I work for two large community college systems in the Houston, Texas area where I am a part-time instructor, or adjunct faculty member. Lone Star College and Houston Community College have both adopted e-learning programs that allow students to complete a two-year degree entirely online. Lone Star College has an average enrollment of approximately 95,000 students and offers an online Associate of Arts degree with optional concentrations in Business, Criminal Justice, Speech Communication, and International Studies as well as an online Associate of Science degree with an optional concentration in Computer Science. Houston Community College has an average enrollment of approximately 47,000 students and delivers a slightly more varied selection of online degree plans by offering an Associate of Arts degree with concentrations in Communication, Business, Social Sciences, Humanities, and Fine Arts as well as an Associate of Science degree with concentrations in Computer Science, Engineering, Health and Natural Sciences, and Mathematics. Both institutions have invested heavily in e-learning as a viable alternative to traditional classroom instruction, as evidenced by their slick promotional web sites (http://www.lonestar.edu/lsc-online/ and http://de.hccs.edu/) designed to sell e-learning course options to prospective students.
Even though e-learning has been around for decades, there is still a need to identify best practices in the field for practitioners new to the discipline. While there are many approaches to the subject of how to identify best practices for e-learning, the most common are institutional (Irlbeck, 2008; Stansfield et al., 2009), which looks at the implementation of e-learning from a institution-wide perspective, and pedagogical (Keengwe, Onchwari, & Agamba, 2014; Reilly, Vandenhouten, Gallagher-Lepak, & Ralston-Berg, 2012), which looks at the implementation of e-learning from the more limited scope of classroom integration and practitioner training. Pachler and Daly (2011) identify several different eras of e-learning research, but are careful to caution that the field is fast-moving and is liable to slip the bonds of any classificatory system before it is brought into mainstream use. With these facts in mind, I wish to examine the various findings concerning best practices for e-learning, first from an institutional perspective and second from a pedagogical perspective. Then, with an understanding of the best practices from these two perspectives, I will offer an overview of the challenges, opportunities, and best practices in e-learning as a unified discipline.
Positive and meaningful e-learning experiences are essential for student satisfaction with online courses. However, there are several approaches to identifying and promoting such experiences in practice. A review of the literature on positive and meaningful e-learning experiences revealed not only that course design and human connection are important for high levels of student satisfaction, but also that IT support and institutional infrastructure are vital to student satisfaction as well (Boling, Hough, Krinsky, Saleem, & Stevens, 2012; Carter et al., 2014; Salyers, Carter, Carter, Myers, & Barrett, 2014). All of the studies consulted recommended interactive learning based on socio-constructivist principles as the most appropriate means for ensuring positive and meaningful e-learning experiences (Boling, Hough, Krinsky, Saleem, & Stevens, 2012; Carter et al., 2014; Luyt, 2013; Salyers, Carter, Carter, Myers, & Barrett, 2014; Watkins, 2014). Watkins’ (2014) study even provided examples of learning activities that could be easily integrated into an online course without extensive instructor preparation or training.
The digital divide is often defined in terms of access to computers and the internet. However, this definition of the digital divide does not fully capture the extent of the disconnect between people and the technology that makes information available to them. While the digital divide—in the sense of technology availability—has narrowed significantly in the past decade, there remain a large number of people who are unable to make full use of the internet and its associated applications. Thus, scholarship on the digital divide has shifted away from providing access toward discussing barriers to inclusion in the “digital society.” These barriers are new forms of the digital divide that limit both the adoption of the internet and its useful usage by certain social groups. Consequently, the digital divide has been redefined by van Deursen and van Dijk (2015) to indicate four types of access necessary for utilizing the full potential of the internet and its applications: motivational access, material access, internet skills access, and internet usage access. These new dimensions of access reveal further divides between urban and rural communities, between majority and minority groups, between higher and lower income populations, and between people with higher and lower levels of educational attainment (Armenta, Serrano, Cabrera, & Conte, 2012; Cohron, 2015).
E-learning models are theoretical constructions that assist practitioners in designing effective learning experiences for students participating in online courses. They are distinct from learning theories in that e-learning models are concerned with the pedagogical principles that undergird instructional practices or with the effective implementation of such instructional practices. Among the many e-learning models that are presented in Pachler and Daly’s Key Issues in E-Learning (2011)—the majority of which are based on socio-constructivist learning theories—three stand out as being vital to the successful implementation of e-learning: the Community of Inquiry model, the Conversational Framework, and Computer-Mediated Communication. Each of the three models selected will be described and evaluated in detail before turning to a discussion of how they might be used in practice to improve the quality of e-learning in a hybrid course on the Western humanities.