June 5th, 2017

The Case of the Unevaluated Online Courses*

By:

Evaluating Online Courses

The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

This is the city. I work here. I’m a faculty developer. My name is Thursday, Joe Thursday.

It was a Friday. It was raining. I was writing up reports when the provost, Julie Wednesday, came into my office. She looked agitated. She started asking questions.

“What’s this about five of our faculty members not having evaluations for their promotion and tenure reviews? Don’t we require that these reviews take place?”

I responded, “All we know are the facts, ma’am,” and I told her what I knew.

The five faculty members in question were the most innovative on our campus. They had flipped their classrooms, adopted universal design for learning, and now were teaching fully online to reach our adult students with family and work commitments. Their students loved being able to work on courses when they could fit them into their hectic schedules. That’s life in the big city.

The five faculty members were putting together their tenure portfolios, with the usual lineup of artifacts: publications, committee work, and service letters from colleagues.

So, what was wrong? A lack of credible witnesses to their online teaching.

I talked to some students of the five faculty members, but they couldn’t really evaluate online teaching. I took their statements: the five faculty members had plenty of student-ratings data. But data only from students wouldn’t hold up under cross-examination.

I had to get to the people who were really responsible and find out why these online courses hadn’t been evaluated. The process for evaluating teaching was tried and, maybe, true. A department chairperson would sit in the back of a classroom for an hour and then evaluate what he or she had witnessed. In this case, though, the trail had gone cold.

I went to see the department chair, Mickey Tuesday, to get some answers. I walked into Mickey’s office and closed the door. “I’ll lay it right on the line, Mickey,” I said. “There are five faculty members whose online courses haven’t been evaluated. What’s the story?”

Mickey leaned back in his chair, smiled quietly, and said, “You know, Thursday, it’s a simple case. I’ve never taught an online course myself. I know I’m supposed to observe everybody teaching, but I wouldn’t even know what I was looking at in an online course. So I observed those faculty members’ face-to-face courses instead. Open and shut, right?”

Maybe Mickey was right. Maybe it was that simple. I returned to my office. On Monday, I told Wednesday what Tuesday had told me on Friday. After she had heard the story, the provost said, “Thursday, can’t we just show people what to look for in good online teaching?”

She was right. Many campus leaders have never taught online. I could foresee the day when this would be different, but for now, the provost had a point. By establishing a few facts, we can make expert witnesses out of any colleague who observes online teaching.

Fact 1. Know what is admissible as evidence

 Many face-to-face teaching practices may not be “teaching behaviors” online. In face-to-face courses, lecturing is a teaching practice. Lecture notes would not be considered in an observation of online teaching—especially if the person who developed the materials is not the person teaching the course. Videos, podcasts, and the like are also course materials and do not “count” as observable teaching behaviors.

However, if an instructor responds to student questions by posting a mini lecture or video to explain a concept, that “counts” as an observed teaching behavior—the content is created or shared as a result of interaction between learners and the instructor.

Fact 2. Determine the communication between observer and observed

 For online courses, an observer must notify the instructor that observation will take place. Communication, in the form of clarifying and directional questions, is often beneficial during the online observation period. For example, an observer may want to see supplemental content that is released to students only after they accomplish various course tasks (and that the observer is unable to unlock).

Fact 3. Define who can help an observer

Observers of online courses may not be skilled at navigating the environment or may need technical help in observing online-course elements. Determine where technical assistants should come from (e.g., teaching and learning center staff). Assistants must draw a “bright line” about being able to answer process-related questions, leaving the domain of “what to observe” squarely in the hands of the administrative observers.

After all these facts came to light, I visited Provost Wednesday on Monday. It can be awkward having a visit from a faculty developer. When I stopped by last week unannounced, the temperature dropped 20 degrees. This was a much warmer conversation. With a little help, Mickey observed and evaluated those five faculty members’ online courses, just in time for their promotion packets to be submitted. We had the evidence we needed. Case closed.

*With apologies to the producers and writers of the Dragnet television series.

Reprinted from “The Case of the Unevaluated Online Courses”*Academic Leader, 31.10 (2016) : 1, 3, (c) Magna Publications. All rights reserved.