Over the last couple of months I have been asked to help a university (that will remain nameless) in its transition to a newer version of of its Learning Management System (LMS). As part of this I have had to access many LMS course spaces to check that content has migrated successfully and that that things are working as they should.

It has been a profoundly depressing experience. I knew it would be and you’ll appreciate why I knew if you look at my current full time occupation.

Let me begin begin by saying that there are a few dirty little secrets about online learning at traditional universities. Here are two:

1. Not many courses have any form of content online whatsoever (even when the university promotes a policy of minimum online presence).

2. When a course does have online content it is invariably rubbish.

Here are some things that typify the courses I have seen recently:

Poorly structured sites with no narrative, no instruction, no guidance for the student.
Un-capitalised headings and grammatically incorrect sentences in mixed and garishly coloured fonts.
HTML using deprecated tags and with strange symbols that are presumably the remnants of copying and pasting from MS Word.
Links to PDF, DOCX and PPT files that are often way too large with no indication of the size or file type before the user clicks on the link.
Discussion forums that are not used or are used in very strange ways indeed.
Student blogs where the student is expected to print their blog out before submitting it for assessment. Although it should be said that I’m impressed that course was using blogs at all because I reckon only maybe 2-3% of course sites would have a blog set up.
But worst of all perhaps is the content itself. I had the misfortune to visit one site that was being used to teach web design. You’d think that this site would be really good but sadly no. It displayed many of the features I’ve listed above but worst of all the content of this site was at least three years old and made reference, in many cases, to information that was 8 or 9 years old. From this site I learnt that Alta Vista was the third biggest search engine and Netscape Navigator 4 was a major browser. If this was a human anatomy course then older content might be fine but a course like web design needs to be updated almost monthly the pace of change is so rapid.

To put the icing on the cake, this course was a wholly online course being offered to students as part of an Information Systems degree. I kid you not.

All of this brings me to the title of this post and the observation that there appears to be no quality assurance applied to elearning at most universities. The only surprising thing about this observation is how little it is spoken about. Senior academic managers appear to be totally unconcerned. I suspect they don’t know and probably don’t want to know. If they knew about it then they would have to do something about it and then all of a sudden you have to deal with academic staff who cry ‘academic freedom’ at the drop of a hat and we all know how much fun that is.

What has happened is that academics have been allowed to continue into the online environment their thousand year old practice of engaging in a secret communion with students that happens in the classroom . I remember, as a young course leader at a university in the UK, being asked a question by a very respected Professor and external examiner (now there’s a novel thing). He said “Mark, how do you know that the lecturers are teaching what you want them to teach in the classroom?”. I, of course, had no idea so I mumbled something about outcomes and assessment. I could have said to my teaching staff that I thought it would have been a good idea to have some peer observation of their teaching but that would have gone down like lead balloon.

And there is the problem. Academics don’t like non students (dare I say, people who are not beholden to them and therefore are more likely to be critical) in their classroom and they don’t like them in the online course spaces.

Of course a really brave Vice Chancellor or President would say, right we are going to have all of our content as open courseware in five years time and the first thing we are going to do is allow every member of the university, staff and student, to be able to see the content in every course. Not sensitive data but just the learning content itself. We’re going to identify and reward the staff members working on the best courses so that everyone can see good practice. Finally we are going to provide course development resources to help you transition your content to an engaging online format and to ensure it is only made available when it has been through an appropriate QA process to meet some mutually agreed standards.

Such academic leaders are few and far between. Many (most) senior academic managers don’t understand online learning at all. I remember being at a meeting of Deans of Faculty who all thought that uploading Powerpoint files was the same as blended learning.

In the meantime student expectations increase continually as they engage with high quality content from many other providers as part of their daily online activities. Something is going to give and it may be sooner than we think.