Conference of the International Journal of Arts & Sciences (Toronto 2009)
Assessment Impact on Online Learning Credibility
Tayeb Basta, Ittihad University, United Arab Emirates
Abstract: Electronic learning is a type of education where the medium of instruction is
information and communication technologies (ICT). e-learning as defined in (Farrell, 2001),
is the application of information and communication technologies to core institutional
functions such as administration, materials development and distribution, course delivery and
tuition, and the provision of learner services such as advising, prior learning assessment and
programme planning. As time passes by, the e-learning sphere gets larger and larger to the
extent that e-learning is seen as a future application worldwide as it has enabled universities
to expand on their current geographical reach, to capitalize on new prospective students, and
to establish themselves as global educational providers.
e-learning can be either blended learning in which the technology is used to enhance the
face-to-face teaching, or it can be purely online learning, that is, the delivery of courses
completely through information and communication technologies.
e-learning frees learners from many constraints hindering them from fulfilling their will to
achieve higher levels of knowledge and consequently improve their job positions. They can
learn anywhere, anytime, and at their own pace. In addition, the required cost of earning
degrees can be minimized.
On the other hand besides the controversial stands towards the different types of e-learning
and the different opinions of employers about online degrees, excessive confidence in
information and communication technologies in the learning discipline may lead to a
situation similar to the dot-com burst that happened in the late 2000. Companies’ stock prices
shoot up by simply adding an "e-" prefix to their name and/or a ".com" to the end. This has
resulted in the burst of the bubble which in turn resulted in many companies went out of
business. If such a situation is reproduced in the learning discipline, we will get to a point
where a huge number of degrees are offered to people who do not participate in any learning
This paper reports the different point of view about e-learning education in general and its
credibility in particular. It demonstrates that the credibility of e-learning is based on the
quality of assessment employed to measure how learners perceive the information. The paper
recommends a way by which such assessments should be held to preserve the educational
standards on one hand, and guarantee confidence in online learning, on the other. Summative
assessment for online learning should be held at some points in time, for instance twice per
semester, at specific locations under the vigilance of teachers, irrespective of the type of
technologies in use.
Assessment Impact on Online Learning Credibility
Electronic learning (or eLearning or e-learning) is a type of education where the medium of
instruction is information and communication technologies (ICT). e-learning as defined
in (Farrell, 2001), is the application of information and communication technologies to core
institutional functions such as administration, materials development and distribution, course
delivery and tuition, and the provision of learner services such as advising, prior learning
assessment and programme planning.
e-learning is used interchangeably in a wide variety of contexts. (1) In companies, it refers to
the strategies that use the company network to deliver training courses to employees. (2) In
the USA, it is defined as a planned teaching/learning experience that uses a wide spectrum of
technologies, mainly Internet or computer-based, to reach learners. (3) In most Universities,
e-learning is used to define a specific mode to attend a course or programmes of study where
the students rarely, if ever, attend face-to-face for on-campus access to educational facilities
because they study online.
The general consensus is that technology will play a large role in the planning, development
and delivery of the curriculum of the contemporary university and the challenge for
institutions is to make decisions now that will set them on the preferred and appropriate path
to the future.
The growth of e-learning is directly related to:
(1) The increasing access to information and communications technology, as well as its
(2) The capacity of information and communications technology to support multimedia
resource-based learning and teaching.
(3) The growing numbers of teachers who are increasingly using information and
communications technology to support their teaching.
(4) The contemporary student populations who have grown up using information and
communications technology and who also expect to see it being used in their
e-learning is seen as a future application worldwide, promoting life long learning by enabling
learners to learn anytime, anywhere and at the learner’s own pace. Students are able to
communicate with classmates and lecturers, visit web sites and view course material
regardless of their time and location.
e-learning has enabled universities to expand on their current geographical reach, to
capitalize on new prospective students and to establish themselves as global educational
e-learning can be either blended learning that is the use of technology to enhance the face-to-
face teaching, which means the integrated combination of traditional (face-to-face) learning
with web-based online approaches. Or it can be purely online learning that is the delivery of
courses completely through communication and information technologies. In the latter case
students are able to acquire the necessary knowledge remotely and without meeting with
their lecturers. Convenient and simple to use, online learning allows students to take a
semester-long class from anywhere in the world as long as they have access to the Internet.
New class lecture videos are made available to watch when students have time. They interact
with classmates and instructors through e-mail and the Web, and review and complete the
scheduled assignments wherever they are most comfortable.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows: section 2 discusses the paradoxes of e-learning
in higher education institutions. Section 3 reports on the success of blended e-learning.
Sections 4 is about the role of assessment in supporting education, section 5 emphasizes
online assessment limitations. Section 6 is about the credibility of online degrees. Finally the
paper concludes by advocating the introduction of summative assessment in online learning.
2. Paradoxes of e-learning Infrastructure in Higher
Nowadays the introduction of e-learning in higher education institutions becomes a necessity
and no longer an option. Universities are required to reshape their courses, professional
practice and administrative procedures to address the emerging demands of this new
approach. Volery (2000) argues that the fast expansion of the Internet and related
technological advancements, in conjunction with limited budgets and social demands for
improved access to higher education, has produced a substantial incentive for universities to
introduce e-learning courses. He added that if universities do not embrace e-learning
technology that is readily available, they will be left behind in the pursuit for globalization.
Ribiero (2002) argues that if universities are to maximize the potential of e-learning as a
means of delivering higher education, they must be fully aware of the critical success factors
concerned with introducing online models of education. Darling (2002) advocates that e-
learning is a valuable strategic business tool, that when implemented properly could
modernize higher education, but when deciding an effective strategy it is imperative to
consider that distance learning is a means to an end, not the end itself.
Among the objectives of introducing e-learning is to open opportunities before learners to
acquire knowledge with less cost. This easing should be a consequence of ease of adoption
and implementation and use of the new technology. Unfortunately, experts of the discipline
are reporting different experiences in real world situations.
Hartley (2000) details that any university incorporating e-learning initiatives into
organizational strategy must take into consideration the following: the financial constraints of
the strategy, suitability of the technology, implementation of the technology and the range of
e-learning requirements within the institution. If sufficient attention is given to all these
considerations, the university is in control of its online learning future.
Guri-Rosenblit (2005) reports that the paradoxes in managing e-learning relate to the
differential infrastructure and readiness of different types of higher education institutions to
utilize the technologies’ potential; the extent to which the ‘old’ distance education
technologies and the new technologies replace teaching/learning practices in classrooms; the
role of real problems, barriers and obstacles in applying new technologies; the impact of the
new technologies on different student clienteles; information acquisition versus knowledge
construction in higher education; cost considerations; the human capacity to adapt to new
Assessment Impact on Online Learning Credibility
learning styles in the face of rapid development of the technologies; and the organizational
cultures of the academic and corporate worlds.
Many commentators describe the relative benefits of e-learning in higher education;
however, there are ramifications for unprepared, technology focused institutions, when trying
to implement distance learning courses. O'Hearn (2000) contends that university structures
are rigid and unproven, regarding the incorporation of technological advancements.
Shirley (2001) reported that the increased investment in e-learning initiatives in Australian
universities appears to have occurred as a reaction to the view that higher education is in
crisis. The crises center around three issues; access to education, the cost of providing
education, and dwindling public revenues.
It is often argued that ICT is a sophisticated tool to design, develop, implement, and deliver
education programmes. Bennett and McIntyre (2004) argued that this is not the case in many
online programs. “It is often apparent that technical issues actually dictate the content and its
delivery. Online education has been strongly influenced by the availability of the latest
technology, and in many instances colleges and universities now find themselves locked into
expensive licensing contracts for software that on reflection does not seem ‘comfortable’ for
subject delivery or use by students, academics or administrators.”
3. Success of Blended e-learning
Very few e-learning observers drew a pessimistic perspective about e-learning and about
incorporating information and communication technologies into the education process in
general like Todd Oppenhemier (2003). However, most researchers and practitioners around
the world agreed upon the success of e-learning in many contexts including in higher
education. In blended learning the long history and traditions of face-to-face learning and
advancement of information and communication technologies in e-learning come together to
enhance the way knowledge is processed and captured. However, a number of concerned
people have reported some reservations about online learning credibility and its placement as
an alternative to face-to-face learning.
Institutional rationales for blended e-learning were highly contextualized and specific to each
institution. They included: flexibility of provision, supporting diversity, enhancing the
campus experience, operating in a global context and efficiency.
For instance the following study reports about some success of blended e-learning in the
United States. The Pew Foundation has sponsored a study to investigate how large
enrollment and introductory courses can be effectively redesigned using a blended format.
The program involved 30 institutions and 20 of which reported improved learning outcomes
while 10 reported no significant difference (Twigg, 2003). In addition, 18 of the study
institutions demonstrated a decrease in student drop-failure-withdrawal rates compared to the
face-to-face. Only sections out of the 24 institutions which measured reported changes in
The University of Central Florida has been involved in an ongoing evaluation of the Web and
web-enhanced courses since the inception of their Distributed Learning initiative in the fall
of 1996 (Dziuban, 2004). These evaluation studies indicate that on average, blended learning
courses have higher success rates and lower withdrawal rates than their comparable face-to-
face courses. The studies also show that student retention in blended courses is better than in
totally online courses and equivalent to that of face-to-face courses.
Qualitative research studies at the University of Wisconsin in Garnham and Kaleta (2002)
suggested that students learn more in blended courses than they do in comparable traditional
class sections. Teachers responsible for the blended sections report that students wrote better
papers, performed better on exams, produced higher quality projects, and were capable of
more meaningful discussions on course material. Spika (2002) added that the increased
opportunities for self-directed learning in the blended model helped students develop project
and time management skills.
In 2002, Harvard Business School faculty DeLacey and Leonard reported that students not
only learned more when online sessions were added to traditional courses, but student
interaction and satisfaction improved as well. Thomson and NETg released a 2003 white
paper that reported speedier performance on real world tasks by people who learned through
a blended strategy faster than those studying through e-learning alone (Rossett, 2003).
4. Assessment is a Key Success Factor for Curricula
As it becomes a general consensus that the new technology is improving the delivery of
course process. It facilitates life for learners in terms of time, cost and efforts. This agreement
has to take into consideration that courses are different in their contents and in the way they
are perceived by learner. The technology used to deliver mathematics is different from the
one to deliver medicine. Both of these are different from the technology to deliver grammar.
If this remark is not taken into consideration, we will reach a stage were qualified people are
enable to think freely to solve a given problem unless the problem is formulated in true-false
or multi-choice questions model.
In addition to the above remark, using ICT to teach some disciplines such arts, painting,
calligraphy and the like is impractical. Also, courses involving practical work can not be
delivered entirely online.
The other important factor that has been slightly treated in the e-learning literature is the
assessment component. Moreover, whenever assessment is referred to, students’ grading is
explicitly discarded from the discussion.
Evidently, assessment is a key success factor for any curriculum. No one may reasonably
argue that learning in general and e-learning in particular can achieve its goals without
assessment; and more precisely, without student learning assessment. The objectives of
student assessment can be classified into two main categories: (1) assessment to evaluate the
learning process in order to discover weaknesses that require some remedy, or to enhance the
quality of such a process, (2) assessment of the outcomes of academic programs which offer
In the former case, authentication is not a strong requirement as long as learners are not
expected to cheat themselves in the first place. Their participation is to improve the learning
process without any influence whatsoever on their learning progress. In the latter case,
Assessment Impact on Online Learning Credibility
learners’ perception is the subject matter of the assessment and by consequence it requires
Assessment is the process used to collect information about student progress toward
educational goals. The particular form of an assessment depends on what is being assessed
and on what the outcomes of the assessment will be applied to. Assessments can range from
small-scale assessments that teachers use in the classroom to obtain day-to-day information
about student progress; through medium-scale assessments that used to evaluate the
effectiveness of schools or educational programs; all the way to large-scale assessments that
state or national bodies use to assess the degree to which students have met large educational
Assessment can have many different forms. Besides the traditional examination process in
which students are tested by teachers there are:
(1) Group assessment where teams assess the work of their fellows.
(2) Peer assessment involves students assessing the performance of other students.
(3) Self assessment where a student assesses his/her own progress.
Assessment can be either summative or formative. The summative assessment is a means to
gauge, at a particular point in time, student learning relative to content standards. Although
the information that is gleaned from this type of assessment is important, it can only help in
evaluating certain aspects of the learning process because they are spread out and occur after
instruction every few weeks, months, or once a year. Summative assessments are tools to
help evaluate the effectiveness of programs, institution improvement goals, alignment of
curriculum, or student placement in specific programs.
Formative Assessment is part of the instructional process. When incorporated into classroom
practice, it provides the information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are
happening. In this sense, formative assessment informs both teachers and students about
student understanding at a point when timely adjustments can be made. These adjustments
help to ensure that students achieve targeted standards-based learning goals within a set time
Both summative and formative assessments complement each other for achieving the
evaluation of students’ learning as well as improving programs quality.
For the purpose of evaluating academic programs, the programs are considered to be a set of
courses. Each course is subdivided into parts which include a number of chapters. Weights
are assigned to the different parts of the course. Summative and formative assessments are
spread along the parts of the course. Students’ grades are summarized and checked against
the different weighted parts of the course. Students’ marks obtained in the different courses
parts are aligned with course objectives. Then students’ achievements in the different courses
are aligned with the program objectives. Such activities are used as a gauge to restructuring
courses and place more attention on some of its parts than others, and consequently
ameliorate the program quality.
In their project to examine the characteristics of assessment environments in three contrasting
universities in each of three contrasting disciplines, and relating these characteristics to
several features of students’ learning responses Gibbs and Dunbat-Goddet (2007) observed
that students’ experience was negative in most respects when there was a high volume of
summative assessment of a wide variety of kinds, and little formative-only assessment or oral
feedback. Even though they ascertain that where both summative and formative assessment
was low, student effort and coverage of the syllabus was low.
While summative assessment is distinguished to allow students to be highly selective in the
components of the syllabus they actually study, and highly selective about what they put their
time into, it is an important educational component which is missing from online learning.
Introducing summative assessment in online learning sustains the credibility of online
learning in the eyes of employers.
5. Online Assessment Limitations
Conole and Warburton (2005) assert that when online assessment (e-assessment) tasks are
designed with due care and attention, research suggests that it is possible to assess the
deepest levels of student learning. Such a statement requires the distinction between two
types of assessments; formative and summative. Whenever formative assessment is
considered, there is no difference between traditional and online assessments.
When talking about summative assessment in real-world situations the following points need
to be considered:
(1) Tests done using computers are limited to true-false or multi-choice questions. This
question pattern cannot be adopted for all subjects in the curriculum. It can be used to
gauge students’ ability to answer questions relevant to grammar rules, mathematical
expressions evaluation, functionalities of a given device, and the like. However, it falls
short to cope with reasoning questions like proving a mathematical theorem, finding a
logical error in a computer program, or evaluating the quality of a literature essay.
(2) The other important side of the question is the credibility of such an assessment. If
security of online transactions is one of the challenging subjects in our day-to-day
activities, how are exams held online?
(3) It may be arguable that the examinee is sitting in front of a camera and answering
questions online. This is true; but the questions can be answered and posted through a
keyboard and a mouse operated by someone else.
(4) It can be said that the examinee is answering by mobile phone and authenticated by
his/her voice. This is also true, but the answers can be exposed to him/her by a third
In their guidebook for e-Learning Accreditation Standards (CAA, 2004), the Academic
Accreditation Commission in the UAE indicates that the following quality criteria should be
met when online assessment is to take place:
(1) Integrity: This can be achieved by ensuring that students do not use unfair means during
an assessment. In the on-line environment, we can ensure this by blocking access to web
sites that might provide information for students to answers the questions.
(2) Security: This can be achieved by ensuring that unauthorized individuals are not
permitted access to assessment questions and results. We can ensure this by having
passwords that determine access to the tests in the on-line medium.
Assessment Impact on Online Learning Credibility
(3) Availability: This can be achieved by ensuring that while the assessment is being
administered, access to the assessment and the required resources is continuously
The CAA (CAA, 2004) developed appropriate guidelines to implement measures aimed at
ensuring the above criteria for traditional assessment
(1) preventing individuals who do not carry valid identity cards from entering the
(2) ensuring that students do not discuss questions
(3) preventing access to machines such as copiers and scanners
(4) preventing access to the Internet and other technology resources and tools
(5) developing multiple assessment questions mapping to each learning objective, and
preparing alternative examinations
Evidently, none of the above criteria can be enforced for summative online assessment. The
use of e-assessment raises issues on verification of student identity, and appropriate measures
need to be in place to ensure an absence of impersonation or plagiarism. Cross-referencing
and correlation analysis between performance on written examinations and continuous
assessment may be undertaken. Examination processes should verify attainment of learning
objectives by a person who is identifiable as the person registered for the course.
Institutions offering programmes internationally should ensure that their mechanisms for
verification of identity can be operated in all territories in which they register students.
Carefully investigating the assessment in both face-to-face and online leaning, it is evident
that formative assessment can have the same content as well as the same achievements in
both types of learning; furthermore the use of technology in online learning may provide for
well organized assessment. The only distinction in this context is whereas summative
assessment is an essential component in traditional learning it is not taken seriously in online
learning. This difference entails the credibility diminution of online degrees.
For the purpose of boosting their online degrees credibility, higher education institutions are
required to plan for periodically held examinations at approved centers where all of the above
criteria are satisfied.
6. Online Degrees in the Eyes of Employers
Despite the increasing interest in pursuing an online degree toward obtaining additional
credentials, the economic climate causes students to place a high premium on whether online
degrees translate into jobs or careers. This translation is dependent on the current hiring
practices that are influenced by the employers’ views.
The following is a typical outcome of recent studies of how employers look at the type of
Adams and DeFleur (2006) studied the perceptions about online bachelor’s degrees in the
entry-level position hiring process. They compared companies’ perception to three types of
degrees: traditional bachelor degree, bachelor degree achieved through a mix of delivery
methods and some courses taken face-to-face and others taken online, and bachelor degree
taken from a virtual university, i.e. completely online. The completed 269 surveys were then
analyzed. The findings suggest that when companies attempted to fill management or entry-
level positions in accounting, business, engineering, and information technology, 96 percent
indicated that they would choose the candidate with a traditional degree. When comparing
traditional degree to hybrid delivery, 75 percent would still prefer traditional over the hybrid.
In addition, 72 percent answered “yes” to the question whether the type of degree makes a
difference in the decision to select a candidate. The quantitative findings further suggested
that concerns such as accreditation, perceived interaction among peers and professor, quality,
skills, and work experience were the most predominant reasons not to hire an online
The study by Guendoo (2008) involved 52 administrators of the largest 145 community
colleges in the United States found that they did not view the online degree as a hindrance to
a recipient’s chances for employment. It is important to note that almost all the respondents
had experience with taking and/or teaching online courses. “One can predict that the gap in
perception between the subjects of this study (community college leaders) and those of the
Adams and DeFleur (2006) study for traditional four-year colleges will continue to close
In (Chronicle, 2007), Jonathan Adams, an associate professor at Florida State University's
College of Communication sent surveys to hiring managers around the country in 2005,
asking them to choose between two similarly qualified fictional applicants - one with a
traditional degree and one with a degree from an online institution. Out of 269 responses, 96
percent chose the applicant with the traditional degree. Hiring managers perceive the online
degrees to be of a lower quality.
Besides these types of study, we must point out that employers are not education specialists;
and that their opinions of the type of earned degrees are based on the information available
on the market. The other fact is that some universities termed "Degree Mills" award diplomas
not worth much more than the paper they are printed on.
Columbaro and Monaghan (2009) reported that, throughout empirical studies, potential
employers are reticent about accepting online degree credentials because of
• lack of face-to-face interactions,
• increased potential for academic dishonesty,
• association with diploma mills,
• concerns about online students’ true commitment.
On the other hand, from empirical studies and popular media, conditions that could influence
online degree acceptance in the hiring process were:
• name recognition/reputation of the degree-granting institution,
• appropriate level and type of accreditation,
• perception that online graduates were required to be more self-directed and disciplined,
• candidates’ relevant work experiences,
• and whether the online graduates were being considered for promotion within an
organization or if they were competing for new positions elsewhere or in a new field.
Even though e-learning strives to achieve what conventional learning is doing: (a) e-learning
is providing the same courses content as conventional learning does, (b) e-learning tries to
provide the same qualifications as conventional learning does, and (c) the difference between
the two approaches of learning is on how to achieve these goals, the above studies show that
Assessment Impact on Online Learning Credibility
some employers in the advanced world are still suspicious about online degrees. In other
parts of the world online degrees holders are victims of the publicity of “university mills”.
Learning is one of our important life issues that can benefit from the cutting edge
technologies. Information and communication technology is a valuable tool that improves the
learning process if used efficiently. In online learning, learners are freed from many
constraints hindering them from fulfilling their will to achieve higher levels of knowledge
and, consequently, improve their job positions. They can learn anywhere, anytime, and at
their own pace. In addition, the required cost for earning degrees can be minimized. This is
the positive side of the picture.
On the other hand, excessive confidence towards information and communication
technologies in a learning discipline may lead to a situation similar to the dot-com burst that
happened in the late 2000. The period from 1990-2000 was marked by the founding of a
group of new Internet-based companies commonly referred to as dot-coms. Companies were
seeing their stock prices raise if they simply added an "e-" prefix to their name and/or a
".com" to the end. The bubble caused an overvaluation of the companies. This resulted in the
burst of the bubble which in turn resulted in the worth of shares becoming a small fraction of
their value at the height of the boom, and many companies went out of business. If such a
scenario is reproduced in the learning discipline, we will get to a point where a huge number
of degrees are offered to people who do not participate in any learning activity.
To preserve the educational standards on the one hand, and guarantee confidence in online
learning on the other, summative assessment for online learning should be held at some
points in time for instance twice per semester, at specific locations under the vigilance of
teachers, whatever the tools used to educate and to evaluate.
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