Arguably, due to suspicion, skepticism, and the entrenchment of classroom teaching practices, the most scrutinized, assessed, and evaluated pedagogy in theological schools in the last two decades has been online learning (“distance education”). Fortunately, the skepticism that fueled a demand for more rigorous evaluation of student learning in the online environment has yielded hard evidence that online learning is as effective, and sometimes more effective, than traditional classroom teaching.
The goal of this work by Catalano, an associate professor of teaching and learning at Hofstra University, is “to assist researchers of distance education, both novice and expert, in finding well-developed and value measures to suit their research questions” (2). The focus of the book is “on properly validated measures, thereby relieving the researcher from having to develop his or her own instrument” (2).
Catelano provides a concise guide to seventy selected assessment instruments (surveys, scales, and methods) that have been used to evaluate the effectiveness of online learning programs. The instruments can be applied to evaluate key metrics and pedagogical, as well as programmatic, elements such as: student engagement, student and faculty satisfaction, information retention, self-efficacy, student and teacher readiness, the online learning environment, cooperative learning, competencies for online learning, student attitudes, student retention and attrition, critical thinking, and achievement. Several instruments focus on specific pedagogical approaches such as constructivism and andragogy.
Five chapters provide nine categories of evaluations. Specifically, Chapter 1 provides eleven instruments on student engagement and satisfaction. Chapter 2 contains sixteen instruments on student readiness to learn and self-efficacy. Chapter 3 offers a selection of seventeen instruments focusing on the online teaching and learning environment. Chapter 4 provides twelve instruments on student learning behaviors. Chapter 5 contains five instruments to assess student achievement, retention, and attrition. Obviously, there are enough offerings in these chapters to meet just about any evaluation need an assessor may have. Each chapter includes a brief overview of each instrument covered. Each instrument entry includes a summary of the tool, a description of how the measure is used, and a description of its development and validity.
Some of the instruments described are complete tools (for example, a fully developed satisfaction questionnaire, a complete survey on student evaluation of online web-based instruction, and one on the online learning environment. Other instruments are described with information about their sources should an assessor wish to use them.
In the Introduction Catalano provides helpful background on the criteria for inclusion of the instruments selected for the compendium. The author describes the search process used in identifying the instruments, including applying the criteria of ensuring reliability and validity.
For those needing to continue to assess online learning through disciplined and rigorous evaluations, whether as part of formative curricular assessment or to satisfy accreditation requirements, Amy Catalano’s brief compendium of assessment instruments, scales, and approaches is a handy and accessible tool. Indeed, it should be on every evaluator’s desk.
As a professor who teaches in an online education program, I picked up this book with interest for how it might inform my pedagogy. The content of the book, while relevant to my context of theological education, addresses more specifically the needs of organizations working for behavioral change in developing countries, particularly regarding available health interventions such as disease testing and immunizations. The authors address the mediums of radio, television, and internet, and how managers of these educational programs can best utilize different types of information sources.
Early on, the authors distinguish between “Edu-tainment” and “Entertainment-Education.” Edu-tainment is a focus on education that employs insights from entertainment to keep learners engaged in the educational process and content. Entertainment-Education relies more heavily on the entertainment side in order to teach a certain topic or attitude, helping participants to empathize with characters in order to consider adopting behaviors similar to the characters. Entertainment-Education might look like a fable told to convey a moral – the story of the fable is interesting in itself, while the moral being taught is present but not foregrounded. With Edu-tainment, the same moral or lesson is present as in the fable, but the lesson or intended learning outcome is more directly named.
While the title of the book contains “Entertainment-Education,” “Edu-tainment” is the main focus of the authors. Both approaches appeal to the “E Structure,” which is “Engagement of the audience, through Emotional involvement, which inspires Empathy for certain characters, who then provide Examples that demonstrate to the audience how they can accomplish the desired behavior, and also provide a sense of Efficacy for audience members, who make the desired changes or acquire that desired knowledge and gain a degree of Ego-enhancement (personal growth)” (8).
Excellence in Edu-tainment requires a great deal of management and collaboration. The authors describe the various formats for Edu-tainment such as video or radio, and how the eventual product should be constructed with a team of writers, producers, and actors, with how lessons should be piloted with control groups to judge their effectiveness. Persons reading this for the sake of improving their online education pedagogy will feel overwhelmed by the expectations here, but learning about the possibilities for dramatic renderings of lessons with scripted dialogue can provide new ways to think about teaching for those interested in deepening their skills. While this book may not be directly helpful to theological educators because of its emphasis on behavioral modification in developing countries, it does provide some helpful tips.
Distance education is a growing component of higher education. Whether students combine distance courses with traditional classroom hours or focus entirely on distance learning, the presence of distance education in major colleges and universities in America continues to expand. Hybrid courses, which combine face-to-face learning with a digital component, are becoming very popular options for students. Most college graduates in the class of 2020, for example, will have received some of their credit hours online.
The essays collected by Maureen Snow Andrade for Issues in Distance Education address each of these phenomena and more. The initial essay, “Issues in Distance Education: A Primer for Higher Education Decision Makers” by Michael Beaudoin, provides an overview of the development of distance learning in higher education. This is a very useful chapter, particularly for administrators and prospective instructors who are looking for a short introduction to how distance education became such a prominent feature of American higher education and some of the resistance it has encountered. Beaudoin refers to distance learning as a disruptive technology, which is an apt description of the kind of impact it has had on administrators, faculty, and students.
Disruptive technology requires transformative leadership in order to make the best use
of what is logistically possible. Farhad Saba’s discussion, “Theories of Distance Education: Why They Matter,” analyzes various theories of distance learning and links the theories to future institutional policies and practices. Saba advocates a community of inquiry model that combines a social, cognitive, and teaching presence that makes the best use of new technologies and flexible learning schedules.
Andrade’s essay, “Effective Organizational Structures and Processes: Addressing Issues of Change,” explores both macro and micro level structural models for distance education. She proposes four interconnected leadership frameworks for both creating and managing change. The strengths and weaknesses of each model, such as environmental and stakeholder issues, are also discussed along with a set of guiding questions for institutional change.
These first three essays provide a core of information and key questions that will serve readers well. Each of the six chapters which follow focuses on a related issue that the initial essays prompt. For instance, how can a development plan contribute to course consistency and quality? Is a team approach to course development desirable? What sort of faculty support is essential for high level learning outcomes? How can distance learning be successfully offered on a global scale? What sort of strategic planning will facilitate all of this?
This compact volume does not attempt to settle all of the issues that it raises. It does provide an excellent starting point for discussions about innovative methods for teaching theology and religion as well as the attendant policies, costs, infrastructure, and support necessary to sustain them.
This book stretches a reader’s view of online learning. The contribution made by these twelve chapters, written individually and jointly, does not come in the form of new theories of learning or innovative models for administering educational institutions in a digital era. Rather, they stretch the reader’s view beyond a few courses to address a complete institutional whole. Rarely does the tone become boosterish, despite the word “transformation” in the title. The writers have done the hard work of leading distance education into the mainstream of the institutions they serve. They map the work they have done and the work that still needs to be done. The resulting map is detailed, complex, and extensive. Reading the chapters should scare away anyone who thinks online education is a quick fix for any of the issues confronting higher education. The depth of work chronicled removes naivety.
The seven writers have worked at large institutions, such as Penn State. At first glance teachers and administrators at seminaries with sixty to two hundred students might be inclined to bypass the narratives and guidance offered. That would be a mistake. Schools both large and small need to make policy and procedural decisions, secure technical support, provide pedagogical support for learners and teachers, deploy student services, market programs, and so forth. The list is long. It is as long as the to-do list of any residential program. The business office, the library, campus pastor, the registrar – all of these and more – require attention. What is assumed and hence nearly invisible in residential programs becomes visible and needs to be deliberately addressed in distance education. Once the proximity of teacher and learner in time and/or distance is no longer a given the entire institution is rearranged. Reconceptualization needs to occur institutionally. Despite the difference in scale, the obligations to learners are very similar.
Where there is a significant difference between the experience of the writers and many readers of this journal is the background of the writers prior to the experiences that are at the center of these chapters; they worked in distance education prior to the web. They worked in programs employing audio and video satellite connections or distributing tapes and CDs to individual distance learners. Spatial and temporal distance between teachers and learners was not unimaginable and the challenges of design and support had been faced. They had already worked in a world not exclusively shaped by residential models. In this respect, the move to online learning was not as abrupt or disorienting, but the change was nevertheless extensive and required continual new learning. The web brought distance learning from the margin to the mainstream of their institutions. In the past, residential students did not need to worry about satellite linkages, but now they do bring their computers into the classroom and social media connects their lives. Temporal and spatial barriers may not be entirely overcome but they clearly are not what they were prior to the mid-1990s. These writers have come to grips with the changes; they have lived them.
The book has a high degree of integration; the writers have worked together in several settings, the most prominent being the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C, now named the Online Learning Consortium). The book is divided into three parts and works with the “Five Pillars of Quality Online Education” developed by the consortium. In four chapters, Part One addresses the first pillar: “access, which relates to the role of online distance education in an institution’s fundamental mission and institutional strategy” (xii). Gary Miller, who is one of the authors for three chapters in this section, repeatedly offers wise counsel and sounds cautionary notes. The following typifies his contributions: “[M]ission is mission critical. No institution that has online learning as a significant part of its current or emerging strategy will be successful if the mission of the institution does not clearly recognize it. Too often the online program strategy is not driven by mission” (35). Miller’s individually authored chapter (“Leading Change in the Mainstream: A Strategic Approach”) is an exemplary model for clear-headed thinking in these highly disruptive times. The past institutional culture has to be understood and respected, not in a perfunctory manner, but as an asset for engaging the unavoidable changes occurring in the environment in which that culture now exists. External forces cannot be scolded away but neither should the future of our institutions merely capitulate to them; rather, they need to be understood and deliberated within our inherited institutional cultures in order to faithfully and effectively serve the stakeholders to which faculty are responsible. The learners are at the center of those responsibilities.
Part Two, in five chapters, addresses “enduring operational excellence.” It is not written in the tone of a how-to manual. None of the five authors use their own institutional experience as a template for others. Learning effectiveness, faculty satisfaction, and student satisfaction are the pillars addressed. Reading these pages, one is impressed by how these leaders have worked within an emerging field; stability is not assumed or sought. There is a clear recognition of the fluidity of the present context, but at the same time there is an emphasis on understanding the current institutional contexts and working institutionally. Leading is not understood in heroically individual terms.
Part Three addresses cost effectiveness and institutional commitment. The goal is to sustain the innovation. Perhaps some readers will be surprised to find a chapter on leading beyond the institution. However, the authors view participation in professional organizations as a constitutive dimension of institutional sustainability. Institutions develop local leadership by supporting faculty and administrative participation in broad networks. Networks generate flexibility for addressing specific actions within an institution’s responsibility to its mission and stakeholders. In fact, this entire book is marked by sharing experiences and expertise to enhance effectiveness; it is decidedly not proprietary in tone or content. The closing chapter is a roundtable discussion responding to over a dozen questions that take up the future of online education. The writers stress an “actionable” future. Here, and throughout the book, these leaders dream with their feet on the ground.
Coupling pragmatic effort with openness to emergent possibilities, the writers have provided a reflective narrative that should inform the work of boards, faculty, administrators, staff, and other stakeholders. Online learning is not merely an add-on; it signals a shift in institutional culture. This book underscores the extent of the cultural shift while being grounded in the day-to-day realities of institutional work.