Online Education: Why We Need to Reform Contemporary Methods of Assessing Faculty-Student Interaction
By Mike Lesczinski, Excelsior Life News Staff--
Nancy Calsolaro Smulsky, EdD, a faculty member in Excelsior College’s School of Nursing published a dissertation* earlier this year exploring faculty-student interaction within an online learning environment. Her work not only looked at the importance of better understanding the relationship between faculty and student engagement, but the limitations of contemporary survey tools that may impede an institution’s assessment of their own faculty’s performance.
Excelsior Life sat down with Nancy recently to ask her about her findings.
The purpose of your dissertation was to explore the quality benchmark of student-faculty interaction of nontraditional baccalaureate level college students seeking degree completion through online programs at Excelsior College. What inspired, or perhaps intrigued you enough about the topic?
As an online instructor, being present for the students is something that is very close to my heart. I would notice students’ comments about instructor availability or how much they would like to have some type of live interaction. When the college’s National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) data was shared with the college, I noticed the college consistently scored low for this criteria. As a result, I looked further into NSSE and also spoke with OAIR about the survey. After meeting with OAIR, and discovering NSSE was written for the face-to-face environment, I decided to research this topic more deeply to see if there were any like tools for the non-traditional online learner.
As popular thought goes, online learners are more “independent” learners by nature. You even described them as expecting some level of “control” over the learning process. Can you talk a little online teaching-learning theory?
Research pointed out that online learning allows for student centered teaching and learning, the breaking down of barriers; and empowers the nontraditional college student with control over their interactions with faculty and fellow learners. The asynchronous format allows students the freedom to access courses at any time thereby providing control over when they learn and when they interact with each other and the instructor.
In the late 1980’s Chickering and Gamson published Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Today these principles continue to be used as the cornerstones for education no matter the setting. Chickering and Gamson pointed out the students have high expectations, seek prompt feedback from their instructor, and take an active role in their learning. They also pointed out the importance of student-faculty interaction. It is interesting to note that the number one principle speaks to the student-faculty connection. Placing this principle in the first position infers its importance for the success of the adult learner. Although these principles originated from research conducted in the traditional college setting, they have proven effective for online teaching and learning.
Excelsior College embraces Constructivist Theory. Here adult learners take an active role, are the center of their learning, and use new knowledge to build upon prior knowledge to construct new meaning. Excelsior prides itself in meeting students where they are and by embracing Quality Matters ensures the student is at the center of all we do, all the time. As nontraditional college students engage in meaningful learning, they will continue to seek out answers to questions which influence their lives. These lifelong learners emerge from the virtual learning environment into the virtual working environment constructing and transforming old knowledge into new knowledge, which would be negatively impacted without a high degree of student-faculty interaction.
So taking these different learning styles into account, what are online learners looking for in terms of interaction with faculty?
This is a great question. Not everyone learns the same way. Some students are independent and self-directed from the start; they are able to jump right in to a course. They rarely ask for assistance and fully embrace the asynchronous format. Others require some guidance and are yet to learn how to take charge of their learning. Students rely on the instructor to guide them to become more independent. By responding to individual learning styles, the instructor promotes dialogue between and among students and lays the foundation for both independent and group learning while instilling feelings of community.
Development of a community of inquiry requires online faculty to have presence throughout the course. Students expect instructors to partner with them by guiding discussions, responding to questions in a timely manner, and being accessible outside of the course. Students may not take advantage of meeting with an instructor by telephone or participating in live chats, however just knowing the instructor is available provides a sense of security. In fact, responses from students who participated in my research study supported this through statements such as: ". . . the interaction and atmosphere on the class forums were wonderful. Not only did the instructor offer helpful information, but he encouraged the students to do so among each other” and “The Excelsior instructors really like to help and mentor their students and never once did I get the impression of intruding upon their time.”
Your dissertation is built around the fact that current methods of assessing the effectiveness of online learning, specifically student-faculty interaction, may be outdated, or at least in need of refinement. What are some of the contemporary data gathering surveys and their limitations?
When attempting to measure quality it is important to use a consistent tool and compare finding to other like institutions. There are several student survey tools in existence that have been proven to be valid and reliable such as NSSE, Students’ Evaluation of Educational Quality (SEEQ), and the Course/Instructor Evaluation Questionnaire (CIEQ).
Unfortunately these tools were written for the face-to-face environment and may not be the best tools for measuring quality of online learning. I did find one tool developed by Arthur Bangert, Student Evaluation of Online Teaching Effectiveness, which was written exclusively for evaluation of online learning. The limitation of these tools is that they measure different things from evaluation of teaching, to course effectiveness, to frequency and quality of student-faculty interaction. NSSE seems to be the tool of choice for many institutions. However with differing measures and learning environments, it is hard to make a definitive comparison of results from one to another. Even though Excelsior has participated in NSSE, we have identified that it may not be the best tool for evaluating the quality of online learning.
How do you recommend improving upon these existing survey toolkits?
I think we need to go back to the drawing board and through collaboration of online institutions of higher education fashion a tool that is acceptable by all for measuring and comparing engagement of the online, non-traditional college student.
So, what are the implications of all this? How can improved data gathering surveys and tools help guide the learning process and improve the effectiveness of distance learning?
Adult learners are not only self-directed, but hungry for information and knowledge that can be transformed to meet the needs of their real world challenges. Faculty must be at the ready to meet learner needs while incorporating and adjusting to the explosion of technological advances affecting the delivery of teaching and learning in the virtual environment. Knowing what makes student-faculty relationship strong and viable translates into satisfied students, increased student retention, and successful outcomes for all.
*Calsolaro Smulsky, Nancy (2012). Measuring Student-Faculty Interaction for Nontraditional College Students: A Comparison of Data Collection Tools. Doctoral dissertation, Argosy University, Online College of Education.