Almost daily, there are articles in the press about online courses, that approach the subject from either a negative or positive angle. Most of these articles cite a few faculty members or students who have been interviewed, or cite a single study of a single course, with unknown quality of research methods. Many of them do not distinguish Asynchronous Learning Networks, which emphasize extensive student-student and teacher-student interaction, from distance modes which simply post materials on the web and use individual email assignments, without any collaborative learning activities or formation of a class of interacting students.
Claims and counter-claims are likely to persist unless a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge base of information about evaluation research studies of ALN is created and made available to the public, on the Web as well as in published journals. There is currently no place where faculty, researchers, potential students, or the press can go to find out what information exists about the following:
What empirical studies have been conducted about ALN? What were the methods, variables studied, and findings?
What is the current overall picture of these research findings, in terms of comparisons of the effectiveness of ALN with other modes of delivery of college-level courses? What do we know about relatively effective and ineffective ways of doing ALN?
Who are the leading researchers in ALN, are they willing to be contacted by the press, and if so, how can they be contacted? (Video clips, some of them from NetLearning and other ones recorded at meetings, can be used to introduce the public to some of these leading researchers).
What methods and research instruments (questionnaires, interview guides, etc.) are available for use by ALN researchers?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of various research methods for studying ALN, and what methods are recommended by experts in the field as especially appropriate for understanding this form of educational medium?
What theoretical foundations are there for the field of ALN? What theories are most appropriate for framing research studies in this area? And which methods best match different theoretical frameworks?
Learning networks are defined as groups of people who use computer networks (the Internet and World Wide Web) to communicate and collaborate in order to build and share knowledge. The emphasis will be on asynchronous (anytime, anyplace) use of networks, but the project will include studies of courses that integrate some use of synchronous (same time, different place) technology or which compare face to face, synchronous and asynchronous learning processes. Secondly, the emphasis will be on post-secondary, for-credit courses, but information will also be collected about studies of the use of ALN in pre-college courses and in continuing professional education (not for academic credit) courses or learning communities. Effectiveness will be defined in this project to focus on both learning outcomes for students, and positive or negative impacts on faculty. To the extent that other measures of effectiveness are reported in empirical studies (e.g., fiscal impacts on educational institutions, cost-benefit analysis, or societal level impacts in terms of educational access and equity), they will also be included.
The planned major components of the web site are:
1. A knowledge base and accompanying analysis of all ALN effectiveness research studies and results.
2. An ALN research methods section, with a hypertext tutorial, a research instruments collection, and a multi-media gallery of leading ALN researchers.
3. A theoretical frameworks section, with a hypertext tutorial and bibliography.
Each of these is described further below.; Additional sections may be added based on feedback from research workshops and web site users. Each component will be posted first as a prototype that will be subjected to usability testing and improved before public posting. Subsequent to first release, each part of the web site will be frequently updated.