April 13, 2024

Engagement at the Core of Quality in Distance Education

Author: amyschoenrock
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The difference between education and training is the social dimension of learning. Education is perceived to be more of a social process whereas training is the learning of a skill for a specific purpose. John Dewey (1897) stated it best, “Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not a preparation for life: education is life itself.”  The consideration of online quality is rooted in the following question: If education is rooted in a social process, then how can distance education be of the same quality as traditional teaching with the additional challenges of incorporating the social dimension into the learning process? 

Distance education was built upon quality. From the beginning, research was used to determine how the delivery format compared to traditional approaches. Through this extensive research, best practices emerged in instructional strategies for teaching content, engaging with the content, and encouraging social presence within the courses. Scoring rubrics were developed which incorporated these best practices and provide guidance in how to build courses that meet quality standards. The rubrics became valuable tools for institutions for self-evaluation of course development, services provided, or other operational requirements for the support of distance learning programs. The rubrics evolved into impartial outside evaluation and the ability to earn a certification by nationally-recognized organizations validating the quality of distance education courses and programs. Both processes, internal evaluation and/or certification, allow the identification of areas of strengths and weaknesses at the institution. From that evaluation, institutions can implement improvement plans to enhance the quality of distance education offerings.

Quality goes beyond the course, with campus organizations contributing to the quality of the online distance education experience. The degree program becomes the bridge which brings both groups together. At the highest levels, an institution expresses its support of distance learning programs through its mission statement.  For those institutions that want to increase access to their degree programs or to expand their reach, distance learning can be a key component in meeting those goals. Solid technological infrastructure also needs to be in place to support admissions, enrollment, library services, and so much more. Faculty development on how to build engagement into their courses and the use of instructional design support promote learning in an online environment, and are valuable for the students’ success. Student support ensures that students have the tools for successfully completing their online degrees. Those institutions interested in ensuring a holistic approach to the management of distance education programs can use the Administration of Online Programs Scorecard. This scorecard by OLC is helpful in conducting the evaluation of the overall operations of the degree programs. Because courses are the core of a distance learning program, the design of the course itself is important. To evaluate the quality of each course, OLC offers the Quality Course Teaching and Instructional Practice Scorecard.

The social experiences for a traditional postsecondary education extend outside of the classroom with opportunities to participate in clubs and signature events. Student services provide meet-and-greet events that allow students to connect with each other and with the institution. Additionally, student services can support coursework. Institutions incorporate areas designated for study groups to work together on projects or to study for exams into the campus. How can these experiences be replicated in an online environment? 

The development of online student support services is a difficult area to manage. Student support offices often report through different institutional leaders within the organizational chart. While the leaders of some support offices may recognize the importance of service for the growing online population, others do not. Depending on the fee structure at the institution, students may be paying for services they are unable to access without going to campus. The goal of online student support services is to replace or revise those processes so that students who no longer visit the campus may remotely accomplish basic tasks related to their attendance at the institution. To promote a cohesive and holistic approach to providing services, the Online Student Support Scorecard was included in the OLC Scorecard Suite.

By using the rubrics available in the OLC Quality Scorecard Suite, an institution or distance learning leader can ensure quality in both instruction and the social dimension. At the course level: 

  • Students engage intellectually with their classmates and the instructor through well-designed courses, materials, and opportunities to connect 
  • Technology is available to promote social interactions through both asynchronous and synchronous tools
  • Student support services encourage institutional engagement, infusing the social dimension across the institution and leading students to be ready for post-educational life experiences.

If you’re interested in improving or assessing online student support in your courses or at your institution, take a look at the Online Student Support Scorecard, and check out the full suite of scorecards for quality rubrics that may be useful for other aspects of online learning.


Dewey, J. (1897). My pedagogic creed. The School Journal(54), 77-80.

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