The Importance of Course Quality Standards in Online Education

Course quality is an essential consideration in the instructional design process. However, quality can be an abstract concept. Two different people may look at the same course, and one may say it is high quality and the other may not. And how can you compare the quality of a nursing course to an English literature course?

To make the idea of quality more concrete and measurable across courses, institutions should select a set of criteria that they will use to evaluate their courses. They might select an existing set of criteria or create their own; either way, having set quality standards offers several important and valuable benefits.

Defining Course Quality Standards

Course quality standards are a valuable component to instructional design because they provide specific benchmarks and requirements to guide course writers as they consider which materials they will use to build the final product. Much the way students refer to rubrics when completing assignments, course quality standards serve to inform course writers on both industry best practice and requirements and recommendations specific to their institution.

Some examples of widely known course quality rubrics include Quality Matters, the OLC Quality Scorecard, and the Quality Online Course Initiative Rubric through the Illinois Online Network (ION). In addition, when working with an instructional designer, course writers can receive specific recommendations regarding the standards they’re expected to meet, and assistance to meet those standards.

Benefits of Using Course Quality Standards

Using course quality standards as part of the instructional design process has several benefits.

  • Emphasis on the institution’s unique value add: By establishing the standards that each individual course should meet, institutions can hone in on the individual criteria points that are most valuable to them and that they wish to be universally reflected in their online course offerings.
  • Consistency across the student experience: Course quality standards help to establish consistency in both expectations of faculty members and the student experience. By holding course writers to a set of established criteria, institutions help to ensure that each course writer will develop a course comparable in quality to any other, and students will receive an equitable experience as they move from course to course across programs.
  • Focused course revisions: Established requirements regarding course quality help institutions to identify specific areas for improvement within courses and programs and to provide direction in how to address those items.

How to Adopt Course Quality Standards

Although the process will look different at every institution, in general institutions will need to take the following actions when selecting and implementing a set of quality standards.

  1. First, institutions must decide whether they will create their own standards or base their standards on popular rubrics such as Quality Matters, the OLC Quality Scorecard, or the Quality Online Course Initiative Rubric. Institutions should examine existing standards related to industry trends and consider what additional criteria are most valuable to them.
  2. Even if an institution chooses an existing set of standards, some programs may find that certain criteria points do not fit their vision. Thus, institutions should customize any quality standards to suit their needs. Doing so ensures that an institution’s brand is folded into their curriculum in a meaningful way, accounting for their authentic and unique components and establishing a way to measure them.
  3. Once an institution settles on their criteria, administrators need to take time to communicate and discuss the standards with faculty members and course writers to help identify any points of confusion and to create buy-in and engagement.
  4. After implementing the course quality standards, institutions should gather feedback from course writers and instructors. If they find that the standards and program objectives do not align, institutions should make any necessary revisions to bring everything into alignment while still maintaining consistency in quality across programs.

Case Study

Let’s look at an example of an institution that recently went through the process of adopting quality standards. After researching several sources, Cherry Tree University combined several standards based on industry trends and adopted them for all their online programs. A year after adopting these standards, instructors from one program in the institution began to express that some of those standards did not match their vision for the presentation of the content, so Cherry Tree decided to customize their standards further.

First, the program instructors identified the specific standards that they felt were least compatible with their content. For example, because the program focuses on research and writing evaluations of that research, the instructors decided not to require automatically scored assessments. Instead, they required a written assignment in each lesson that provided students with choice of topic and focus.

Cherry Tree then had to ensure that quality expectations remained fair and consistent for all course writers even though this individual program now used different lesson assessments. Because the university used a numeric review system, they found a way to score the inclusion of written assignments the same way they did automatically scored assessments in other courses.

This more customized approach to course quality standards not only assisted the program’s leaders in evaluating course quality in a more meaningful way, but also supported course writers and instructional designers in making recommendations for revisions and improvements over time.

Conclusion

Course quality standards are a valuable component in the instructional design process. They help guide course writers and identify needed improvements within courses and programs, and they create consistency in both faculty expectations and the student experience. In addition, course quality standards provide institutions with the opportunity to identify and select standards that best reflect their brand, mission, and values in online education.

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