Best Practices for Online Education: A Guide for Christian Higher Education
reviewed by James Frabutt - March 07, 2014
Title: Best Practices for Online Education: A Guide for Christian Higher Education
Author(s): Mark A. Maddix, James R. Estep, & Mary E. Lowe (eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617357685, Pages: 208, Year: 2012
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MOOCs, distance education, learning management systems, D-learning, E-learning, virtual classroom and schools; all of these terms abound in the discourse at the interface of education and technology. Almost any issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education in the last two years, higher education journals, blogs on education reformall bristle with the practice and promise of online education.
Wading into this sea of material is a slim volume edited by Maddix, Estep, and Lowe. Its distinctive niche within the vast landscape of online education takes up what it means to offer Christian online education. Aptly then, the texts first section anchors the rest of the book by exploring the theoretical and theological foundations of online education. The second section offers guideposts to ensuring rich and engaged student learning in online education, pointing out the high leverage practices that faculty can implement before and during courses. The third section of the book assembles four chapters to consider entire programs of online learning, dealing with issues such as technological infrastructure and selecting a learning management system.
Amidst the vast literature on online education, this books explicit anchoring in a Christian worldview that centralizes the notion of Christian community is the unique angle that will draw a distinct subset of readers. For example, a few chapters in the first section explore whether and how Christian community can be fostered in an online, virtual environment. Answering in the affirmative, chapter contributors such as Kemp and Lowe contend that community is fostered in online environments in much the same way it is in person, through attentive faculty-student relationships, student-student connections, and purposeful and active engagement with the content, informed by the collective experience of the whole group. Pushing these observations into practical delivery, the text offers insights for building and sustaining online course communities, such as a high level of instructor social presence, small group activities for students, and frequent, reciprocal discussion, which minimizes what Rovai (2002) has termed transactional distance.
Section two shifts from theoretical and theological underpinnings to the realm of improving and enhancing ones pedagogical practices in delivering online courses. Five short, crisp chapters embrace an almost how-to like tone in highlighting various strategies. Veteran online educators know that interactive dialogue fostered via discussion boards often forms the heart of an online teaching experience. To this end, Maddix introduces a Community of Inquiry Model, a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct meaning and confirm mutual understanding (p. 109). Fostering that kind of critical student engagement takes directed effort on the part of the instructor, so readers will appreciate the detailed listing of nine strategies for generating and facilitating online discussion. Among them: establish specific expectations for discussion, develop a clear rubric for how student discussion will be evaluated, provide daily monitoring of the discussion, and frequently offer whole class feedback. Again, practical applicability is the dominant tenor of this section, with brief, accessible chapters that offer helpful summary, though readers should be aware that depth is necessarily sacrificed in the bargain.
The third collection of chapters that conclude the text widen the lens from consideration of individual course development and delivery to program-, department-, and institution-level considerations. Questions addressed include: How does a college or university critically evaluate a learning management system for initial adoption? How is the online enterprise led on ones campus and what resources are deployed for its support and enhancement? Within programs or courses of study that are delivered either largely or entirely online, how is curricular coherence ensured and how is student progress to competency assessed? In developing online offerings at faith-based institutions of higher education, advice here stresses the imperative to align online programming with the overall Christian mission of the university or seminary.
Having taught online courses for seven years now, and at a Catholic university, I came to the text with a fair amount of practical experience. Even so, the text seems positioned for both the novice online educator and more experienced practitioner. The fairly cursory treatment given by some chapters (i.e., 6-10 pages) offer an introduction and hook for the newly initiated, while the compiled references provide interesting leads for those who are more advanced. Since the book offers such a spectrum of coverage, ranging from the conceptual to the big-picture institutional issues, not all content is likely to resonate with each individual reader. It is instructive to appreciate the breadth of the frame, however. Stylistically, there is utility in the discussion questions at the end of each chapter as a means to reinforce content, but there is great unevenness in their format, style, and level of provocation. The reader will also note some overlapping content among the three sections; issues of engaging students deeply in community is both a theological/pastoral concern as well as a practical one. These instances of overlap are complementary rather than redundant and serve to reinforce online Christian education as certainly rooted in faith but well-executed via the details.
Rovai, A. P. (2002). Building a sense of community at a distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1), 1-16.