This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.
The concept of measuring quality in online education can be difficult, because students, instructors and administrators might have different ideas of what quality means. Measuring quality for one particular online course is fairly commonplace and has been done for the past 10–15 years. Quality reviews at the program or institutional level are less common but are increasing.
But there are multiple reasons why institutions might pursue a quality review at the program or institutional level. Such a review certainly could help an institution identify strengths and weaknesses, which in turn could help guide resource allocation in areas such as professional development opportunities for faculty, efforts to improve retention of online learners, effective use of technology, or ensuring that online courses are accessible for all learners.
In addition, more institutions are developing strategic plans for the role of online education. A program or institution-wide review can help guide strategic planning efforts and could help identify future priorities and initiatives related to online education. Regional accreditors are showing greater interest in evaluating and assessing the overall quality of an institution’s distance education offerings, so an institution-wide quality review could be extremely valuable in helping plan and prepare for that type of accreditation visit and review.
Institutionwide reviews can also help online administrators learn more about other areas of their campus that contribute to the success of online instructors and online learners. I recently lead an effort on my campus to complete the Online Learning Consortium Quality Scorecard (more on the Scorecard in a bit). Following that process, I was more aware of how units and offices such as the library, records and registration, information technology services, the tutoring center, financial aid, admissions, career services, the counseling center, student life, and our teaching center contribute to the overall success of online learners and instructors.
I do feel there is great value in having experts from outside of your institution take an objective look at the policies, procedures, and the overall infrastructure in place for online education on your campus. That can occur with an institution-wide review. In addition, if an institution has been doing a good job of focusing on the quality of their online programming, a review could help reinforce that they have been doing the right thing.
Throughout the rest of this article, I’ll discuss a number of resources that can serve as guiding documents as well as options for more formal quality reviews.
• Quality on the line: Benchmarks for success in internet-based distance education.
In 2000, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, with support from Blackboard and the National Education Association, released “Quality on the line: Benchmarks for success in internet-based distance education.” This document consists of 24 benchmarks considered essential for ensuring excellence and quality in internet-based learning, broken down into seven categories:
1. Institutional Support Benchmarks
2. Course Development Benchmarks
3. Teaching and Learning Benchmarks
4. Course Structure Benchmarks
5. Student Support Benchmarks
6. Faculty Support Benchmarks
7. Evaluation and Assessment Benchmarks
• Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership.
The Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership are from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). The Hallmarks document was created in 2014; it focuses on what constitutes successful online leadership and includes seven hallmarks or facets of leadership. For each facet, information is provided in relation to goals, key elements and key performance indicators, and it includes implementation suggestions. The seven hallmarks include:
1. Advocacy and Leadership within the University
2. Entrepreneurial initiatives
3. Faculty support
4. Student support
5. Digital technology
6. External advocacy and leadership beyond the university
• National Standards for Quality Online Programs.
The National Standards for Quality Online Programs are from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. (iNACOL). According to iNACOL, the standards focus on what is needed for a quality online program and include 48 guidelines in four primary areas:
1. Institutional standards
2. Teaching and learning standards
3. Support standards
4. Evaluation standards
Options for formal review
• Online Learning Consortium Quality Scorecard – Criteria for Excellence in the Administration of Online Programs.
The OLC Quality Scorecard review can be used for a single program or an entire institutionwide review. The scorecard consists of 75 quality indicators with 0–3 points assigned per indicator. If an institution achieves a score of 202 points, it earns OLC’s exemplary program logo to display on its website. Institutions complete and submit a self-study that is evaluated by three reviewers who provide feedback and recommendations within 3–4 weeks. Institutions then have two months to implement the recommendations or provide additional evidence and artifacts if they wish to improve their score. The 75 quality indicators are spread over 9 areas:
1. Institutional support
2. Technology support
3. Course development and instructional design
4. Course structure
5. Teaching and learning
6. Social and student engagement
7. Faculty support
8. Student support
9. Evaluations and assessment
• United States Distance Learning Association’s Distance Learning Quality Standards Certification.
In order to complete the USDLA’s Quality Standards Certification process, an online program has to have been in existence for a minimum of two years. The program submits a self-study, but there is also an on-site visit that is part of the process. If an institution successfully achieves certification, it lasts for five years; however, there are annual reviews. The distance learning quality standards include 117 standards in five standards-of-practice areas:
1. Provider Prerequisites
2. Administration, Leadership, and Management
3. Learner Affairs
4. Teaching and Learning
Note: For information on the quality standards certification contact the USDLA at 617.399.1770.
Making the decision to undergo a program or institution-wide quality review will likely have resource and workload implications. Involving appropriate stakeholders early in the conversation is important. I suggest creating a team of institutional personnel to write the self-study and gather appropriate evidence and documentation
As someone who has led the effort to complete one of these reviews, I highly recommend the process.