“The mission of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) is to ensure all students have a world-class education and quality online learning opportunities that prepare them for a lifetime of success.” ~About iNACOL
With this statement, iNACOL sums up its purpose and goal when outlining, researching, and enacting the standards that it recommends states adopt concerning online courses and online educational experiences overall. Specifically within the area of online curriculum, iNACOL has developed 52 quality standards for content, instructional design, student assessment, technology, and course evaluation and support, known collectively as the National Standards for Quality Online Courses (iNACOL, 2011a). This article will focus on those standards that revolve around communication expectations.
The vast majority of researchers and educators involved with online courses and education understand and accept the importance of adequate communication avenues. Yet, there is much debate about which communication avenues should either be required or recommended. Now with the growth of technology and the ability of educational management systems to offer varied communication tools, the debate has also turned to what forms and frequency will actually increase student success or become inhibitive when taking an online course. iNACOL has been releasing some excellent research over the past few years not only to identify these various forms but also to help guide online educators and vendors across the country to plan successful processes to ensure adequate interactions with the students’ best interests in mind. Davis and Roblyer (2005) refer to an analysis by Easton (2003) which points out that such preparation will demonstrate that the role of an online instructor requires a paradigm shift pertaining to instructional time and space, techniques in virtual management, and methods to engage students through virtual communication. That observation seems to ring true in general, but both iNACOL researchers and educators across the country also understand that different types of students may require different types of communication avenues, along with varying frequency to ensure their optimal success potential. For example, regardless of communication avenues available within any online course, we must not lose focus of what types of individual students are taking our courses at any particular time. Does an at-risk credit recovery student need the same type and frequency of student-to-student or student-to-teacher communication as an honor student taking an online AP® course? Does too much or too little communication within an online course impede a certain type of student’s success in that course? Another important distinction to consider is the communication needs and differences between a high school student and a college student taking online courses. Researchers have also suggested that a variety in communication methods can lead to student success in online courses and virtual schools (Young, Birtolo, & McElman, 2009).
The quality of interactions depends on the requirements, expectations, and personal dispositions of the participants (Harns, Niederhauser, Davis, Roblyer, & Gilbert, 2006). Archambault et al. (2010) found results indicating that effective programs used increased communication to build improved relationships between teachers and virtual learners. For practicality purposes, iNACOL has done a wonderful job of outlining and recommending certain communication policies that should be put into place by any educational vendor, state, or local school district creating virtual courses. Below is a truncated guide that iNACOL has utilized to help online course creators gauge communication needs:
Practices and Policies for Communication and Interaction in Online Teaching and Learning
In implementing online teaching and learning, a key component is the policies that exist in virtual schools for teacher/student, teacher/parent, and student/student communication. Our [iNACOL’s] research addressed the following questions:
- Do online schools have written policies regarding communication between teachers and students, teachers and parents/guardians, and students with students?
- If so, what do these policies cover?
- How are these policies communicated to teachers, parents/guardians, and students? (iNACOL, 2011b, p.7)
Aspects of these policy questions are also evident in iNACOL’s rubric utilized by state and local online course vetting agencies across the country to help them evaluate online course quality before they approve programs for student use. Schools have implemented screening measures that evaluate the effectiveness of teacher communication practices.
Edmentum’s EdOptions Academy, a leader in online learning, only hires teachers who are effective communicators within the online course world. EdOptions Academy utilizes surveys annually to ensure its communication policies between students, teachers, and parents. EdOptions Academy conducts these surveys primarily to make certain the best interests of the students are in mind while continuing to streamline its communication requirements/policies both to stay in line with iNACOL recommendations and to serve a wide variety of student types and needs.
Part 3: Possible alternatives to current student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions that better monitor students’ participation and give appropriate credit to secondary students taking online courses.
Archambault, L., Diamond, D., Coffey, M., Foures-Aalbu, D., Richardson, J., Zygouris-Coe, V., Brown, R., & Cavanaugh, C. (2010). Research committee issues brief: An exploration of at-risk learners and online education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Retrieved from http://www.inacol.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/iNACOL_AtRiskStuden...
Davis, N. E., & Roblyer, M. D. (2005). Preparing teachers for the “schools that technology built”: Evaluation of a program to train teachers for virtual schooling. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 37(4), 399-409.
Easton, S. (2003). Clarifying the instructor’s role in online distance learning. Communication Education, 52(2), 87–105.
Harms, C., Niederhauser, D., Davis, N., Roblyer, M., & Gilbert, S. (2006). Educating educators for virtual schooling: Communicating roles and responsibilities. Electronic Journal of Communication, 16(1-2), 17–2.
International Association for K-12 Online Learning. (2011a). National standards for quality online courses (Version 2). Retrieved from http://www.inacol.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/iNACOL_CourseStandards_2011.pdf
International Association for K-12 Online Learning. (2011b). Research committee issues brief: Examining communication and interaction in online teaching. Retrieved from http://www.inacol.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/iNACOL-ExamingCommunicationAndInteraction-2009.pdf
Young, J., Birtolo, P., & McElman, R. (2009). Virtual success: Transforming education through online learning. Learning & Leading With Technology, 36(5), 12–17.