Online Education Needs More Than Technology to Be Done Right

By David Harpool, President, Northcentral University 

Northcentral University is a private, nonprofit online university focused on delivering primarily graduate education to working professionals.

As colleges and universities decide how to handle the upcoming fall semester, some are moving more courses online. Unfortunately, “online” is becoming synonymous to “technology-supported courses,” not true remote learning

I encourage colleges and universities to pursue two paths simultaneously. One, do what is necessary for the fall, which likely involves using Zoom, Webex, Teams or a similar technology to turn on-ground courses into technology-assisted courses. Second, start now (actually yesterday) in developing an effective online paradigm. Several characteristics define a quality online paradigm.

First, effective online courses should be based on an intentional learning pedagogy. Pedagogy is often confused with curriculum. The latter describes what is taught; the former, how it is taught. For example, at Northcentral University our purposeful pedagogy is “Teaching Through Engagement.” We believe there is magic in robust interactions between faculty and students, and expressly reject the “sage on stage” model.

Second, online curriculum should be content specifically selected and designed to be offered in an online format. Three-hour Zoom lectures and lecture notes posted to a class shell will not lead to quality online courses. Faculty are the content experts, but instructional and media designers contribute significantly to the course presentation, improving the quality of online courses.

Third, the faculty selected to teach online should be willing participants who have been trained both in the pedagogy and technology on how to teach online. Forcing faculty to teach online will work no better than higher education’s history of forcing researchers to teach courses.

Fourth, online programs should be designed so program outcomes link to course objectives, which link to learning activities and content, which link to embedded assessment of learning. Fill-in-the-blank course shells do not produce quality online courses.

Fifth, the course should be offered on a robust learning management system that permits communication and content to be delivered through course pages, email, chat, discussion boards, video, two-way video, telephone, and smart devices, supported by rich media.

Sixth, robust student and academic services should be available 24/7 through technology that supports smart devices.

Finally, student learning should be assessed throughout the course, and the course itself should be evaluated by the faculty who teach it, students enrolled in the class and through administrative program reviews.

Building robust quality online courses and programs requires more than technology. Higher education leaders have an opportunity to make deep and lasting change to how they deliver their curriculum. Let’s take advantage of this moment to redefine what “online education” means.