This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.
When talking about online education, quality can be hard to define. This should come as no surprise, though. Institutions have been struggling for years to define quality in face-to-face courses.
Consider this dictionary definition of quality:
The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.
Institutions may attempt to measure the quality of online courses and programs in a variety of ways, including student and faculty satisfaction data, retention rates, student evaluations of teaching, student learning outcomes for a course, peer (instructor) evaluations of teaching, course design, student graduation or exit surveys, employer surveys, etc.
There is no question that institutions have been placing more emphasis on the quality of their online programing in the last five to ten years. Here are some thoughts of an online administrator in response to that new interest—principles that I’ve found to be important in maintaining quality in online courses.
1. Hire individuals with pedagogical and technological expertise to assist faculty.
As institutions continue to expand the number of online courses and degree programs they offer, I’m always surprised to learn that some colleges and universities still do not employ appropriate personnel to help faculty design and develop online courses. These individuals’ job titles may vary: instructional designer, instructional technologist, instructional media specialist, eLearning designer, multimedia designer, instructional systems designer, and many more.
I became the director of online education at my institution in 2007, and by 2009 we hired our first instructional designer; in 2011 we hired our second, and we had approval to hire a third in 2013. (Sadly, budget cuts prevented that hire.) I can say without reservation that our instructional designers have been the driving force behind improving the quality of online programming on our campus.
Our instructional designers promote quality course design and facilitation with faculty in a variety of ways, including frequent scheduled and drop-in one-on-one consultations, workshops and seminars, and offering a three-week online instructor training course.
2. Encourage consistency in course design and development.
A number of years ago while reviewing online student survey data from my institution, I noticed an interesting theme in student comments: Students appreciated how their online courses were beginning to have a more consistent look and were incorporating many of the same tools within our learning management system.
For example, to help promote consistency across our online courses, we created optional templates. Faculty may choose to use an online course syllabus template with approximately 25 sections that include instructor information, prerequisites, materials and tools, learning objectives, course outline and schedule, course expectations, netiquette, how to succeed as an online learner, and student support services.
Our online courses are offered in varying lengths, so we now also have 14-week, 7-week, and 4-week course templates that have pre-populated modules or items within the content, dropbox, discussion, and grades areas so faculty simply have to change the names of these items and not go through the entire process of repeatedly creating them. We do not require faculty to utilize these templates; we simply make them available. However, many faculty do choose to use them.
3. Implement a quality online course review process.
Many institutions are now reviewing the quality of the online courses their faculty develop. Some institutions employ a subscription service such as Quality Matters; others use publicly available quality review rubrics. It also is becoming more common for institutions to create their own, something we did five to six years ago.
At some institutions, these quality course reviews are required prior to an instructor’s being able to offer an online class. At institutions such as mine, where faculty receive funding to develop online courses, a course review may be required to document that a course has been fully developed prior to faculty receiving payment. And some institutions utilize course reviews simply as a way to provide feedback to faculty about online course design and development.
One item to consider when implementing online course reviews at your institution is who will be conducting the reviews. Sometimes peer instructors conduct the reviews; sometimes instructional designers and instructional technologists are involved; and sometimes teaching center personnel or even department chairs are in charge of the review process.
At my institution, we conduct from 40 to 45 quality reviews a year for online courses. (Don’t underestimate the logistics involved in this undertaking, as these reviews can be time- and energy-intensive.) Following a course review, we also bring in the faculty member and go through the review with that person present, a unique practice.
Providing feedback in person — both positive as well as recommendations for improvements — allows faculty members to explain why they did certain things and facilitates interaction between faculty and our instructional design team. On occasion, faculty can be resistant to receiving recommendations related to course improvements; however, the vast majority of our faculty report that they appreciate these in-person reviews.
Measuring and documenting the quality of online courses and degree programs can be a complex and time-consuming undertaking, but it is something that more and more institutions are pursuing. If your institution has not yet had a discussion about what quality online programming looks like and how it can be measured, I encourage you to gather the appropriate stakeholders (students, faculty, instructional designers, administrators, etc.) and initiate that process. Doing so will help build and ultimately sustain a culture of quality surrounding online programming at your institution.