It can be difficult to discuss the quality of online education as what constitutes quality is a complex issue and no single agreed-upon definition exists. Many factors can come into play when discussing the quality of online offerings, such as course design and facilitation, student academic achievement, student and faculty satisfaction, and retention. I’ve served as the director of online education at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse since 2007, and I believe the five strategies outlined in this article have helped us elevate the quality of our online courses and programs.
Faculty often say that a major barrier to developing and teaching online courses is that they don’t feel prepared to do so. One way to counter that concern is to provide high-quality professional development opportunities related to online learning. This can be done in a variety of ways—for instance, by offering one-on-one consultations with faculty, workshops through an institution’s teaching center, or an online instructor training course. Some institutions also have mentoring programs in which experienced online instructors mentor those just getting started teaching online. Another strategy we often recommend to faculty who are exploring the idea of teaching online is to see whether a colleague who is a veteran online instructor would be willing to add them to an existing online course. This gives the inexperienced faculty member a chance to see, for example, how an online course is set up and how an experienced online instructor successfully facilitates a course, and it can alleviate some of the fears or concerns new online instructors might have. Institutions will also want to discuss whether they will create these professional development opportunities in-house, use outside vendors, or do both.
Over the past five to 10 years, colleges and universities have been expanding the number of online courses and degree programs they offer. Part of what has made this expansion possible is the hiring of individuals to guide and train faculty on the best practices of online course development and facilitation. The titles of these support personnel are varied and can include instructional designer, instructional technologist, media specialist, e-learning coach, e-learning developer, and learning strategist, among others. I’ve chaired five search and screen committees over the past 10 years to hire five instructional designers at my institution and will offer the following recommendation: Be clear on why the institution it is hiring a faculty support professional and what that person will be doing. Will their primary role consist of staying in their office for much of the day and building online course content? So, more of a production specialist. Will their role be to train faculty through one-on-one interactions, workshops, and training courses? In that case, they will likely have much more interaction with faculty. It’s also important during the hiring process that the support professional is clear on what will be expected of them should they accept a position at the institution.
Another strategy to help ensure the quality of online courses is to utilize a course review process prior to online classes being taught. A variety of course review rubrics exist; some, such as Quality Matters, are fee based, while others are openly available. It is also becoming increasingly common for institutions to create their own course review standards or guidelines. It is important to determine who will do the reviews. Sometimes reviews are done by faculty peers, sometimes by department chairs, and other times by faculty support personnel such as instructional designers. Often the results or feedback from a course review are shared with faculty in writing, but I suggest scheduling a face-to-face meeting with faculty to discuss the results of a review. We do approximately 40 online course reviews per year at my institution; for each review, two instructional designers and I meet with the faculty member and go through our course evaluation guidelines, share what we thought the instructor did well in regard to course development, and usually offer the instructor a half dozen or so suggestions or recommendations for revisions or improvements.
Reviewing online courses for quality prior to their being offered has occurred since the mid-1990s and become somewhat commonplace in higher education. While program- and institution-wide quality reviews are relatively new, they are starting to increase in frequency. A program- or institution-wide quality review is much more comprehensive in nature and often examines overarching areas such as institutional and administrative support for online learning, technology infrastructure, course design and development, learner support services, faculty support and development, and evaluation and assessment. These reviews can help university personnel identify strengths and weaknesses specific to online learning, which can be helpful in identifying new initiatives or priorities to consider. These reviews can also prove beneficial when determining resource allocation, creating an online education strategic plan, or preparing for a regional accreditation visit. Here are some options for a program- or institution-wide quality review:
Over the past 12 years, I’ve interacted with many university administrators who felt like they were falling behind other institutions in the number of online courses and programs they offered. Frequently, the conversation would turn to revenue generation and how much money these institutions were “missing out on” because of a lack of online programming. These administrators, sometimes in a panicked state, often forged ahead with large online education initiatives without having the necessary pedagogical, technological, or administrative infrastructure in place to support online learning. Having worked in higher education for the past 20 years as both a faculty member and an administrator, I’ve observed that faculty are a pretty perceptive bunch. They can usually deduce when the motivation for expanding online learning is simply to generate more revenue, and that is not always well received. Taking the necessary steps to ensure the quality of online programming, a number of which are outlined in this article, will go a long way in helping with faculty buy-in and improving the culture of acceptance related to online learning on campus.
Brian Udermann, PhD, is director of online education and professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.