An important aspect of the quality of e-learning concerns the design of the curriculum. It is assumed that curriculum design is broadly constrained by expectations or requirements on the knowledge, skills and professional outcomes-based curriculum elements; these may be set at national, European and international levels.
The major challenge that institutions face is that of designing curricula that combine the flexibility in time and place of study offered by e-learning without compromising skills development or the sense of academic community that has traditionally been associated with campus-based provision. Key
challenges and opportunities include: programme modularity, online assessment methods, building online academic communities, and integration of knowledge and skills development.
Curriculum design should address the needs of the target audience for e-learning programmes that, in the context of growing emphasis on lifelong learning, may differ significantly in prior experience, interest and motivation from the traditional young adult entrant to conventional universities.
E-learning offers the opportunity to offer student-centred learning which provides flexibility in the time, place and pace of learning. The presentation of content can be more flexible and the didactic approach more open.
When e-learning is integrated with other study modes, providers need to demonstrate that students can extract the maximum benefit from the flexibility offered, while still meeting the learning outcomes of the course or programme.
Institutions need to have clear policies and practices for scheduling programmes and courses. These policies should take account of student requirements for flexibility in time and place of study.
The impact of these policies on course and programme completion, skills development and the development of student communities should be considered. Institutions should identify and analyse patterns of usage and use these to inform policies on flexibility.
Flexibility at the macro and micro levels must be addressed in programme design. At the macro level, students may have the flexibility to start and complete courses to schedules of their own choosing. At the micro-level, students may work to timetables of their own choosing within a cohort of students progressing through the course with common deadlines for assessment tasks.
Institutions engaged in e-learning should develop and implement assessment systems that are at least as effective and rigorous as those used in conventional systems.
Assessment should include both formative and summative elements. Individual items of assessment may fulfil either or both functions.
Virtual Learning Environments incorporate quiz engines for automatic marking. Provision of instant feedback according to student response can offer an effective mechanism for formative assessment.
Procedures for summative assessment need to be fair, valid and reliable and ensure that the work submitted is that of the registered candidate. Cheating can take the form of impersonation for a written examination or plagiarism of another's work. Copying of material from the web is a particular issue in e-learning contexts.
Curriculum designers should consider all the intended learning outcomes for a programme, and ensure that there is an overall strategy for their assessment.
The development of a suite of core transferable skills that relate to literacy, numeracy, critical analysis and communication is an essential aspect of higher education. Increasingly employers also value e-skills: those literacies, information literacy, communication and organisational skills that apply to conduct professional life online.
Institutions offering e-learning programmes have a responsibility to develop these skills in their students and to demonstrate their provision and effective assessment to potential employers. Students should have the opportunity to demonstrate the skills they have acquired in operating in the online domain.
The institution may need to develop specific assessment methods to verify skills acquisition. One approach is to support students in recording evidence of skills acquisition via an e-portfolio.
Institutions should developed policies and practices that create effective online learning communities – both formal and informal.
Curricula should be designed to foster participation in online academic communities through explicit student (and staff) contributions to collaborative activities.
Important aspects of community development within an e-learning context include:
Teaching staff need to be aware of the range of online tools which can be used to support online communities. Staff may need training and support in choosing appropriate tools for a particular purpose, and becoming aware of the benefits and potential problems.