Creating quality course websites

CQUni has an interest in increasing the quality of the course websites, as part of a broader push to improve the quality of learning and teaching. This post is an attempt to engage with some of the issues and develop some suggestions for moving forward.

There are many an argument why this particular focus on course websites might be somewhat misguided. For example, there is a growing argument (under various titles, including Personal Learning Environments) for the need to move away from this sort of institutional focus to a much greater focus on the learning environment of the individual students. While those discussions are important, as an institution we do need to have a pragmatic focus and improve what we do and our students experience.

So, this post and any subsequent project ignores those broader questions. However, that’s not to say that CQU isn’t engaging in those broader questions, we are. For example, the PLEs@CQUni project is aiming to examine some of the questions raised by notions of PLEs and social software and what impact they might/should have on institutional practice.

What is quality and success

Before embarking on any sort of attempt to “improve quality” you should probably seek to define what quality is. When do you know that you have succeeded?

There have been any number of attempts to determine quality standards for course websites. Many of these draw on guidelines from the educational research literature or from the Human Computer Interface, Information Architecture and other web/online related disciplines. I’m from an information systems background so, not surprisingly, I’ll draw on that background.

Within the information systems research literature how to determine success and consequently replicate it has received a great deal of attention. One of the problems this attention has established is that the notion of success is extremely subjective. An IT department will label something successful while a user of the same system may disagree strongly. The finance division may have yet another perspective. For this and other reasons the IS literature has moved onto using system use as a measure of success (Behrens, Jamieson et al. 2005).

i.e. a system or a tool is successful if there is large and sustained usage of it by people. Hopefully those people you intended. As you might imagine there has been subsequent research talking about the quality of that use. However, the level of use has been established as a fairly reliable measure of success.

I’m going to suggest that the level of student and staff use of a course website is a useful benchmark for the success, and even quality, of an online course. You certainly cannot impact on learning outcomes or students’ perceptions and experience through an online course presence, if they don’t make use of it.

If you accept this, then the question becomes what can we do to encourage use, to encourage success.

If you don’t accept it, and many people might, then the rest of this argument becomes almost pointless. If you don’t accept it, I would like to hear the arguments why it doesn’t make sense.

Encouraging use

Drawing on some of the ideas from previous post I’m going to suggest that there are two main approaches you can take to increase the use of a course website

  1. Pragmatic – ad hoc changes to particular aspects of a course website.
    Most academic staff make these changes in an unguided way. I’ll suggest that you are likely to obtain greater success if those ad hoc changes are guided by theories and frameworks such as the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) and related work (Davis, 1989), Diffusion Theory (Rogers, 1995) and the 7 Principles for Good Practice in Education (Chickering and Gamson, 1987).
  2. Re-design – where the entire course (and consequently course website) are re-designed by a project that returns to first principles.
    Again, most academic staff I’m familiar with do this type of re-design in a fairly unguided way. I’ll suggest that re-design approaches informed by appropriate educational theories or frameworks are more likely of success. I’ll suggest the approach already being used at CQU, which uses Constructive Alignment (Biggs and Tang, 2007) and the 7 Principles (Chickering and Gamson, ???), work well.
  3. The argument is that a well implemented approach that draws on either of these options has the capability to improve the use of a course website. However, I will propose, that the cost and level of success of each approach is different as shown in the following table.

    The following table seeks to suggestion some potential characteristics of the two approaches as applied to an institutional setting. i.e. not an individual course, but a large collection of courses within a program, faculty or university. Obviously these are broad predictions of outcomes abstracted away from a particular context.

    Characteristics Pragmatic Re-design
    Level of use A significant increase in use is possible A really significant increase in use is possible
    Quality of use/outcomes Some increase in the quality of use/student outcomes but still largely reliant on the individual student’s capabilities etc rather than the actual course website Potentially huge increases in the quality of use and student outcomes.
    Difficulty/cost of implementation Somewhat difficult but not all that expensive, large scale change in a university is always difficult. Extremely difficult and expensive. Typically this will require the academic staff associated with the courses to radically rethink their conceptualisations of learning and teaching. This is not easy.

    The suggestion

    I’m hoping to expand on this further in subsequent posts as an attempt to outline a project by which an institution like CQU can significantly improve the use of its course websites and subsequent improve the learning experience of its students.

    In summary, the proposal involves the following

    1. A broad scale push for pragmatic improvement to course sites
      A project to ensure that all course sites are informed by diffusion theory, TAM and the 7 principles in a way that is “automatic” and simple. Essentially, (almost) all course websites should at least illustrate these characteristics.
    2. A process of complete re-design targeting courses with the largest numbers of students.
    3. An on-going process by which the lessons and outcomes of the re-design are fed into the broad scale process of pragmatic improvement.

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