Best Practices in E-Learning

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.

Sustainable E-Learning at Virtual Campuses

Stansfield et al. (2009) examined the Promoting Best Practice in Virtual Campuses (PBP-VC) project for European virtual campuses, which was initiated in 2007.  The aim of the project was to provide

  • a deeper understanding of the key issues and critical success factors underlying the implementation of virtual campuses
  • a practical framework to help guide the process of creating best practice in virtual campuses
  • published examples of best practice, case studies, and use case scenarios
  • raised awareness of the issues and approaches to creating successful and sustainable virtual campuses (p. 156)

The work of the project identified six areas in which best practices could be developed and implemented: organizational issues, technological issues, pedagogical issues, student/user issues, financial issues, and consolidation issues.  The authors of the study were careful to note that these headings do not contain an exhaustive list of the issues concerning best practices for the field of e-learning, but are merely summaries of the key issues brought forth by various stakeholders involved in the project.

Organizational issues with regard to best practice were strong project management and leadership, clearly identified roles and responsibilities, and an effective bureaucracy and administration.  Technological issues with regard to best practice were appropriate infrastructure and standards, support staff for both faculty and users/students, and testing and evaluation of currently utilized technologies.  Pedagogical issues with regard to best practice were appropriate models and approaches to e-learning, appropriate and stimulating content for users/students, and an effective quality and evaluation process.  User/student issues with regard to best practice included clear and effective communication from faculty and support staff as well as effective training for using the enhanced technologies available.  Financial issues with regard to best practice were performing a cost-benefit analysis and providing for future developments of the virtual campus’ curriculum and technology.  Finally, consolidation issues with regard to best practice included planning for sustainability and involving stakeholders at all levels of the virtual campus initiative (Stansfield et al., 2009).

Of main interest to e-learning in the classroom were the issues concerning pedagogy, technology, and users/students.  One of the technological issues identified—the fast-moving pace of technology development—led to the recommendation that open-source software be utilized so that flexibility and added functionality could be worked into the system on an as-needed basis.  Pedagogically, the recommendation of the report was to provide a user-centered educational experience in which students are active learners and can use the features that they actually want rather than the features that designers think that they want.  This goal would require constant feedback from users/students on how they are using the system and for what purposes.  Fortunately, these functions are built into most learning management systems and can be easily accessed by technology support staff.  Finally, the user/student experience was identified as in need of support and a recommendation to provide peer support groups was issued in relation to the data collected.

Implementation of Best Practices at Capella University

Capella University initiated a review of its practices in the hopes of refining best practices for the institution in 2007 and reported its findings in a 2008 paper by Irlbeck (2008).  The four foundational statements (best practices) determined by Capella faculty were as follows:

  • Build faculty-learner relationships
  • Manage and facilitate the learning process
  • Build and communicate professional expertise
  • Assess learning and teaching (p. 26)

Of most interest to the virtual classroom and pedagogical concerns are the aspects of building faculty-learner relationships and building and communicating professional expertise, which have been shown to be key features of effective e-learning in other contexts.  Without a strong connection between students and faculty members, e-learning has a great potential to suffer because of a sense of isolation on both sides of the e-learning equation: isolation of students from faculty as well as other students, and isolation of faculty from students as well as other faculty members.

Best Practices with the Constructivist Pedagogy

Although it has been known for quite some time that e-learning requires a change in methods of teaching and practice because of the new, online context, many instructors of e-learning courses are still unwilling or unable to make use of constructivist pedagogies to ensure active learning experiences for students and to incorporate collaborative learning experiences into the curriculum.

Keengwe, Onchwari, and Agamba’s (2014) study presented the basic principles of the constructivist learning theory for those who were not familiar with them before examining the design of e-learning activities based on such pedagogical principles.  While not immediately relevant to higher education contexts, their examination of design is important for what it highlights as far as best practices are concerned: encouraging students to use computers at all levels of practice is necessary in order for them to be ready to participate in higher education e-learning contexts.

Best Practices in Faculty Development

Faculty development in the context of e-learning is an essential best practice in providing quality and effective e-learning experiences for both instructors and students.  In Reilly et al.’s (2012) study of a year-long multi-campus community of practice training program for nurse-educators, the authors worked with Badrul Khan’s Flexible Framework for E-Learning, which includes eight e-learning themes that were explored by practitioners: (a) pedagogical, (b) technological, (c) interface design, (d) evaluation, (e) management, (f) resource support, (g) ethical, and (h) institutional.

According to Reilly et al. (2012), pedagogy should be the focus of any faculty development initiative, not just technology skills acquisition:

Such programs should include social and professional dialogue and be based on instructor work and experiences in the classroom. Well-balanced faculty development programs that increase knowledge of pedagogy, course design, presentation of content and skills in the appropriate use of technology encourage development of quality online courses. Faculty development success in instructional technology has been correlated with high levels of teacher reflection and self-monitoring. In addition, faculty development programs that build course management, facilitation, and time management skills lead to a more positive online experience for faculty and students. (p. 102)

With these recommendations in mind, one is now in a position to evaluate the main challenges, opportunities, and best practices in e-learning.

Challenges, Opportunities, and Best Practices in E-Learning

The primary challenge in e-learning instruction is the overcoming of instructor resistance to learning new technologies and employing the constructivist pedagogy in e-learning design.  Effective employment of e-learning instructional technologies is a key issue in this arena and the best practice identified for dealing with this issue is faculty development based on classroom experience and pedagogy rather than mere skills acquisition without context.  Other important factors in the success of e-learning included the opportunity to solicit feedback from students on what features of a learning management system are actually used and appreciated versus the ones that designers wish to be most used and appreciated, as well as the best practice of building faculty-student relationships for enhanced learning experiences and greater student satisfaction.

Conclusion

There are many challenges and opportunities facing e-learning.  With the recommendations and best practices outlined in this paper, one can begin to successfully traverse the uncertain waters of e-learning development.  A focus on the student experience is paramount, as is the training and development of faculty who provide such experiences.

References

Irlbeck, S. A. (2008). Implementation of best practices for online teaching and learning in an online institution. Performance Improvement, 47(10), 25–29. doi: 10.1002/pfi.20036

Keengwe, J., Onchwari, G., & Agamba, J. (2014). Promoting effective e-learning practices through the constructivist pedagogy. Education and Information Technologies, 19(4), 887–898. doi: 10.1007/s10639-013-9260-1

Pachler, N., & Daly, C. (2011). Key issues in e-learning: Research and practice. London, England: Continuum.

Reilly, J. R., Vandenhouten, C., Gallagher-Lepak, S., & Ralston-Berg, P. (2012). Faculty development for e-learning: A multi-campus community of practice (COP) approach. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(2), 99–110. Retrieved from http://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/online-learning-journal/

Stansfield, M., Connolly, T., Cartelli, A., Jimoyiannis, A., Magalhães, H., & Maillet, K. (2009). The identification of key issues in the development of sustainable e-learning and virtual campus initiatives. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 7(2), 155–164. Retrieved from http://www.ejel.org/main.html

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