TLO 13: How to Teach Online: Assessing Online Learning

Welcome to the 13th in this series of 16 TLO (teaching and learning online) blogs. Here in eastern Ontario, Canada, there’s been a period of record-breaking, severe winter weather with temperatures getting down to 40 degrees below zero, where Fahrenheit and Centigrade meet. So, you can imagine the disruption to daily life, including schools, colleges, and universities having to shut down due to dangerous driving conditions on the roads. It’s also been a good reminder of some of the benefits of TLO, saving students and teachers, who can work together online, from having to go to and from bricks-and-mortar institutions.

However, one of the challenges of TLO is assessment of student learning. In traditional, physical classrooms, teachers and students can see immediately and constantly who is paying attention, who is on-task, who is working together, etc. Likewise, who’s not paying attention, who’s off-task, and who’s not working is equally evident. But to a large extent, much of that kind of face-to-face interaction can be masked in TLO courses.

It is, of course, possible to have only summative, end-of-course assignments, but these often do not reflect the ongoing daily, weekly, and monthly learning that is an essential part of the process. Therefore, most well-designed and well-established TLO programs include formative and summative assessment, both of which contribute to the final marks and grades for the courses.

The end-of-course assignments in TLO courses can be quite similar to those in traditional courses, but the big difference comes with the ongoing, lesson-by-lesson learning, which needs to be assessed. As the instances, examples, and evidence of this learning often appear in the discussion forums, it’s important to set out clear guidelines, as we discussed in TLO 10 and TLO 11. For example, if tasks are to be completed and the results posted in the discussion forums, then an exact day and time has to be indicated, after which the posting will not be responded to.

Typically, the course participants (CPs) on the courses I teach online are given one full week (seven days) to post their responses. In addition to posting their own responses, it’s important that they also respond to at least two other postings from other CPs. It might seem strange to specify the time, but as CPs are usually in very different time zones, just giving the day and date can lead to some confusion, because Monday morning on one time zone could be Sunday night or Monday night in another.

Establishing the timeframes and the quantity (number of postings and by when) are relatively straightforward. A much trickier aspect to assess is “quality,” as some CPs may post a response to a reading along the lines of: “Really enjoyed that chapter” or “Learned a lot about that that I didn’t know before.” Whereas other postings, from other CPs, responding to the same reading, might be much more thorough and thoughtful.

The same applies to CPs responding to each others’ postings, which can range from one- and two-word replies, such as “ditto,” “good point,” and “Gr8!” to replies that really build on one another, with each posting taking the discussion a step further. Big leaps are not needed, but small steps are necessary. These kinds of postings, as the “Gr8” example shows, are partly the result of the growth of phone texting, tweeting, etc. But one of the most rewarding and enjoyable things for me when I’m teaching online is to see a series of postings from different CPs in the course, in which the series shows the kind of gradual “collaborative, co-operative, co-construction of knowledge, skills, and understanding” that was highlighted back in TLO 4.

A recurring adjective in the TLO literature is “substantive,” as in the requirement that the postings “should be substantive.” But that can mean very different things to different people, especially within the kind of diverse CP populations in online courses. So, it helps a lot to give some examples of what the instructor means by “substantive” and/or “lacking in depth/detail.”

These three parameters—timeframe, quantity, and quality—can all help with assessing learning online, and we will look at this topic in more depth in future TLO blogs. In the meantime, please feel to share with us how you assess learning in your online courses.

About Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis
Andy received his MA in Applied Linguistics and Language Teaching, and his PhD in International Education, both from the University of York in England, and he teaches TESOL courses online with the School of Graduate Education at Anaheim University, California. Over the years, he has written for TESOL Quarterly, TESOL Journal, TESOL Matters, and TESOL’s Essential Teacher. Andy will be installed as president-elect of the TESOL International Association in Portland, Oregon in 2014, and he will be president during TESOL’s 50th Anniversary Convention in Baltimore, Maryland in 2016.
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One Response to TLO 13: How to Teach Online: Assessing Online Learning

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Very interesting and useful!

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