Blackboard Faculty Spotlight

April 30, 2010

During 2009 and Spring 2010, the Palomar Academic Technology Committee (ATC), in response to ACCJC recommendations, embarked on a series of related projects to establish processes that would ensure the quality of online classes.

Ensure Quality of Online Classes

The Academic Senate requested that the ATC devise some means of validating that instructors were prepared and able to develop a high quality online class. The first step involved reaching agreement about what constituted an “Accomplished” or high quality online class. An ATC workgroup researched the literature to discover published best practices and to review what other colleges and universities had done to assess the quality of their online classes. Combining several well reviewed assessment rubrics, an ATC workgroup developed an “Online Class Validation Checklist.” This checklist is intended to assess 5 important areas of an online class:

1. Online organization and design,
2. Interaction,
3. Appropriate use of technology,
4. Universal Access, and
5. Assessment and Evaluation.


Once the full ATC had endorsed the checklist we devised a pilot-test during Spring 2010 in which we assessed 6 current online classes using this checklist. The full ATC participated in this pilot-test evaluation. The result was that the checklist was deemed useful in assessing the quality of online classes but it required some modification. The most extensive modification was to Category 4: Universal Access; this category was revised to reflect current universal access practices.

I’ll have more to say about this “online class validation” process in a later blog but here I want to focus on the high quality of the online classes that we looked at. Of course to be candid, the people who volunteered to have their online courses assessed, in all likelihood, believed that their courses were well developed – and they were right! All the classes the committee reviewed were developed using the Blackboard system, the course management system used at Palomar.

Representative of the excellent online classes offered at Palomar College is an Introduction to Sociology class taught by Professor Terry Humphrey. Terry’s Introduction to Sociology class illustrates many of the best practices that contribute to an effective and accomplished online class. I’ll highlight a couple of these features here and encourage anyone who is interested in this issue to view the video interview with Terry in which she shows her course and describes her intent in developing it. Terry’s course did an excellent job in the following areas I thought:

  • Structure and Organization – the course was organized on a weekly basis, with all the assignments, tasks, writing, quizzes, discussion board and so on grouped by weekly folders; students knew exactly what was required of them each week
  • Good use of Announcements – Terry posted announcements on a regular basis, calling the students’ attention to important details; she also made a practice of emailing those announcement directly to students (an automatic option in Blackboard) and this she felt made a big different in terms of student involvement
  • Regular and varied assessments – student learning was assessed in a variety of ways which gave students the best opportunity to demonstrate what they had learned

It seems like the things that produce the best learning outcomes in an on-campus class are the same things that work in an online class: engaging learning activities, regular assessment and feedback, and an involved instructor who values and rewards student participation. No secret here and it’s encouraging to know that it can be done with online students as effectively as with on-campus students.

Interview with Terry Humphrey about her online class

Online Class Validation Checklist

Online Cheating

April 6, 2010

With final exams coming up soon I want to return to a topic that virtually all online instructors struggle with: how to provide fair, convenient, comprehensive tests to online students.

Academic cheating has always existed of course and some reports suggest that the extent and scope of the problem has increased over the last few decades. Kitahura and Westfall (2007) provide these data:

  • a 1999 survey – over 75% of college students “admitted to some form of cheating;”
  • a 2002 survey – 74% of high school students admitted to cheating;
  • a 2003 national survey – 41% of students said plagiarism occurred “often” or “very often.”

Online instructors are particularly sensitive to the issue of academic cheating as, by its very nature, distance education implies less control and physical contact with students. Take, for example, the fact that it is not uncommon for friends or family members to register for the same online course. Does this increase the likelihood of cheating? Not necessarily but it does make it more convenient if the students were so inclined.

So, given that cheating is a long-standing reality, and that it is more difficult to detect in an online course, what can an online instructor do to increase academic honesty? Well, actually, quite a lot.

Here are some practical measures online instructors have taken to reduce cheating.

  • Write a personal letter to your students about the topic (see link to example letter below)
  • Explain to your students exactly what plagiarism and academic dishonesty are
  • Include a statement in your syllabus of your institution’s academic honesty policy and your expectations of your students
  • Require all tests to be taken on campus in a proctored environment
  • Require all tests to be proctored by an authorized supervisor (e.g. Company Commander for soldiers in Iraq)
  • Require some tests to be taken in a proctored environment while some can be taken online
  • Provide many small assessments of learning that are given many times throughout the course
  • If you use the Blackboard testing system there are a number of things you can do such as: specify a certain time limit for tests; create tests using the Test Manager’s “random block” tool in which students are given equivalent but different test questions; select the “one at a time” option so that students answer one question before seeing the next one; use the “no print” code that prevents students from printing tests

secureexamSome institutions are exploring innovative uses of technology to ensure honesty. Troy University, for instance, has implemented the Securexam Remote Proctor to reduce cheating on online exams. The device consists of a video camera with a 360 degree field of view and an omnidirectional microphone. It has a fingerprint sensor in the base of the unit and connects to a USB port on the student’s computer. It is, in essence, like having a proctor in the room with the student no matter where he or she is. The results are still out on the success of this approach but it may well strike some as overkill. My preference is more toward educating the student about academic honesty and plagiarism and then providing numerous assessment options at weekly intervals throughout the term. I would be very interested in hearing your views on this issue.

Promoting Academic Integrity in Online Distance Learning Courses
Letter To My Students