Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 6 of 6)

Great graduate programs challenge and stretch people. They are more than the accumulation of new knowledge. They are not meant to simply be quick, convenient, and an easy way to a pay increase at work. I’ll confess that I’ve met graduate students in my field (education) who treat their graduate study this way. As such, they want to know what they have to do to pass the class, complete the program, and get the degree. Great graduate programs, whether they’re online or face-to-face do not allow that. This doesn’t mean that they are rigid, inflexible or unwilling to honor the distinct situations and abilities of each learner. I’m referring to programs that honor the learners, but that also challenge all of us in the learning community honor the discipline enough to give it our best.

There are a small number of online diploma mills that market themselves as the least expensive, easiest, most convenient programs around. Sometimes they boast about how quickly you can finish. However, what really matters in a graduate program is a high level of intellectual challenge. People should be stretched to think in new ways, grapple with concepts and ideas that sometimes feel beyond their reach, and that help them reach levels of insight and performance that they never thought possible.

Graduate study is not about general knowledge. It is more specialized. It is about deep learning, exploring a smaller number of topics at a level of depth rarely matched on the undergraduate level. Sometimes it isn’t just about deeper content, but it is also about a higher level of performance or the ability to apply the concepts.

To build this depth, all good graduate programs help students get at the foundations of a subject. That is why they often study the historical, philosophical, and theoretical foundations of the disciplines. It is also why they usually get into the contemporary issues and problems in the discipline, the gray areas and the messier side of the content.

What is distinct about the online graduate program when it comes to challenge? Nothing. This is a universal part of all great graduate programs. However, online learning brings with it other challenges. The design of the course or learning moduels and the technologies used can either help or hinder the desire to helps student dive deep into a discipline. When there is a poor or unnecessarily complex design, that gets in the way of this challenge. When the technology is unreliable or “buggy”, that takes precious mental and emotional energy away from getting lost in the wonderful complexities of the discipline. As a result, great online graduate programs have simple but elegant designs. Technology is reliable and supports deep learning. And students are challenged, invited, and supported as they are stretch, challenged, and guided through fascinating, unchartered, and sometimes tumultuous learning journeys.

Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 5 of 6)

As noted in part four, feedback is an essential part of all learning, and intentional plans for providing frequent feedback are essential in quality online learning programs. When it comes to online learning, it becomes important that there are intentional and explicit sources of feedback throughout the entire program, as well as within each course. Failure to provide adequate feedback decreases retention, student satisfaction, and student learning. It also makes it unlikely that students will learn to engage in disciplinary thinking (a topic for a part six).

In traditional graduate education, some faculty have become convinced that the lectures they dispense to the students are their greatest contribution. They are mistaken. It is a rare faculty member who dispenses truly unique content that is unavailable in a variety of free or inexpensive sources. As noted by Neil Postman, information is rarely the answer to any problem today.

This is not an attempt to minimize the importance of content or the expertise of a professor. Both of these remain an integral part of graduate study. However, the more I look at what does and does not result in student learning, the more I am convinced that the most important trait of an effective graduate online learning instructor is that he or she provide the learners with frequent and meaningful feedback. This is granted that the instructor is well-equipped to teach a given course and that he or she has reached at least a moderate level of expertise in the discipline associated with the course.

Expertise involves a deep understanding of vocabulary, understanding of nuanced application across contexts, skills, big ideas, theories, historical foundations, philosophies, problems, and essential issues in a given domain. It involves the ability to identify, frame, or solve difficult problems within that domain. It entails a sensitivity to nuances that would go unnoticed by the novice or untrained eye. It is more than head knowledge about a topic. It moves beyond simply having a great deal of information. Experts have true knowledge and a growing measure of wisdom in their field.

If one simply wants more information about a subject, then a graduate course or program is not a good investment of money. Information, even knowledge, is freely available on the web, in libraries, or through a modest investment of a few good books or other sources of media. However, if one desires to pursue expertise and the ability to think and act within a discipline, then mentoring and feedback become treasured. Mentoring, when done well, is rich with meaningful feedback. That is what takes plans in a quality graduate online learning program.

With that said, feedback can and should come from a variety of sources. It can come from:

  • A qualified instructor who has developed a level of expertise within a given discipline,
  • From peers (often in the form of well-designed group interactions and learning activities),
  • Through computer-generated feedback (in the form of computer-based quizzes, simulations, games and practice exercises that provide helpful instant automated feedback),
  • Through outside experts,
  • Through co-workers, colleagues, or family members,
  • And through self-feedback.

In the early stages, self-feedback is guided. It is modeled for the students. Students are given rubrics, checklists, and lists of questions to use in self-evaluation. However, as the student progresses in the online learning courses and program, they also develop the capacity to do more of this self-feedback (within a given discipline) simply by tapping internalized vocabulary, skills, knowledge, priorities, and values. This interpersonal capacity becomes a key to lifelong growth and development.

Quality graduate online learning programs are learning communities that provide this sort of disciplinary feedback. And, over the course of study, these programs move students toward mastery within a discipline (or field of study), and toward the capacity to engage in disciplinary self-reflection.

Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 4 of 6)

The design of effective learning is not a secret. There are five simple questions that should be asked and answered. When this is done, the learning experiences tends to be effective. These same questions apply in virtually all forms of formal education, but they are especially important in online learning programs. With that in mind, good online graduate programs constitute courses and/or learning experiences that are designed in view of the following five questions:

1) Who are the learners?

Answering this question is key to all good teaching and learning. What is the background of the learners? What prior knowledge or experience do they bring to the table? What are the pre-requisite skills needed to be successful in the program and how do these match with the intended learners? What is a typical day in the life of the intended learners? What technical skills and attitudes characterize the intended learners? What cultural factors of the learners need to be considered? What expectations, beliefs, values, and convictions do the learners bring to the experience? There are certainly many similar questions that must inform the design of courses and the entire program. In instructional design, we call this the audience analysis.

Skipping this step can result in a wonderful but highly ineffective experience.

2) What do we want them to learn?

This question applies to the development of overall program outcomes, course-level outcomes and/or objectives, as well as objectives for individual lessons/modules/units. It can be answered without the entire program looking like a rigid form of training or mastery learning, and I am not suggesting that a specific format is necessary. Traditional behavioral objectives, essential questions, or substantive targeted goals can all be effective ways to answer this question.

Skip this step and the program or course lacks direction.

3) What is the very best evidence that students have learned what we want them to learn?

I usually suggest that one start with the ideal, and then slowly back down to what is realistic in a given environment. Whatever the case, answering this question requires us to clearly articulate what it will look like when a student has reached the stated goals.

Skip this step and question 2 tends to disappear also. When this happens, we see courses with stated objectives, but then the assignments, quizzes, and other assessments have little or no connection to these objectives. Any of us who have experienced this as learners can attest to how such an experience is frustrating and unhelpful. It leaves learners struggling to figure out how they are supposed to devote their precious time and energy.

By the way, if we take this question seriously, then the main course assessments rarely end up being multiple choice, matching, or other traditional forms of tests. These tests or quizzes may be present, but they simply serve as a source of feedback, a way to help students discover how they are or are not progressing (more about that when I get to question five). Serious answers to question number three usually lead us to the wonderful world of authentic assessments.

4) What resources and/or learning experiences can help students provide this evidence?

This may be in the form of recorded lectures, case studies, role plays, examples, illustrations, group discussions, scavenger hunts, webquests, digital stories, multimedia projects, labs, interviews, observations, reflective writing, tutorials, research projects, readings, virtual tours, or a wealth of other powerful and potentially effective learning experiences. However, all of them should help the learners work toward providing the evidence that we noted in question three. If it doesn’t help students progress to a point where they can eventually provide the evidence mentioned in question two, then get rid of it or move it to the margins of the course or program. Otherwise, it is likely to be a distraction or even a hindrance to student learning.

Skip this question and you have a course or program rich with busy work that may have limited value for the learner.

5) How can I ensure that students get frequent and meaningful feedback throughout the learning experience?

Without feedback, how are students going to know if they are progressing toward the goal? Too many poorly designed learning experiences don’t give students feedback until it is too late. Students work for weeks on a paper or project, submit it, get a poor grade, and then are instructed to “move on” with no chance to redo or refine their first attempt. How does that help students meet the stated goals? How does that help them progress? Why not give them feedback throughout the learning experience so that learners get a sense of how they are doing, what requires further attention and practice, as well as where they are excelling?

Skip this question and we get five common results: student frustration increases, student anxiety increases, student satisfaction decreases, student learning decreases, and student retention plummets.

Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 3 of 6)

Online learning is not simply online…learning. In fact, all good online learning is blended learning. Conduct a quick Google search for “online learning” AND “definition”. You will find statements suggesting that online learning is where content is delivered via the web or some other electronic means. These types of definitions are not adequate. They usually imply that online learning is about one-way delivery of content, possibly also including electronic communication and collaboration among learners. While it is true that these are common aspects of online courses, there is no reason that it needs to be limited to the electronic world. In fact, virtually all good online courses are actually blended learning, a combination of electronic and non-electronic learning experiences. Most definitions of blended learning don’t simply focus on the blending of electronic and non-electronic experiences, but that is one aspect of a potential blended learning experience, and one that is the focus of my reflections.

It is the rare online graduate program that is simply equipping a person for life in the electronic world. Rather, it is about equipping one with knowledge, skills, and abilities that may be used both online and in the physical world. The quality online experience itself must help promote transfer into the physical world. Imagine an online graduate nursing program that did nothing to equip nurses to actually work with patients in the physical world. Or how about an online MBA program that only applied to conducting business online? Or, what if one got an online graduate degree in special education, but it did nothing to equip the teacher to work more effectively with a student in a one-on-one physical environment? None of these would be examples of good online learning. As with all learning, transfer is key. It is of limited use to learn a skill than can’t transfer to a variety of situations. The best graduate programs equip one with skills, knowledge, and abilities that transfer to a wide variety of circumstances and environments.

What do I mean when I state that all good online learning is blended learning? I’ll admit that I’m playing with words a bit, but consider the following potential aspects of an online course experience:

  • Read books,
  • Interview people,
  • Engage in observations,
  • Have informal conversations with colleagues and family about what you are learning,
  • Create class projects that you then use or try out at work or other physical environments,
  • Take e-learning courses with colleagues and have study groups or collaborate at the local coffee shop,
  • Attend professional conferences during one’s program and present with classmates or professors,
  • Go on fields trips or capture audio/images/video to share as part of one’s online classroom (I’ve seen great examples of this in an online environmental education course. Participants around the country took pictures and used them to discuss the various ecosystems.).
  • Participate in summer or weekend residencies that afford students the chance to engage in labs, face-to-face collaboration and discussion, team-building, networking, etc.
  • Attend optional (or required) face-to-face class sessions in some courses or as part of an introductory/culminating experience.
  • Student are required to present work or research at a conference, to a group of colleagues, or another similar environment.

This is a short list of physical elements that are present in many great online graduate programs. There are plenty of other examples, but I will conclude with one that we often overlook. I’m likely to get a few eye rolls over this one, indicating annoyance at my far too liberal toying with terms and phrases like physical, electronic, hybrid, and learning; but I’ll continue nonetheless. Learning occurs as a result of our interaction with things outside of ourselves, but there there still quite a bit that takes place inside of us. In fact, the actual learning is taking place in our brains. That is physical. If changes are not taking place in the brain as a result of the e-learning experience, then it is not quality learning. It isn’t even learning.