Editor’s Note: This theme will be repeated as other aspects of online learning come under scrutiny. We know enough at this point to optimize quality in design and delivery. Quality of course content is more difficult to define and measure.
Key Aspects Affecting Students’ Perception
Regarding the Instructional Quality of
Online and Web Based Courses
This study assessed the perceptions of college students regarding the instructional quality of online and web based courses via WebCT. The results showed an overall positive perceptions regarding the instructional quality of online courses delivered via WebCT (M = 2.63, SD = 0.87). The mean obtained for students’ perceptions regarding the instructional quality items ranged from 2.45 to 2.86. The visual appeal of website material received the highest rating (M = 2.86). Clarity and purpose in introduction to content components earned the lowest ratings (M = 2.45). These results were closely correlated to students’ responses regarding the important aspects of instructional quality of online courses. The most important aspect indicated by students was the idea of “clear instruction.” The results of the study also indicated other perceived aspects that affect students’ views of the instructional quality of an online course, including interaction, design, convenience, feedback, and usability.
Keywords: World Wide Web, Online Courses, Multimedia, Student, Teaching, Learning, Distance Education, Instructional Quality, Content Management Systems, Instructional Design, Technology and Learning, Design, Web Based Learning, Assessment, Course Design
Online and web based courses have become popular with both students and educational institutions as the new mediums to deliver educational programs. For universities, they are an excellent way to reach students in diverse and distant locations. Some may also be used to supplement school enrollments since students can take the courses anywhere. Given their popularity and increased use, it is imperative that administrators and professors monitor students’ perceptions of courses using these mediums for delivery. This type of feedback can help in modifying and improving the programs, so that course can function as desired by all parties.
A thorough analysis of major research related to students’ perception of online courses uncovered important factors that are involved in determining students’ satisfaction of online courses (Anderson & Joerg, 1996; Cedefop, 2002; Hara & Kling, 2000; Polloff & Pratt, 2001). The literature indicates that students’ perceptions of online vary, but overall are positive (Daugherty & Funke, 1998; Morss, 1999; Polloff & Pratt, 2001). The top reasons for taking online courses were flexibility, convenience, and learning enhancement. Students could “attend” their online courses at any time and from anywhere. Convenient features of online courses include economy of travel, comfort, and family environment. Under learning enhancement, participants ranked technology factors and comprehension as the top reasons (Polloff & Pratt, 2001). The disadvantages of online courses were related to technology and isolation. Technology issues related to poor video quality and complaints about transmission delay over the Internet. As for isolation, students voiced the lacked opportunities for informal socialization with instructors and other students.
With regard to the interaction, participants rated interpersonal contact and self-monitoring of individual progress as the most highly rated indicators, followed by timely responses from instructors. Although indicators existed in each of the interaction areas, self-regulating learning and timely feedback from the instructor were reported as most valued by participants. Polloff and Pratt (2001) found that students are most satisfied with courses in which the instructors facilitate frequent contact between themselves and students, use active learning techniques, convey high expectations, emphasize of time spent on specific tasks, and provide prompt feedback.
According to Anderson and Joerg (1996), students perceived online courses as a valuable delivery tool, and they reported that online courses changed the dynamics of access to class materials toany time from different locations. Students perceived online courses as a valuable educational improvement, according to one study (Anderson & Joerg, 1996). However, students hesitated to enroll in online courses due to problems associated with Internet access and ongoing questions related to the advantage of the technology. Students were also concerned about spending time on external Web sites. According to Cedefop (2002), online instructors tended to rely on external sources for materials or content that did not necessarily reflect the instructional standards of the course.
Web design issues are of concerned to students as Polloff and Pratt’s study (2001) indicated that students were moderately satisfied with the Web design of online courses. If students are not satisfied with the design of the course website, they may have negative perceptions of the effectiveness their online courses (Brush, 2001). As reviewed in the literature, Khan (1997) defined and explained Web Based Instructional (WBI) environments by providing two distinct classifications - components and features. According to Khan (1997), components are integral parts of the Web, such as instructional design, multimedia, graphics, text, video, audio streaming, and asynchronous/synchronous communication modes. The findings indicated that these components of Web Based Instruction (WBI) contribute to the students’ perceptions for online courses. Multimedia elements, if designed properly, could have a positive impact on student achievement and the learning process (Ryan & Kasturi, 2002).
Chickering and Ehrmann’s (1996) proposed several principles of good learning and practices for online courses. The first principle of good practice encourages interaction between students and faculty. The students perceived the interactive course environment and frequent discussion as conducive to learning in online courses (Jiang, 1998). In fact, students identified more opportunities to interact with their instructors and peers as one of the main benefits of the online courses (Holmes, 2000). However, if interaction was not available, students became frustrated and unsatisfied with the course. According to Hara and Kling (2000), students’ frustrations with online courses originated from two sources: technological problems and pedagogical issues. Technological problems included students’ difficulty in obtaining technical support. Access to technical support was crucial to students’ perceptions of their online course. The second principle of good practice encourages cooperation among students. Working together with other students increases involvement in learning and deepens understanding (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996). A third principle or good practice is prompt feedback. Although many aspects contribute to effective online instruction, prompt feedback consistently emerges as a powerful tool to promote student learning (Holmes’s 2000 and Polloff and Pratt’s 2001).
Although studies have investigated student’s perceptions of online courses, none have assessed the instructional quality of online courses. All online courses are not necessarily equal in terms of efficacy in delivery the course content. While most faculty assume that their online courses are good, this may not be the same assumption from the students’ view. Little research has identified the factors that students use to form quality perceptions. Yet this is important due to the fact that, perception could have long term implications to school programs given that online and web based delivery programs will continue to grow in the future.
The purpose of this study is to identify the factors that affect students’ perception of the instructional quality of online and web based courses. This will lead to the development and implementation of innovative strategies to promote quality teaching and student learning via the online and web based mediums.
Design Methodology & Approach
For this study, a web-based course was developed where students were taught to use specific instructional technology tools to solve education-related problems in local schools districts. The mode of learning was geared towards a student-centered, constructivist learning perspective where students were active learners, worked in a group environment and constructed knowledge and understanding in their learning process. At the end of the course, a survey was given to the students to assess their perceptions towards this learning environment along with the factors that affect the instructional quality of the online courses. A total of 291 students were enrolled in the classes and 89% completed the survey instrument. Students were encouraged to be truthful in completing the survey and were assured that their grades would not be affected based on their responses.
Students Perceptions of Online Learning
Overall perceptions: The results from this study indicated an overall positive response regarding the instructional quality of online courses delivered via WebCT (M = 2.63). The visual appeal of online courses received the highest perception ratings of instructional quality (M = 2.86), followed by the tasteful use of colors for online courses (M = 2.79). The results indicated that students had high ranking of visual design of the website for the instructional quality of online courses, and they perceived that the visual display of content was an important factor that affected their view of online courses. Visual appeal of online courses may not seem to be critical to students’ learning of the content of the course (Brush, 2001), but this study shows that it this factor affects the students’ level of interest and desire to use the site to obtain information. For the important aspects of instructional quality of online courses, several students identified the use of color in their online courses. They indicated that “the colors on the website were not chosen in a professional and easily readable manner.” Instructors are thus faced with the challenge of creating a functional and aesthetically pleasing website and they are responsible for the presentation of their online courses.
Perception of Web Design: Although respondents were satisfied with the web design of this course, many are not satisfied with the web design of most web based courses in general. Fifty-two percent of students answered they were satisfied with the Web design of online courses. However, nearly half of students (46%) were not satisfied with the Web design of online courses in general. It is possible that instructors who use WebCT for their courses may not incorporate good design aspects for their online courses.
Factors Related to Instructional Quality: Approximately 15% of the students indicated that good web design of their online courses was important. This was the third-highest-ranking aspect of instructional quality. The results of this study confirmed that instructors need to take into consideration the architecture and user interface of an online course’s site (Brush, 2001). The site architecture determines the ease with which students can locate desired information. Brush (2001) emphasized that the site architecture establishes the sequence of the course, the organization of the information, the order of procedures that should be followed, and supplementary resources for students. From the study conducted by the research team, one student commented as follows: “The organization of materials is most important to me so that I can easily find what I need and see what is important.” Others said that the “layout and presentation of material” helped them “coordinate class material.” When a class Web site has poor site architecture, students become frustrated with their inability to locate the necessary information and navigate the site (Brush, 2001). Students who were confused and frustrated by their attempts to move from page to page would likely give up on the use of the Web site to locate desired information. This may lead to negative perceptions toward online courses. As one respondent indicated said, “The organization of the class Web site is not streamlined, very busy and cluttered.”
This study showed that the interface navigation scheme of the Web site should also be considered in online courses. Interface design influences students’ focus on learning and their ability to obtain the necessary course information. When students can utilize the interface to navigate from one section of the site to another without too many distractions, the user interface design is effective. Approximate 73 % students listed easy site navigation as an important aspect of online courses. “Easy of navigation through the site is an important aspect of online courses,” and “It was easy to navigate through the site.”
Nearly half of students (47%) reported that they understand course material better when their online courses use multimedia components to represent the information. Regarding the important aspects of online courses, a student from the study the research team conducted commented that “animation helped me a lot to understand the concepts of this course.” The idea is that if multimedia is not designed properly, it can have a negative impact. The results from the research study revealed that the time spent on downloading course was a factor that should be considered in the online course as well.
This study found that the links to new sections of the course should be clearly related to course objectives. Fifty-one percent of students were not satisfied with clarity of objectives in new sections. Study findings indicated that many instructors were not considering certain factors such as the objectives of the course and the objectives of each individual lesson when designing online courses. Clearly stated objectives (or the lack of them) affect students’ perceptions regarding online courses, the results showed. The results were closely correlated with student responses regarding the important aspects of instructional quality of online courses, such as clear instruction, interaction, design, convenience, feedback, and usability. According to the research conducted in this study, nearly 86% of students responded that the most important aspect of instructional quality of online course was “clear instruction.”
Instructional Design Model. The clarity and ordering of online documents in relation to course content, according to the Instructional Design Model (IDM), increased the students’ sense of connection with the course (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2001). Dick et al. (2001) identified a systematic process of designing instruction that ensures the quality of knowledge transferred from an instructor to a learner in their model. The findings from this study provided empirical evidence for the Instructional Design Model (IDM). The results of this study indicated that instructors should incorporate an instructional design model in their online courses because the model enables learners to learn effectively and to engage in activities that promote practice. Twenty-two percent of students in this study perceived clear instruction as the most important aspect in their online learning experiences. The result indicated that clear instruction is an instructional design issue, as commented by one student who valued “clear, concise, and detailed directions.” Students called for “order and clarity of instructions,” and “letting students know the due dates, where to read, which chapter is on the exam.” If the instructions were not clear, students “didn't know what each assignment was worth,” “didn't know how the final grade was computed”or even“felt lost the entire semester.” Students’ responses in this study indicated that clear instruction directly affects their learning, their understanding of content materials, and their participation in online learning activities.
Principles of Good Learning and Practice. The findings support Chickering and Ehrmann’s (1996) principles of good learning and practices for online courses. The first principle of good practice encourages interaction between students and faculty. Online communication components such as e-mail, discussion boards, chat, and whiteboards available within the course management system (CMS) provide more opportunities for students and faculty members to interact and communicate online compared to traditional face-to-face instruction in the classroom. Interaction was the second most important aspect of instructional quality of online courses in this study (21%). Student comments from this study were as followed: “communication from the professor is key,” and “the message board and e-mail on WebCT help students and professors to communicate with each other.” One respondent cited “frequent interaction with instructor,” as a positive aspect. When students interacted with instructors frequently, they felt that “the online course was very successful,” “the instructor was helpful to all students,” and “[they] learned a lot from the teacher.”
The second principle of good practice encourages cooperation among students. Another good practice is prompt feedback. Students in this study (29%) stated that timely responses from peers and from their instructors were important factors in determining the instructional quality of online courses. The results support study that students have positive perceptions of online courses when the instructors facilitate frequent contact between themselves and students, use active learning techniques, convey high expectations, emphasize time on task, and provide prompt feedback.
Major Reasons for Taking Online Courses. Previous research mentioned flexibility, convenience, and accessibility and learning enhancement were the top reasons for taking online courses. Results of this study indicated that 12% of the respondents perceived “convenience” as an important aspect, especially for “students who are very busy and may not have the time to get to campus to attend class.” Students felt that the convenience that online courses provide made them able to “access to material 24 hours a day,” view “their assignment outside the classroom,” and “attend class without leaving work or home,” as well as “visit their course more often than they are able to sit in a class.” The course offered “flexibility of work.” This study concluded that convenience is a vital aspect of the online course. In this study, 62 % reported that ease of use of WebCT was an important aspect in their learning. Six percent of students reported that “the old version of WebCT is easy to use,” and “the older version of WebCT was clear and straightforward. Students’ negative perceptions of online courses were often based on computer access (McMahon et al., 1999). Students who did not have computers at home were often vexed by the additional time required to visit a computer lab and by the lack of convenience. Though computer access was an important issue at that time, in this study, only 15% of students reported accessibility to class material as an important aspect of instructional quality. Other aspects reported from the results included the availability of instructors, the quality of content, and the personality of the instructor.
Conclusions and Implications
The findings of the report show that students found that the navigation, design of instruction, time needed to download materials, web design aesthetics, and accessibility of the course information, were all important factors that affected the instructional quality of online and web based course. The student also revealed that the web-based learning environment would allowed them to be more active participants in their learning process, increasing their critical and creative thinking skills as well as improving their problem-solving skills, if the aspects that affect the instructional quality of the online course were taken into consideration and implemented. They also revealed that by adhering to the instructional design process and the effective design of the course website, they could learn to develop learning skills such as communication, teamwork, collaboration and time management, which would assist them in achieving ownership of the course learning outcomes, but also master the online web based course environment. The use of online and web-based tools for their online courses allowed them to be innovative in their course work, making their learning experience valuable and rewarding. On the practical side, this research provides instructional designer, educators, and trainers with the necessary information on the aspects that affect the instructional quality of online and web based courses as well as innovative approaches to teaching with technology.
As a whole, the results obtained in this project were positive and encouraging. Students in general enjoy the online and web based learning environment, but nevertheless were eagared to indicate the critical factors that affect the instructional quality of online courses. The research examined in this study provides educators with the relevant factors to the instructional quality and over all success of the student learning outcomes via online and web based courses. This method of course design and learning engages students actively in participating in their own learning process, thus leading to the promotion of quality teaching and student learning for a more consistent and dynamic web based educational learning environment.
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About the Author
Terry Kidd is an Instructor and Web Technology Support Coordinator at the University of Houston-Downtown. He has presented at several international conferences on E-Learning and Information Technology. His research interests include Web Based Instruction, Distance Education, Designing technology-based learning environments, and the Cross Cultural Social Aspect of Technology.
University of Houston-Downtown
College of Humanities and Social Sciences
One Main Street, Houston, TX 77004