Beyond the Numbers    


I am an advocate for online education.  At the same time, I am an academic technology administrator by trade.  While living in the academic technology world, I also teach online classes on a regular basis. Teaching online provides me with a unique perspective of the technology that I deploy and support while giving me the ability to relate to faculty when it comes to supporting and their hands-on experience.

Undisputably, online education is here to stay.  We no longer hear the argument questioning the quality of the education delivered by the online environment in comparison with the education provided at a brick-and-mortar school.  Gone are the days when an online class was a simple repository for PowerPoint presentations and syllabi. Nowadays, we have complex Learning Management Systems that help us manage our online environment and provide us with endless reports and measurable learning outcomes.  The online classroom is a virtual meeting place where students can interact among themselves and with their instructors.  Courses are loaded with simulations, case studies, interactive content, quizzes, exams, etc.  Classes are designed to help students navigate a course’s content at their own pace while evaluating their understanding of the presented material.  At the same time, we have the ability to track – down to the second – the amount of time a student spends on an exercise, exam, number of forum postings, time spent on a module, and every other detail that enables us to measure the quality of online education… Really? Are those metrics true representations of student learning outcomes? How do these variables compare to the ones in the traditional classroom?  After all, in the traditional environment, we do not time how long a student spends reading course material, nor how long it took him or her to finish a quiz.  We do not have a person assigned to each classroom counting the words of each student’s participation.  Let’s keep this in mind as we look at all of these numbers from another angle.

On the other side of the equation, we have instructors and the ongoing debate about performance appraisal and evaluation.  The untrained individual might view the online environment and the amount of work an instructor devotes to developing and delivering an online course as a diluted version of the face-to-face class.  There is a misperception about the amount of work needed to create and master the delivery of an online class.  To help us clarify, the Learning Management System provides us again with countless metrics and reports about the instructor’s activity in a course. Included are quantifiers such as the number of postings, number of logins, number of words per posting, time per login, on and on… Really?  Are the number of words in a posting a genuine indicator of the quality of an instructor and his/her dedication and commitment to students?  Following the same analogy as applied to the students: How do these metrics compare to their counterpart face-to-face classroom?  Do we count the words on an instructor’s verbal response in a traditional classroom?  Do we track the number of times an instructor participates during an in-class discussion?

I am surprised that our metrics to evaluate students and instructors are so mechanical in the online environment.  Why are we not mimicking some of the more academic metrics that we use in the face-to-face environment?   Shouldn’t we be focusing beyond the numbers to ensure the quality of our online education?  After all, I have serious doubts about the ability to quantify a student’s understanding of the material based on the number of words used to answer a weekly topic on a forum.  Or, at the same time, that the quality and dedication of an instructor is directly proportional to the number of words used to reply to a student forum.  We are encouraging students and instructors to move away from quality and towards quantity.  I, for one, will make every effort to promote the awareness that reaching beyond the numbers to evaluate the performance of our students and instructors will reward us with a richer, more robust online environment.

Jose Bernier Ed.D.
Associate VP and CIO, Stetson University