This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.
As institutions continue to expand the number of online courses and degree programs they offer, both student and faculty readiness assessments are becoming more common. One reason is the belief that assessments can have a positive impact on retention and completion rates, which historically have been lower in online offerings.
Another reason is that more regional accrediting agencies are either strongly encouraging or requiring them. Although not all institutions that employ these assessments require them prior to allowing students to enroll in individual online courses or an entire degree program, that practice is becoming more commonplace as well.
These assessments are designed to measure the skills and qualities students must have to be successful online learners and that faculty should have to be successful online instructors. I tend to compare them to the health-assessment surveys we sometimes take that ask us if we wear our seat belt, watch our sodium intake, or exercise on a regular basis. Some of these health assessments provide us with immediate feedback and advice based on our answer, and some online readiness assessments are designed the same way.
Student readiness assessments
Student readiness assessments are used more frequently than are faculty readiness assessments, and I’ve seen a fair amount of variability in their makeup. Questions often relate to motivation, technology, time management, and the learning-management system an institution is using. Some examples:
• I frequently set goals and achieve those goals.
• I usually persist through difficult situations.
• I’m clear on the reason I’m taking an online course.
• I’m comfortable creating, saving and sending files on my computer.
• I’m familiar with how to install software on my computer.
• I have access to and can use a webcam and microphone for webinars and video conferences.
• I pay close attention to and usually meet deadlines.
• I’m good at minimizing distractions while I study.
• I will be able to dedicate 10–15 hours a week to my course.
• I’m comfortable accessing and viewing content in the learning-management system.
• I’m comfortable uploading assignments in the learning-management system.
• I’m comfortable participating in discussions in the learning-management system.
Interestingly, these readiness assessments could help students become aware that the very factors influencing some of them to take online courses or degree programs—wanting to continue working full time or having a family to take care of, for example—are sometimes the factors that cause them to not be successful.
Student readiness assessments often contain between 20 and 30 questions. Many institutions create their own in-house versions, but there are commercial products available from vendors as well. In my experience, the commercial products are usually longer and contain more questions than institutionally developed tools.
Using a commercial product frees institutional personnel from having to create the assessment; however, there of course would be a cost associated with the product. I’ve seen individual assessments priced between $20 and $25, with the cost decreasing as the number of students taking the assessment at an institution increases. An institution would need to decide whether to absorb the cost or pass the cost along to students. Developing an in-house assessment enables each institution’s personnel to customize the questions based on specific program or institutional requirements and expectations.
Surprisingly, only limited research has been conducted and published on the efficacy of these tools for predicting positive academic outcomes such as higher course completion rates and greater academic achievement. One study I found reported that students who scored higher in a pre-course readiness assessment earned lower final grades in the course.
If you have interest in exploring this research in greater depth, the most current and comprehensive article I could find is titled “Student Online Readiness Assessment Tools: A Systematic Review Approach” by Alem Farid and was published in The Electronic Journal of e-Learning (2014, Vol 12, Issue 4).
Faculty readiness assessments
As I mentioned, assessments to determine a faculty member‘s “readiness” to teach online are conducted less commonly than are student assessments. However, as institutions continue to expand their online offerings, I believe these assessments geared toward faculty will be used more frequently. I could find no research examining the efficacy of faculty readiness assessments or whether such assessments resulted in improved instructional practices and outcomes.
Much like the questions asked of students, faculty assessments often include questions related to use of, and comfort with, technology and the learning-management system in place at an institution as well as organizational and time-management skills. Additionally, faculty assessments often contain questions related to pedagogical skills such as using a student-centered teaching approach, providing timely and meaningful feedback, promoting student-to-student interaction, and the importance of establishing an online presence during a course.
From what I understand, the majority of institutions that use faculty-readiness assessments don’t employ them to discourage faculty from teaching online. Rather, their purpose is to increase faculty awareness of the knowledge, skills and abilities that would likely result in their being more successful when teaching online. Some institutions are also using these assessments to share minimal online teaching expectations (i.e. university expectations) with their faculty.
Even though current research doesn’t generally support the efficacy of student and faculty readiness assessments as a tool that can lead to more-successful students and instructors, I believe the use of these tools will continue to be refined and will increase in frequency over the next few years. I’m confident that additional studies will be conducted on these instruments and their usefulness, and it will be interesting to follow those results. Despite the lack of empirical evidence supporting use of these tools, proponents suggest that simply completing the assessments heightens awareness and can make clear the expectations related to being an online learner or instructor.
Farid, A: Student Online Readiness Assessment Tools: A Systematic Review Approach. The Electronic Journal of e-Learning, (2014), Vol 12, Issue 4, pps. 375-383.