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.