Utilizing the AECT Instructional Design Standards for Distance Learning
Anthony A. Piña
Association for Educational Communications and Technology
Amid the continued growth of online learning—and concerns about its quality—a number of different groups have moved to establish tools, such as rubrics and standards for online course quality. This paper highlights the development of the Instructional Design Standards for Distance Learning by the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. AECT is the leading international professional association for the scholarly study and practice of instructional design. Also featured is a comparison with other popular tools and suggestions for use of the AECT Standards
IntroductionAdvances in distance learning research and practice, and efforts to address the elusive concept of “quality,” have inspired professional communities, organizations and vendors to establish quality standards and rubrics for online courses. Standards “provide people and organizations with a basis for mutual understanding, and are used as tools to facilitate communication, measurement, commerce and manufacturing” (CEN-CENELEC, 2018, p.1). Popular distance learning standards and rubrics include: Quality Matters (Maryland Online, 2017), the Open SUNY Course Quality Review (OSCQR) rubric (Online Learning Consortium, 2018; Open SUNY, 2018); the OLC Quality Scorecard for Online Programs (Shelton, 2010), the iNACOL Standards for Quality Online Courses (iNACOL, 2011) and Blackboard’s Exemplary Course Program (Blackboard, 2017).
With approximately 30% of college and university students nationwide enrolled in one or more online courses, it is safe to say that distance learning has become fully institutionalized into the fabric of U.S. higher education (Piña, 2008; Seaman, Allen & Seaman, 2018). In spite of the national trend of decreased enrollments at colleges and universities during the past few years, enrollments in online courses have continued to increase (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019).
Notwithstanding the growing ubiquity of distance learning, and an ever-increasing body of research indicating that students can learn well online (e.g. Means, Bakia & Murphy, 2014; Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia & Jones, 2009), skepticism regarding its quality persists. Opinion polls continue to report that many postsecondary faculty members feel that learning online is inferior to learning in a traditional classroom (Jaschik & Lederman, 2018).
AECT Instructional Design Standards for Distance Learning
The Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) is the most established international professional association for instructional design and technology (www.aect.org). It was established in 1923 as the Department of Visual Instruction of the National Education Association and later rebranded as the Department of Audiovisual Instruction (DAVI), with an initial focus upon the use of audio-visual technologies in classroom instruction (Reiser & Dempsey, 2017). As a result of evolution and progress in the areas of learning theory, communication technologies and an emerging field of instructional design, the Association for Educational Communications and Technology emerged in 1970 as an independent professional association (AECT, 2001; Molenda, 2008).
AECT launched the Journal of Instructional Development, the first scholarly journal dedicated to instructional design in 1977 (AECT, 2019) and the association maintains a position of leadership in research and practice in the field with its five journals: Educational Technology Research and Development, Tech Trends, the Journal of Applied Instructional Design, the Journal of Formative Design in Learning, and the International Journal of Designs for Learning.
How the AECT Standards Came to Be
During a series of discussions between AECT members and association staff, a recurring topic was that online courses at colleges and universities were being developed without the benefit of research-based instructional design guidelines. A small task force of AECT members researched and produced a first draft of ten instructional design standards for distance learning. An edited version of the standards was approved by AECT’s Executive Committee, by the board of its Division of Distance Learning, and by the association’s full Board of Directors (Harris, 2017a).Each chapter underwent a double-blind peer review process by a combination of faculty members from graduate programs in instructional design and technology and practicing professional instructional designers. Final corrected drafts of the standards chapters and a set of rubrics for their application (Harris, 2017b) were compiled into an edited book, Instructional Design Standards for Distance Learning published by AECT (Piña, 2017a). Members of AECT have access to a free e-book version of the book through the publications area of the AECT website (www.aect.org).
Once approval has been obtained by the association’s Directors, several leading AECT member scholars and practitioners were invited to write chapters providing evidence and justification for each of the ten standards. Those who contributed chapters were Saul Carliner, Yuan Chen and David Price (2017), Peggy Ertmer, Judith Lewandowski and Jennifer Richardson (2017), Phillip Harris (2017a; 2017b); Michael Molenda (2017), Gary Morrison (2017), Jennifer Morrison and Steven Ross (2017), Anthony Piña (2017b; 2017c), Wilhelmina Savenye and Yi-Chun Hong (2017), and Michael Simonson (2017).
What are the Standards?The International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (ibstpi), Maryland Online/Quality Matters, The Open SUNY Center for Teaching Excellence, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and Blackboard, Inc. have developed widely-used and helpful tools for those concerned about online course quality. These are compared with the AECT Instructional Design Standards for Distance Learning in the table below.
Standard 1: Purpose. Effective course design begins with a clearly articulated purpose. This is the standard to which all other standards must align. Purpose may be thought of as two-dimensional: institution or instructor and student. The design should include both the purpose of the course as envisioned by the institution or instructor and the purpose as viewed by the student. As the purpose is articulated through goals and objectives, collaboration between instructor and student will set a firmer foundation than can be achieved through a one-dimensional purpose statement.
Standard 2: Assumptions. Course design must take into account assumptions that shape the purpose and subsequent course development. Most assumptions are based on students’ prior knowledge and established understandings and skills. Articulating these content assumptions provides a starting point for new learning. Assumptions in the case of online learning also encompass students’ ability to use delivery technology.
Standard 3: Sequence. Learning opportunities must be sequenced in a manner that promotes efficient knowledge acquisition consistent with the prior-knowledge assumptions. Various models of sequencing—linear, spiral, scaffold, etc.—should be considered, and the course design should incorporate those strategies best suited to the content within the constraints of online delivery.
Standard 4: Activities. Learning is achieved through activities both passive (reading, listening, viewing) and active (experimenting, rehearsing, trying). Activities should be chosen that best suit the content, students’ levels of knowledge, experience, and ability, and online delivery constraints, particularly accommodating synchronous, asynchronous, and mixed course participation. Student self-selected or self-developed learning activities should be incorporated along with instructor-selected and instructor-developed activities, consistent with a two-dimensional purpose.
Standard 5: Resources. A range of resources should be articulated to foster deep learning and extend course-centered experiences and activities. Resources should be multimodal to accommodate students’ interests, understandings, and capacities, consistent with course content and technological accessibility. Resources should allow students to go beyond the constraints of the formal course structure to engage in self-directed, extended learning.
Standard 6: Application. Consistent with providing for active learning, students should have integral opportunities within the course design to apply new learning. Effective course design incorporates opportunities to practice newly acquired understandings and skills, both independently and collaboratively. Online collaborative application opportunities should be developed using social media, and offline collegial groups also should be structured whenever physical proximity of students affords this opportunity.
Standard 7: Assessment. Regardless of the model of sequencing learning opportunities, the sequence should include points of assessment for purposes of feedback and review, with instances of re-teaching as necessary for students to acquire full understanding. Formative assessment, whether formal, informal, or incidental, allows teachers and students to give feedback to one another and to review the operationalized design in order to revise the course design based on students’ input with regard to knowledge acquisition and effective use of new understandings and skills.
Standard 8: Reflection. Effective course design must include opportunities for reflection as an extension of the Feedback/Review/Reteach standard. Reflection involves both instructor self-reflection and student self-reflection related to achievement of the purposes that have been articulated as the basis for the course. Such reflection is intended to deepen the learning experience and may serve as reiteration of purpose at key points during the course.
Standard 9: Independent Learning. Effective course design incorporates opportunities for independent learning, both instructor- and self-directed. Online course development, particularly in the asynchronous mode, should epitomize independent learning, which should include opportunities for feedback, review, and reflection—all of which should resonate with the purpose.
Standard 10: Evaluation. Course evaluation must be purpose-driven. Alignment with the purpose should be threefold: a) based on acquisition of new knowledge, understandings, and skills; b) based on instructor self-evaluation; and c) based on student self-evaluation. Multidimensional evaluation offers a fully articulated basis for judging the success of the course and the students as well as providing information that can help shape future iterations of the course.
How the AECT Standards Compare to Other Tools
The ibstpi standards emphasize competencies that can be demonstrated by instructors, instructional designers, evaluators, training managers and online learners (Klein, Spector, Grabowski & de la Teja, 2004; Kozalka, Russ-Eft, & Reiser, 2013). The Quality Matters Higher Education Course Design Rubric and the OLC OSCQR Course Design Review Scorecard are comprehensive tools providing a large number of assessment items by which the features of online and blended/hybrid courses can be evaluated formatively for improvement of summatively for judgment and awards (Blackboard, 2017; Maryland Online 2017; Online Learning Consortium, 2018). The iNACOL Standards (2011) are intended for use in K-12 schools, but have much in common with the aforementioned standards and rubrics.
The AECT Instructional Design Standards for Distance Learning are intended to inform and provide guidance before, during and after the design and development of online and blended/hybrid courses. They can be used in tandem with other tools to assure that empirically sound principles of learning and instruction are “baked” into courses designed for learners at a distance. There is also a set of accompanying sample rubrics that have been developed for practical application of the standards (see the next section).
Utilizing the AECT Standards
A set of rubrics has been developed to provide guidance for instructional designers and others who wish to incorporate the Instructional Design Standards for Distance Learning (Harris, 2017b).
The Instructional Design Standards for Distance Learning represents a unique and notable entry into the design and development of online learning by the leading international association for the study and practice of instructional design and technology. The authors actively solicit feedback regarding the experiences of those who use the standards and rubrics and who have recommendations for their utilization and improvement. Feedback can be sent to AECT@aect.org.
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