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resaerch 12

QUALITY IN ONLINE DELIVERY: WHAT DOES IT MEAN
FOR ASSESSMENT IN E-LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS?
Catherine McLoughlin
Teaching and Learning Centre
The University of New England, Australia
[email protected]
Joe Luca
Communications and Multimedia
Edith Cowan University, Australia
[email protected]
Abstract
While a great deal has been written on the advantages and benefits of online
teaching, and research continues to proliferate, many practitioners are seeking
guidelines that can be applied to the design of assessment in online environments.
The last decade has seen the convergence of traditional distance education
with on-campus modes of delivery and work-based training signalling new
models of flexible delivery. In addition, demand driven education accentuates
the learner’s role and needs while the teacher has become a manager, mediator
and motivator of student learning. Issues raised by national and international
bodies and quality assurance agencies now seem to be addressing the same
questions. How can a teaching and learning process that differs so markedly
from what has been practiced for hundreds of years maintain and support
quality? Who will be the guardians of quality and the innovators of learning
and assessment design?
This paper addresses current definitions of quality in online assessment and
examines emerging expectations of what constitutes appropriate online assessment.
A case study is presented of a Web-based assessment framework that is both
interactive and product-oriented and involves learners in making contributions
to course resources through learning activities. It is proposed that an interactiveparticipatory
model of assessment utilises the communicative features of
technology while affording a motivating and authentic assessment experience.
Keywords
assessment, e-learning, higher education, quality
Introduction: The Quality Debate
A number of reports and documents provide design guidelines and benchmarks for distance
education environments. For example the Institute for Higher Education Policy (National
Education Association, 2000) provides 24 benchmarks for course design, delivery and learning
outcomes. In their report no specific recommendations are made except to suggest that intended
learning outcomes are regularly reviewed to ensure clarity, consistency and appropriateness. Penn
State University in association with Lincoln University (Innovations in Distance Education, 1999)
have taken this a step further and promote that “where possible provide assessment and
measurement techniques and options that capitalise on the unique characteristics and situations of
the distance learner”. Recommendations on assessment processes are as follows:
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• Enable students to self-monitor progress;
• Give regular feedback to students;
• Support peer learning and assessment;
• Design self-assessment practices.
These recommendations are in line with those of Berge, Collins and Dougherty (2000) who also
suggest, with respect to online learning, that “wisdom might be served by using alternative forms of
assessment of student understanding”. One example they cite is the use a series of sequential exercises
building upon one another throughout a semester, so that issues of security are less of a problem.
However, in all the reports cited here, there is a dearth of pedagogical guidelines for practitioners.
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (1999) acknowledges that there are differences
in the way assessment is conducted on campus that may not be appropriate for students studying in
the off-campus mode, who have little contact with academic staff. In another study Warren and
Rada (1999) address the issue of quality learning via computer-mediated communication. They
define quality learning as going beyond the acquisition of facts to achieving a cognitive outcome,
and fostering higher order thinking at the level of synthesis and evaluation of concepts.
Is Quality a Matter of Design?
Others argue that no single design or perspective is adequate for the design of technologyenhanced
learning environments (Sfaard, 1998). The same message about multiplicity comes from
Spector (2000) who notes “technology has yet to make significant improvements in the quality of
education by any reasonable measure” (p. 243). Spector continues to argue that most failures can
in fact be attributed to the belief that there is one best approach, one perfect theory or one final
solution. The McKinnon Report (McKinnon, Walker & Davis, 2000) provides a student
satisfaction benchmark that monitors student ratings of their learning experience and overall
satisfaction with assessment based on the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) administered
when students have graduated. Data coming from the CEQ only measure satisfaction with existing
assessment arrangements, but do not provide any indicators of quality beyond student satisfaction.
Teachers and designers need a principled basis for designing new forms of assessment, closely
aligned with instructional goals and utilising the interactive features of online technology
(American Psychological Association, 1993). If we acknowledge that assessment drives student
learning, it is likely that it will remain at the centre of the curriculum design process, and will be
central in the student learning experience (Ramsden, 1992; Biggs, 1999).
We may conclude from this overview of the quality assurance debate that the notion of quality
defined in terms of student satisfaction with assessment processes is important, yet few guidelines
have been provided by academics on what practices to adopt when designing educative, authentic
or valid assessment processes that are suited to distance education and online environments. Most
often, quality issues are tied up with implementation, infrastructure and delivery of services to
students and they provide a big picture view of the systems that need to be in place to enable
assessment to be managed at an institutional level. Collis and Moonen (2001) propose a fourdimensional
model that incorporates technology adoption, implementation, pedagogy and
institutional planning that combine to influence the quality of teaching and learning that occurs.
Are there Opportunities for Improved Assessment Practices on the Web?
Information and communication technologies (ICT) have the capacity to support a wide range of
learning goals and are now integrated into teaching approaches of many higher educational
institutions. Laurillard (1993) suggests that computer-based learning has a major role in promoting:
• self-directed learning and increased student autonomy;
• flexibility and diversity in assessment;
• increased information literacy, ensuring that graduate skills are in tune with those of employers;
and
• increased productivity and efficiency in higher education.
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Meeting at the Crossroads
Similarly, Alexander and McKenzie (1998) reviewed 104 projects relating to innovative technology
adoption and found that students had improved attitudes to learning, improved access, and
improved opportunities to interact and develop information literacy. However, opportunities for
learning do not always translate into learning outcomes. Alexander and McKenzie (1999) also
reviewed student perceptions of technology and the value of ICT for learning. The major findings
were as follows:
• Student perceptions of technology are a major influence on their attitude and approach to
learning. Will they earn extra marks for using technology? Will it be counted in their grades?
In designing a course, this might mean evaluating student contributions to a bulletin board as
part of the formal assessment process.
• Often students’ experiences of working in groups is one of frustration, despite claims that
technology is bringing about peer relationships and better communication.
• Students’ prior experience of teaching and learning influences their acceptance of new
learning approaches, whether these are with or without technology.
• Students do not feel that quantifiable learning gains are always achieved from technology use.
Given these results and the additional finding that ICT adoption did not bring about pedagogical
change in the Alexander and McKenzie (1998) report, Collis and Moonen (2001) conclude that while
learning gains cannot be proved, they still remain optimistic about technology integration. They
contend “what can be claimed at a general level is that students experience new forms of learning,
that instructors are making new types of contacts with their students and that new resources and
types of learning activities are occurring”. Other researchers would say that what determines the
educational value of ICT is how it is used in practice (Schacter, 1999). Whether these new learning
activities have arisen out of new curriculum approaches and can lead to innovative assessment
practices is a matter of importance to online educators and instructional designers.
Web-based Learning: Does it Mean New Pedagogy or Just Repackaging?
The shift to student self-direction and autonomy means that students need to take more
responsibility for their own learning, but many need assistance in achieving this skill. Shaffer and
Resnick (1999) maintain that technology can be used to create authentic contexts for learning, and
provide resources that give students opportunities in a number of areas:
• connectivity: to connect to the world outside the classroom, to research topics that would
otherwise be inaccessible, to access experts and to engage in conversations with peers;
• authenticity: to demonstrate performance in authentic tasks and communicate events;
• epistemological pluralism: to express and represent ideas in many different ways.
Applied to assessment, representational pluralism enabled by computer technology expands the
range of channels available to students to demonstrate understanding (Gardner, 1993; Greeno & Hall,
1997). For example, instead of using narrowly defined learning outcomes tested by examinations,
technology offers a total environment where real life skills, such as written and verbal communication,
collaboration and team work can be assessed by giving learners multiple channels of expression,
such as visualisation and multimedia. Thus, information technologies can change the quality of the
learning experience, and can be used to create authentic environments for assessment.
Terms used to describe the impact of ICT in higher education are many: flexibility, learner-centeredness,
Rich Environments for Active Learning (REALs), anchored environments, mediated learning, cooperative
learning and global classrooms (see Abbey (2000) for a complete overview). Yet how many of these are new
designs as opposed to just new terms for learning? Russell (1999) claims that despite all these innovations,
no significant differences have emerged for learning outcomes in technology supported environments.
While it is claimed that the Web does offer new opportunities for learning activities, assessment practices
must be reframed and reconsidered as part of a holistic approach to curriculum design and pedagogy.
Collis and Moonen (2001) use the term pedagogical re-engineering to describe the change in online
pedagogy from one that is teacher centred to one that is focussed on learner activity. Pedagogical re-
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engineering is based on the premise that courses are built up of components or units of instruction that
are bound together in sequences or combinations. By introducing technology and Web-based learning,
these components can be changed and made more flexible and student-centred, thus leading to course
enhancement through the adoption of learner-centred pedagogies and new forms of assessment.
Does Web-based Learning also Mean New Conceptions of Curriculum?
A key element in pedagogical re-engineering is the use and application of media to teaching and
learning scenarios where students are active participants and contribute actively by generating
knowledge. By changing roles and by enabling students to make contributions towards learning
resources, assessment also becomes more learner-centred and performance-based. For example, in
some activities students can post new URLs to the course site so that others can share and critically
evaluate them, and these resources become part of the learning activity. Similarly, the move
towards peer assessment is an indicator of pedagogical extension via the Web, as online
communication tools, shared workspaces and asynchronous dialogue make networked learning and
assessment feasible. This participatory/contributions-oriented approach to learning can be
summarised as follows:
• Assessment activities recognise students as contributors;
• Assessment activities involve opportunities for students to communicate, contribute to, and
participate in an online community;
• Assessment activity reflects the status of students as contributors to course content, and
creators of new knowledge products.
It is certainly the case that online technologies and Web-based learning have led to a reconceptualisation
of learning, pedagogy and assessment. This is reflected in the various theories of learning,
which emphasise learning activity, participation in communities of learning, engagement theory
and the contributions-oriented student model proposed by Collis and Moonen (2001). Table 1
summarises the notion of the active, participatory student and its implications for pedagogy.
Table 1: Summary of key features - Student as Participant (based on Collis and Moonen, 2001))
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Meeting at the Crossroads
Definitions
of learning
Learning
outcomes
Key
activities
Curriculum
process
Teacher
role
Contributing student
model (Collis &
Moonen, 2001)
Learners contribute to
the course via Webbased
tools
Product-oriented,
focussed on peer
learning, sharing and
collaboration
Preparation before
class, activities during
class, review and self
assessment after class
Reusable learning
objects and resources
are created by
students
Design activities for
maximum student
participation
Participation
oriented learning
(Sfaard, 1998)
Participation, member
of a community
Belonging,
participating,
communication,
lifelong learning
Apprenticeship,
communication,
participation
Negotiated; student
as participant
Facilitator, mentor
Engagement
Theory (Kearsley &
Schneiderman, 1998)
Meaningful activity
with others and
interaction through
worthwhile tasks
Higher order thinking,
team work and generic
capabilities that include
information literacy
and global perspective
Team work, interactive
learning, peer learning
Needs-based, projectoriented,
authentic
Coaching of project
based learning
Constructive
alignment model
(Biggs, 1999)
Emphasis on
student activity
A well structured
knowledge base,
interaction with others
Teacher-directed,
peer-directed and
self-directed activity
Align teaching
methods,
assessment and
student activity
Maximise structure,
offer scaffolding,
foster self-direction
The ‘student as participant approach’ is enabled by Web-based technology, which gives students
access to learning resources, communication tools, databases and asynchronous networks. These
models of learning accentuate the movement away from transmission-oriented approaches and
towards active learning where the student generates products and resources that can be re-used and
shared with others. This approach can be applied to assessment, so it becomes less teacherdominated
and more flexible, with more autonomy and responsibly given to the student. For
example, peer and self-assessment activities offer scope for learners to assume the roles of critical
participant and contributor, while creating online portfolios can allow students the scope to share
ideas and to engage in peer review.
Alternative Assessment Using Technology
In recognition of the limitations of traditional university assessment, there is a new wave of
pedagogy advocating ‘alternative assessment’ in which assessment is integrated with learning
processes and real-life performance as opposed to display of inert knowledge (Wiggins, 1998).
This form of authentic assessment is solidly based on constructivism, which recognises the learner
as the chief architect of knowledge building.
In constructivist learning environments there is social interaction, communication, exchange of
views, collaboration and support for learners to take more responsibility for the learning process
through learner-centred tasks (McLoughlin & Oliver, 1998; Collis, 1998). Salient features of
constructivist learning environments include an emphasis on the following aspects:
• authenticity: learning is located in actual contexts and linked to real tasks;
• group work: social interaction and feedback are instrumental in communication and higher
order thinking processes;
• learner control: learners are active in defining and negotiating learning tasks; and
• scaffolding learning: learners are supported as they progress from novice learners to selfregulated
experts.
Authentic or performance assessment can be effectively used in constructivist learning
environments as it enables both process and product knowledge to be assessed, supported by
communication channels for group work, reflection, higher-order thinking and self-directed
learning (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1992; Birenbaum, 1999; Reeves, 2000).
The use of the Web to support assessment offers greater adaptability and flexibility than traditional
or objective assessment (e.g., based on discrete tests and multiple choice quiz items) as it enables
the collection and storage of continuous data, and easily created micro-environments where
learners solve real life problems. It can be argued that the move towards authentic assessment
paradigms has been accelerated by technology with its capacity to cope with a broad array of
activities, tasks and forums for collaboration, dialogue and student-centred learning. For instance,
Kendle and Northhcote (2000) suggest a combination of qualitative and quantitative assessment
tasks that use multiple modes of showcasing student achievement through portfolios, multimedia
projects, skills demonstrations and teamwork. Table 2 contrasts some features of authentic
assessment with standard objective assessment, and provides examples of how Web-based
environments offer possibilities for authentic assessment tasks.
A further important contribution made by technology to authentic and performance-based
assessment is the capacity to support learning processes such as communication, group work and
collaborative problem solving. The following section present a case study demonstrating multiple
forms of assessing student learning online, while maintaining a focus on learning processes and
professional skills rather than content-based outcomes.
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McLoughlin & Luca
Table 2: Elements of authentic assessment utilising the Web
Context of the Study
Final year students enrolled in the Interactive Multimedia course at Edith Cowan University are
required to develop skills and expertise in managing the design and development of client web
sites. The unit IMM 3228/4228 – “Project Management Methodologies”, uses teams of four or five
students to utilise their specialist skills to build an electronic portfolio. Team roles include
programmers, graphic designers and project managers. There were 82 students completing this
unit, which was delivered through a custom built web site to enable both internal and external
students access to resources, and also to enhance the quality of the learning environment. Students
negotiate a project topic with their tutor, which is aimed at meeting a “real need” for an industry or
university client. Requirements include:
• significant contribution and participation to the development of a team-based multimedia project;
• a critical analysis of the project management of a team-based multimedia project;
• formative evaluation of the multimedia product; and
• an analysis of the intended implementation methodologies for that product; and, where
relevant, a prediction of the organisational and cultural changes likely to result from the
implementation of that product.
The aim was to have students experience project management issues that occur when dealing with
“real” clients in “real” projects.
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Meeting at the Crossroads
Objective Authentic assessment Indicators of authenticity Web-based support
assessment
Require correct Require quality product Assess whether the student Allows students to articulate
responses only and/or performance, can explain, apply, self-adjust, viewpoints in text-based
and justification. or justify answers, not just the conversation that can be
correctness of answers using archived as a learning resource.
facts and algorithms.
Must be Are known as much as The tasks, criteria, and Web-based teaching allows
unknown in possible in advance; standards by which work will access to multiple sources of
advance to involve excelling at be judged are predictable or information about the task,
ensure validity predictable demanding known like a project while allowing learners to
and core tasks; are not proposal for a client, etc. explore alternatives.
gotcha! experiences.
Are disconnected Require real-world use of The task is a challenge and a The task is a challenge and
from a realistic knowledge: the student set of constraints that are can extend the confines of the
context and must do history, science, authentic likely to be classroom to involve complex,
realistic etc. in realistic simulations encountered by the ill-defined tasks and
constraints or actual use. professional.(Know-how, not collaboration.
plugging in, is required.)
Contain isolated Are integrated challenges The task is multifaceted and Web provides access to
items requiring in which knowledge and non-routine, even if there is a information, databases and
use or judgment must be right answer. It thus requires course notes. Learners have
recognition of innovatively used to problem clarification, trial and control.
known answers fashion a quality product error, adjustments, adapting to
or skills or performance. the case or facts at hand, etc.
Are simplified Involve complex and non- The task involves the Web-based learning provides
so as to be easy arbitrary tasks, criteria, important aspects of multiple vehicles for
to score reliably and standards. performance and/or core showcasing student
challenges of the field achievement, including
of study portfolios and skills
demonstrations.
Are one shot Are iterative: contain The work is designed to Web-based teaching enables
recurring essential tasks, reveal whether the student gathering of continuous
and learning processes. has achieved real versus process data on student
surface mastery, or achievement.
understanding versus mere
familiarity, over time.
The Learning Environment and Task Design
The development of project management skills that are transferable to real world contexts means
that learners have to assume more responsibility for their own learning, but many need assistance
in achieving these skills. In this tertiary setting, the development of professional skills was linked
to the creation of a project-based learning environment. Group-based project work was chosen for
its relevance and congruence to the learning outcomes that were sought. Project work is advocated
for its capacity to support professional expertise and vocational skills and has been successful as
an instructional strategy in may contexts (Collis, 1998; Klemm & Snell, 1996; English & Yazdani,
1999). Learner activities were undertaken in groups and teams.
This style of problem-based learning involves a number of activities and tasks that appear to
provide robust support for the development of a number of key skills. As shown in Figure 1, the
activities that were designed included:
• To help gain commitment, students were required to complete an online “student contract” at the
beginning of the semester, signed by themselves, their team members’, and the tutor. The contract
outlined students’ responsibilities needed for developing the teams’ web site and weekly tasks.
• Teams were required to complete problem-solving tasks each week, which required students to
seek information from a variety of sources that reflected state-of-the-art knowledge about project
management. Students used information provided through the online application, as well as the
Web and had to select resources that were relevant to the task from the many that were available.
• Having solved the weekly problem, teams were required to apply inter-team assessment. They
were required to assess other teams’ solutions and defend the assigned marks with comments
based on valid criteria. If students were unhappy with the results, they could make comments
on the bulletin boards, asking for clarification from other teams or tutors.
• Each week students were required to perform intra-team assessment (Figure 2). Students
assessed their own progress as well as their peers, giving confidential information to the tutors
through the online system. Tutors used this information to help make decisions about
transferring marks in “tutor led peer assessment sessions”.
Figure 1: The learning environment
• Personal reflection on task and process - each student maintained a reflective journal in which
personal views of progress of skills and competencies were recorded. Students considered the
skills they applied, the skills that needed to develop and tasks that needed to be completed, as
agreed to within the team. This provided a strong framework for the development of personal
and process knowledge.
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McLoughlin & Luca
• In order to build the web site (and create solutions for the weekly problems), a high level of
collaboration was required. The teams were required to share the workload, undertake separate
tasks and maintain tight deadlines and schedules from one week to the next. Such activities
demanded the students consider requirements of others, be adaptive, responsible and flexible.
Figure 2: Sample journal entry showing self and peer assessment
Students were given both print and online resources to help develop solutions for the weekly
problems. Participants could view the solution, peer/tutor feedback and overall marks online.
Summary: Implementing Interactive/Product-oriented Assessment
In this article we have depicted the core elements of an approach to assessment that provides
opportunities for student engagement, participation and contribution to course content. The
features of this form of assessment include performance assessment that requires students to create
a product, engage in teamwork and elements of self and peer assessment. In designing the
assessment consideration was give to the notions of pedagogical re-engineering and the creation of
a workable, pragmatic approach within which to implement a participatory approach to learning
and assessment. Laurillard (1996) combines the notion of media affordances and pedagogic
re-engineering and has applied this to Open University courses. The notion of affordances
examines each of the media and how they can provide a different form of interaction. Four modes
are identified: attending, practicing, discussing and articulating. In designing the assessment task
our goal was to decrease attending and increase each of the other forms of interaction. This meant
applying the notion of student as participant, and as active contributor to the learning and
assessment processes of the unit. Table 3 shows how student activity and assessment processes
were integrated into participatory forms of assessment.
Table 3: Interactive-participatory assessment
At the end of the semester, the unit was evaluated with a CEQ questionnaire, as well as a focus
group interview session. The results were very positive. Student comments strongly favoured the
authentic nature of the unit, and were highly motivated by the “relevance” they could see in
developing these skills for industry. Comments included:
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Meeting at the Crossroads
Modes of student Student contributions Interactive assessment
interaction to the unit activities
¥ Attending Design and develop team web site Intra-team peer review
• Practicing Post solutions to weekly problems Intra-team peer review
• Discussing Post weekly journals Inter-team peer review and
commitment to tasks
¥ Articulating Develop electronic portfolio Critique and peer feedback on portfolios
Develop a team contract Negotiate roles and commitments
outlining team responsibilities for each team member
• “I wanted to have a product that would show industry/employers that I had skills.”
• “I found it necessary to track my time carefully and set priorities, otherwise I would let the rest
of the team down.”
• “I enjoyed filling out the weekly journals. Not only did it let me consider how the team was
going, but it was great to lay out all the tasks that needed doing.”
• “This was the first unit that really got us doing teamwork. Other units just do a bit here and
there, but this was full on teamwork, and it was working toward getting skills and a product
that would promote us to the industry.”
• “It was great to be able to see all the others teams work, and think about how it compared to ours.”
The response from the industry clients was also very positive, indicating the relevance of the skills
demonstrated to industry needs.
Future Directions for Quality in Online Assessment
Judging by present trend, there is no doubt that Web-based learning and training will continue to
expand, with the growth in markets, the trend towards lifelong learning and the need for universities
to offer flexible, on demand educational services. In this scenario, it is likely that quality assurance
processes for online assessment will intensify, with benchmarking procedures developed to compare
learner performance to exit level or industry standards. Key questions that tertiary providers may
have to respond to are: How is this graduate performing in comparison with a professional in the
field? What are the minimum exit standards for this student entering the profession?
Another issue is that benchmarks must be transparent to the learners, and must represent authentic
behaviour and expectations, rather than abstract decontextualised knowledge. These immediate
trends are emerging in higher education and will impact on assessment design. Other innovations
mentioned in this paper relate to a re-conceptualisation of curriculum as participatory, with students
contributing resources rather than content being prescribed. This emphasis on knowledge building
and participation has already brought about an increased focus on authentic assessment, which
better reflects real world performance. On the horizon looms the question: If authentic, quality
assessment and its demonstration depend upon performing in a genuine, real life situation what are
the actual limits of online assessment? Will technology be able to meet the future challenge of the
quality assurance agenda?
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Wiggins, G.P. (1998). Educative assessment. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Copyright  2001 Catherine McLoughlin and Joe Luca.
The author(s) assign to ASCILITE and educational non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this
document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright
statement is reproduced. The author(s) also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document
in full on the World Wide Web (prime sites and mirrors) and in printed form within the ASCILITE 2001
conference proceedings. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author(s).
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Meeting at the Crossroads

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