A Conversation About Online Course Quality

online course qualityHow do you define quality? It’s a word we often hear in the context of online education, and while we can all probably agree about its importance, we may not describe it in the same ways. Some of the current questions about online course quality include:

“How can we know courses are of high quality?”
“What are the components of a high quality course?”

I have this exchange often with Amy Hilbelink, a colleague of mine and an online academic operations consultant. Our ideas and perspectives change over the years as we each move through different positions and responsibilities in the industry – from Course Designer and Project Manager to Dean and Instructor.

We recently presented some of our experiences at The Sloan Consortium’s Annual Conference on Online Learning, and focused our attention on faculty participation in decisions about course design. This session sparked further discussion about the different ways to address issues of quality in both the design and delivery of online courses.

Designing and Evaluating Quality

The future of online education continues to evolve and expand with a variety of options ranging from single courses, to full degree programs, and open courses like MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). According to the Babson Survey Research Group’s 2012 survey of more than 2800 academic leaders, “the proportion of [those] who say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy is at a new high of 69.1%.”

As higher education institutions of all types, for-profit and not-for-profit, decide to increase their online learning offerings, the process of creating an online course – either a new course or an online version of one already taught in a face-to-face format – can be underestimated in terms of the time, resources, and expertise required. Fortunately there are a number of existing guidelines that can be used to guide our work as designers and instructors, as well as inform prospective students.


The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) describes the goal of the accreditation process as a way “to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” The USDOE doesn’t grant accreditation, but does recognize agencies that evaluate and accredit academic institutions and programs. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) is just one of these recognized agencies. Take a closer look at some of the standards included in a SACS accreditation review:

  • Educational programs – academics and learner support
  • Institutional effectiveness – outcomes and evidence of improvement
  • Faculty – qualifications and roles
  • Library and other learning resources – services and staff
  • Student affairs and services – student rights and recordkeeping
  • Financial resources – financial aid, funding, stability

Quality Matters

The Quality Matters (QM) Program rubric was developed to “evaluate the design of online and blended courses.” There are eight general standards of quality (listed below) with 41 more specific elements that guide a trained reviewers examination of a course:

  • Course overview and introduction
  • Learning objectives or competencies
  • Assessment and measurement (of learning)
  • Instructional materials
  • Learner interaction and engagement
  • Course technology
  • Learner support
  • Accessibility

Quality Scorecard

At the institutional level, the Quality Scorecard can be used “for measuring and quantifying elements of quality within online education programs in higher education.” This system, provided by The Sloan Consortium, includes 70 quality indicators organized in the following nine categories:

  • Institutional support
  • Technology support
  • Course development and instructional design
  • Course structure
  • Teaching and learning
  • Social and student engagement
  • Faculty support
  • Student support
  • Evaluation and Assessment

Rubric for Online Instruction

California State University, Chico developed its own online course rubric, which is openly shared, as a way to address the institution’s “first strategic priority … to create and enhance high quality learning environments.” The instrument includes items organized under these six primary domains:

  • Learner and support resources
  • Online organization and design
  • Instructional design and delivery
  • Assessment and evaluation of student learning
  • Innovative teaching with technology
  • Faculty use of student feedback

There are additional quality guidelines out there, such as the International Association for K-12 Online Learning’s (iNACOL) National Quality Standards, with new models and checklists likely in development as I write this. There is certainly overlap across all of these approaches. Hilbelink and I found that to be true even in our comparison of just Quality Matters and the Quality Scorecard.

Attendees at our conference session also shared their experiences related to modifying some of the existing quality metrics for use by their institutions and academic programs, as well as creating policies and procedures from scratch in-house to lead their development of online learning options.

Get Involved in Quality Discussions

No matter your role in online education, the need to create and ensure high levels of value is a critical part of what we do. From my perspective, it’s all about making the most of the opportunity that online education allows, creating a best possible environment for students in any given course or program. How can you get involved in conversations about quality?


  • Research accreditation. Know what type of accreditation your institution and program may have, as well as which agencies grant the status. Be prepared to describe the quality level of your courses and program to employers in terms of accreditation as well as your learning experiences.
  • Ask about quality measures. Were your online courses and programs designed using specific rubrics or other guidelines? How is your institution taking quality into consideration?
  • Complete your course evaluations. This is just one way you can provide input on the course design process, informing your instructors and designers about suggested revisions. Help them to improve the quality of your courses for future students.
  • Look for ways to be part of design and development activities. It’s still rare for students to join design teams and curriculum committees, but it does happen. During the Sloan conference session, instructional designers expressed an interest in getting more students involved in what they do.


  • Participate in course review and revision process. Use the opportunities provided by your institution to provide feedback on what is working and not working from your perspective. Whether it’s serving as a subject matter expert to help create a new course, providing periodic evaluation of an existing course, or preparing your face-to-face course for online delivery, keep quality in mind.
  • Review course evaluations. Take time to consider the comments and suggestions submitted by your online students, and identify specific improvements that may be possible to implement after each term.
  • Connect with your institution’s instructional support providers. Faculty development, technical support, and other resource teams are often available to assist in the design, review, and revision of your courses. Explore existing quality standards and how they might be used to further enhance the experience for students.

As the nature of online learning and online learners changes, so will the ways in which we measure what instructional strategies and components are most effective in our courses. We may never have one cohesive definition of quality, and I think that’s okay, but it is possible to develop an approach that conveys an institution or program’s priorities and promotes a valuable learning experience.

What does quality mean to you? Share your ideas and elements you might add to the existing frameworks.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog