Using Data to Improve Online Learning - Examples from Flashlight Online

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Traditional evaluations of distance learning programs compare outcomes of the DL program with outcomes of "comparable" courses on campus. Measured outcomes often include learning (test scores), enrollment& retention, costs, and satisfaction of students and faculty. Problem: by themselves, outcome comparisons provide little guidance for program improvement. [For more on this point, read "What Outcomes Assessment Misses."]

Here are four complementary strategies for using data to improve distance learning, each with examples of Flashlight Online surveys. Cost analysis can also be used to improve programs, as the fifth button below describes. Together these five strategies of inquiry can directly guide and accelerate program improvement ("formative evaluation").  These resources were developed for, and with support from TLT/Flashlight subscriber institutions; this page is a free sample of subscriber benefits. Click the "Subscriptions" button to the left to learn more. 

  1. Tracking activities; benchmarking
  2. How well does the technology support the activity?
  3. Diagnosing barriers to using the technology for the activity
  4. Classroom/course research
  5. Controlling costs and stress
  6. Related pages
I. Tracking the kinds of teaching-learning activities that can improve outcomes

Program outcomes are determined by what students do as they learn (activities such as reading, doing homework, conversing with the faculty member, doing research and so on). If the technology makes it possible, or easier for students or faculty to carry out such an activity, then the technology has helped determine the outcome.

That's why Flashlight inquiries usually begin by finding out what people are actually doing.  Our survey items focus on those activities most likely to improve outcomes, activities such as those described by the "seven principles of good practice" (click here for a page describing the seven principles and ways of using technology to implement them.) 

Here is a Flashlight Online survey that could be used to compare distance learning and campus courses, while simultaneously providing guidance for how each such course could be improved

Findings and their use: Findings can be used to

  1. identify courses that are doing comparatively well in order to spotlight their instructional practices and resources,
  2. maintain long-term faculty, administrator, and development focus on an issue such as  'active learning' for enough years to actually make substantial improvements in performance (for more on this use of tracking, see "Using Technology to Improve Outcomes: Learning From Past Mistakes."
II. Judging the adequacy of available technology for carrying out such activities

Another way to use data to improve program outcomes is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the technology for carrying out the kinds of activities that determine outcomes.  Each of these items in this survey is designed to provide direct guidance for program leaders and faculty support staff for helping faculty and students use technology appropriately and/or for guiding future choices of technology.

Findings and their use: Subscales (answers to several questions with similar topics, such as student-student interaction) provide clues about student judgment about the suitability of the technology, and the assignments for its use.  Similar questions should be asked of faculty. Together the findings would help faculty and administrators decide a) which technologies were being used well, b) where better training or course design is needed, and c) where new technology may be required.

III.  Diagnostic Surveys: Removing Barriers to 100% Participation and Success

Learning results from what students do. Technology is valuable when students use it to carry out those activities.  But what if not every student participates in key course activities?  For example, we've identified almost 50 barriers that can hinder some students from participating in online discussion and teamwork.  Barriers range from problems in uploading files to problems in dealing with a loafing team-mate.

This third type of survey asks each student to describe any and all barriers that affect that student's participation in online discussion or teamwork. Faculty using this survey would ask only about problems where they and the institution can help. The attached survey includes 19 of the 45 items in this item bank.

Findings and their use: Students are encouraged to give their names. So if one student says that finding a computer at the times she has available for study is a problem, she might be told about a local school that is open in the evenings and has a computer lab. If half the students in the course believe that they learn best when they learn alone, the faculty member might report after each assignment and test which group scored higher: those who worked on the team projects (or engaged in online discussion) or those who didn't.

IV. Classroom Assessment Techniques

Flashlight Online can also be used to gather information to improve courses as they unfold. ( Subscribers: click here for pages on classroom assessment techniques adapted from the work of Angelo and Cross.) For example, the faculty member may ask students to think about recent assignments, both to get feedback for future teaching but also to stimulate students to think about their own strengths and weaknesses. Here's one survey that could be adapted for this purpose. And here are a variety of other ways to improve feedback for students and faculty. (Standard TLT Group username and password required; to see if your institution is a current subscriber and to get the log-in information, click here.)

V. Controlling Cost and Stress

Traditional cost studies focus on the bottom line: of two or more types of program design, which is most/least expensive?  Here, too, Flashlight focuses on the ways that time, money and other resources are invested in specific activities, and why.  Christine Geith's chapter in the Flashlight Cost Analysis Handbook, for example, found tremendous variation in how individual faculty spend time in different modes of off- and on-campus teaching. Dziuban and Moskal showed that one reason that faculty spend more time in web-based courses at the University of Central Florida is because they like the enhanced ability to interact with students. Brown, Henderson and Myers found that the investment in up-front help in instructional design at Washington State University was paying off in both improved quality and lower operating costs for distance learning courses.

Bottom line: if you want to gather the kinds of data that can directly lead to program improvement, don't just focus on the bottom line!

Related Pages

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