When quality standards ignore learners’ needs

I have found it quite frustrating to attempt aligning my blended course to specific “standards” identified by post-secondary institutions, such as eCampus Alberta (http://quality.ecampusalberta.ca/). Many of these standards are specifically for post-secondary, academic-focused courses. My blended course is designed for high beginners of ESL adult learners, many who may have limited computer skills.

I agree with Kelvin Thompson’s observation that “Limiting the scope of blended or online course quality to considerations of the designed environment results in a significant blind spot.” (“Quality Assurance in Blended Learning,” Chapter 5, BlendKit Reader, 2nd ed., ed: Kelvin Thompson, Ed.D.) Committees charged with the responsibility of designing standards for online and blended programs must view the standards from all the possible angles, including from the perspective of low level ESL learners and low literacy adult learners. These segments of society are also served by online environments, and instructors that take the challenge of providing such courses are left adapting or rejecting the standards in order to meet their specific learners’ needs.

For example, standards such as lengthy course outlines or protocols contain far too much information for a high beginner ESL learner. The amount of information that is required in these “orientation” materials would frustrate a typical learner in my class. Even when I reduce the language to as simple as possible, it’s the amount of information that is the problem. I cannot post that much information in one document and expect any learner in my class to actually read it.

Those of us who serve low level ESL learners or low literacy adult learners need to look elsewhere to evaluate the quality of our programs and effectiveness of our teaching. Questions such as, “How many students are completing the online assignments?” indicate potential issues that students may be dealing with. If very few students are completing the online work, then the next obvious set of questions is: Why? Are students not understanding the instructions? Do I have to write less and/or simpler? Do I need to do more scaffolding before assigning that particular work? Does the student have access to a computer and/or internet in order to complete the work?

If the students are not understanding the instructions, how many other ways can I present the information? Tools such as Jing (https://www.techsmith.com/jing.html) provide instructors with the ability to show and tell without taking up precious face-to-face classroom instructional time. And these tools can be accessed at any time by the student who needs the extra help, without slowing down those students who are further along their learning continuum. Use of snipping (PC) and grab (MAC) tools allow instructors to get images showing each step of an online activity, which students can review after the face-to-face computer lab session.

This comment by Kevin Kelly, quoted in “Quality Assurance in Blended Learning” (Chapter 5, BlendKit Reader, 2nd ed., ed: Kelvin Thompson, Ed.D.), applies to all online and blended programs, and is particularly important for the low level ESL leaners and low literacy adult learners:

“During fully online and blended learning courses, students often  need more structure and support to succeed because their course activities usually require them to take greater responsibility for their own learning success.”

Low level ESL or literacy adult learners do not understand how to take responsibility for their own learning. When learners first begin a blended course, most of the term is spent introducing them to the technology and showing them how to complete independent learning activities. Course objectives must be written in such a way as to acknowledge the time required to help learners develop these foundational skills. Instructors must be adept at handling multi-level learners to ensure those experienced with the computer are not being held back by those needing extensive instruction in using computers.

Instructors in these types of learning environments need to be acknowledged and supported in their quest for quality standards, without being burdened by unrealistic standards designed by committees focused on specific environments and student populations.

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