagship program for online education”, suggests the following:
One of the most effective ways to provide high-quality digital learning materials at scale is through the use of openly licensed educational resources. These resources may be used, modified, and shared without paying any licensing fees or requesting permission. Open licenses for this purpose have been created by organizations such as Creative Commons for learning resources. For software, a number of open license types are available, such as the GNU General Public License and others recognized by the Open Source Initiative or the Free Software Foundation. This is significant considering that the United States currently spends approximately $8 billion each year purchasing commercial learning resources.4 Replacing just one textbook for one subject can free up tens of thousands of dollars for other purposes.
There are advantages other than just cost savings. Openly licensed materials can be more accurate than traditional textbooks because they can be updated continually as content changes. Openly licensed materials also allow teachers to exercise their own creativity and expertise so they can tailor learning materials to meet the needs of their students.
Archambault, L., K. Kennedy, and S. Bender. 2013. Cyber-truancy: Addressing issues of attendance in the digital age. Journal of Research on Technology in Education 46 (1): 1–28
Barth, P. 2013. Virtual schools: Where’s the evidence. Educational Leadership 70 (6): 32–36.
Berge, Z. L., & Clark, T. (2005). Virtual schools: Planning for success. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Cavanaugh, C. S., Barbour, M. K., & Clark, T. (2009). Research and Practice in K-12 Online Learning: A Review of Open Access Literature. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10. Retrieved April 19, 2016, from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/607/1183c
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology, Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education, Washington, D.C., 2016.
Venable, M. (2013, August 16). Online Student Verification: Is that you? Are you there? – OnlineCollege.org. Retrieved April 25, 2016, from http://www.onlinecollege.org/2013/08/16/online-student-verification-is-that-you-are-you-there/