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Online Course Reviews: Luxury or Necessity?

Online Course Reviews: Luxury or Necessity?

Written by Brian Udermann, Ph.D

Article originally appeared in the publication Distance Education Report.

Online learning, at least what most of us think of as online learning today, has been around since the early 1990s or so. Since that time, there has been steady and significant growth in online course and program offerings.

Regrettably, some administrators and institutions forge ahead with online initiatives for the wrong reasons. They see other institutions expanding in this area and think they must as well. Or they see online education as a way to generate significant additional revenue streams. Sometimes in these situations, quality is an afterthought and is not what is driving the initiatives.

One consistent strategy institutions use to ensure and enhance the overall quality of their online courses is to have a process in place to review those courses and provide feedback to the faculty who develop them. However, I’ve been an online administrator for the past seven or eight years, and I can say that I’ve seen considerable variation in what is used to review the quality of online courses and exactly how those reviews are conducted.

For example, some institutions use review rubrics or guidelines that they pay for or subscribe to, such as Quality Matters. Other institutions have created their own rubrics or design standards, such as the California State University Chico Rubric for Online Instruction or the Penn State Quality Assurance eLearning Design Standards.

Approximately five years ago my institution created its own course review guidelines, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Online Course Evaluation Guidelines. We decided to create our own review guidelines because we then had complete control of what was and wasn’t included in them, and we had the ability to develop something that really fit with our goals and met our needs.

There is also considerable variation in how institutions use course review rubrics or design standards. Some simply provide the standards to faculty who are designing and developing online courses, to help guide them in their course development process. Other institutions require a course review with a minimal “passing” grade or score before a faculty member can offer and teach an online course. Other institutions offer reviews on a voluntary basis and conduct the reviews simply to provide helpful and productive feedback to faculty who have developed an online class.

My institution provides funding for faculty to develop online courses, and an online course review is required as documentation that a course has been fully developed prior to payment being received. Additionally, my institution’s three-week online instructor training course is designed around our online course evaluation guidelines.

There is even considerable variation in regards to who conducts online course reviews. Some schools completely outsource the process, so no one on campus is involved in the reviews. At some institutions, faculty are called upon to conduct online course peer-reviews for each other; at still other institutions, instructional designers, instructional technologists, department chairs, or directors of teaching and learning centers conduct the reviews.

One of the benefits of having review guidelines available to your faculty is that course developers will have a road map or some direction to help them get started. Something I commonly hear from faculty who are interested in online teaching is, “I just have no idea how to get started.” Review or design guidelines can help alleviate some of the fear and possible feelings of being overwhelmed.

Another benefit of having course review guidelines in place is that the consistency and quality of your online courses will improve. The growth or number of online courses we offer at my institution has never been our focus; our focus has always been on quality. I’d be willing to wager that our online course review process is one of the top two or three factors that has positively impacted the quality of online courses our faculty offer.

As with most things you do, there can be some challenges instituting and executing course reviews on your campus. Someone will have to oversee the logistics of the reviews. When will they be scheduled? Who will conduct them? How will they be documented? How will the information be shared with the faculty member? Don’t underestimate the time it can take to do this, especially if you conduct a significant number of reviews.

Also, it has been my experience that most faculty are very receptive to and appreciative of the feedback they are given after a course review; at least, I can say this is true for my institution. However, this is not true for all faculty. I remember conducting an online course review a few years ago and providing feedback to a faculty member who was in no way happy that we provided some suggestions for improvements to his online course. Keep in mind this individual had never taught an online course before. It wasn’t long before I received what I would call a “forceful” phone call from a department chair who was questioning why I would be questioning the autonomy of one of their faculty member’s ability to teach their online course however they wanted. However, everything ultimately worked out fine.

I’d like to share one strategy we have been using at my institution for our online course reviews that has worked really well. We invite faculty members to be present during the reviews; I’m not aware of any other institutions that are doing this. With the faculty member present, the review becomes more of a cordial discussion and not so much of a formal evaluation. The faculty member is free to ask questions or explain why she did certain things. The reviewers—our two instructional designers and I—can also ask questions for clarification as to why things were done a certain way. The feedback from faculty regarding this method of course review has been tremendous!

In addition to online course standards and reviews becoming more commonplace, colleges and universities are starting to use established standards and guidelines to evaluate the overall quality of online education programs. Two examples of this are Sloan-C’s Quality Scorecard: Criteria for Excellence in the Administration of Online Programs and The United States Distance Learning Association’s Quality Standards Certification process. This will likely be the topic of a future article!

If you don’t have an online course review process in place at your institution, I would strongly encourage you to call a meeting with the appropriate personnel on campus and start that conversation.

And coming back around to the title of this column: I think having an online course review process in place at your institution is a necessity and will positively impact the quality of your online courses!