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How to Design Standards-Based Online Courses

Two universities share how the Quality Matters rubric informs their online course design and improves the learning experience for students.

Mary Chayko, a professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University (NJ), has taught both hybrid and fully online courses for several years. In 2014, as she was designing a new course, Chayko realized she wanted to make the experience more seamless for students, so she turned to Denise Kreiger, a Rutgers instructional design and technology specialist with experience using the Quality Matters (QM) framework for online courses.

Many faculty members struggle when they initially make the transition from face-to-face to online and hybrid settings, and that is where QM can help — by laying out course design principles for improving student learning, engagement and satisfaction. Faculty often think they are following a hybrid model, yet the online and in-person aspects of their course remain very separate, said Kreiger. "One of the biggest complaints I have heard from students is that when you do a hybrid that way, they think they are going into two different courses. The way I do hybrids is to fully integrate the online and in-class components into one seamless course. How are you going to do group activities when you can't see each other face-to-face? How are you going to build community online? You have to think it through and have a design process."

What Is QM?

Quality Matters is a nonprofit organization with more than 1,000 subscribing members dedicated to quality assurance in online education. It has developed a rubric to guide course design as well as the evaluation of online and blended courses by peer reviewers. The rubric consists of general standards in eight areas, with specific standards detailed for each area:

  1. Course overview and introduction;
  2. Learning objectives (competencies);
  3. Assessment and measurement;
  4. Instructional materials;
  5. Course activities and learner interaction;
  6. Course technology;
  7. Learner support; and
  8. Accessibility and usability.

The specific standards are assessed by a point system, with some standards assigned more value than others. Standards with the highest point value are considered "essential" standards, which must all be achieved in order for a course to meet overall QM standards.

Developing a New QM-Certified Course

Chayko and Kreiger met weekly for six months to develop Chayko's new hybrid course, which dealt with how emerging digital technologies contribute to disruptive changes. Kreiger developed a course blueprint document and made sure all of QM's general standards were being incorporated. "Their standards put a lot of emphasis on what is known as course alignment," she said. "So we emphasize that the learning objectives, the assessments, the instructional materials and course activities are all aligned."

Chayko admits that initially she struggled with the different approach to course development. "I couldn't understand why we would be going into the level of detail we did," she said. "Ordinarily I might start with the activities, but instead we started with learning objectives, and should they be accomplished in class or online, and how will they fit together. We then proceeded to activities and readings. It flipped it upside down for me and prompted me to think about the course in a way that would make most sense for students — and got me to think about what I want students to understand here."

But when she taught two sections of the course in spring 2015, Chayko described it as a pleasure to teach. "All the detailed work is done by the time you step into the classroom, and you are fully engaged," she said. "You know exactly where you are going and it frees you up to concentrate on working with students individually because you are not going week by week."

Chayko and Kreiger's course was the first at Rutgers to ever be peer-reviewed and receive a QM certificate for course design. "The highest score you could receive in a QM review is 99 points and we received 99 points," said Kreiger, "so we felt really good about that." Since then, a second course in Rutgers' School of Communication and Information has received the formal QM certification. Chayko and Kreiger made a model course available to the whole Rutgers community, so all instructional designers and faculty can see what a QM-certified course looks like.

Finding the time to do this course development work is a challenge for busy faculty members. "Not every faculty member has the time to do something like this," Chayko said. "This was a brand new course that I decided I wanted to give this priority treatment to be a real showcase course for the program, but it wouldn't be realistic to spend this much time on every single course."

Support for Faculty

Bethany Simunich, director of online pedagogy and research at Kent State Online (OH), agrees that faculty members are very busy, but they also are passionate about helping students learn. Kent State Online has an instructional design process that follows the QM standards. "If the faculty can use their time wisely to focus on alignment and creating engaging content and authentic assessment, that is time well spent," Simunich said. "The other aspects of online courses we can help them with." She noted that resources such as the Kent State Online Blackboard template and the Kent State Online syllabus template help faculty to meet over half of the QM standards by including standard information on university policies and resources, as well as placeholders for vital course components, such as the instructor introduction and course learning objectives.

Kent State has been a QM member since 2009. Although there is no mandate to use the framework, the university has a suite of support tools and resources for faculty members who want to design high-quality courses, including those who want to work with the QM rubric. Approximately 275 Kent State faculty and distance learning staff have gone through the QM flagship workshop. Instructional designers are educated in QM and able to talk to faculty about what they should be thinking about when they design online and hybrid courses.

"It has been a groundswell," Simunich said. "The call has come more and more from faculty. They are interested in QM. We have faculty members who have become peer reviewers, and faculty who have gone through the workshop are asking for more information and guidance on QM." She added that research studies done on QM have shown increased learner satisfaction in courses that implemented QM design standards.

In addition, Kent State is a member of the Ohio QM Consortium, which is the largest consortium affiliated with QM, and includes 61 member schools. "We use a barter system for QM reviews," Simunich explained. "If we put a course up for review, we spend some of our points; if we serve as reviewers for other universities in Ohio, we gain some points."

Like Rutgers' Chayko and Kreiger, Simunich said there are key benefits to designing a whole course upfront. In a face-to-face course, designing and teaching are more merged. You can make more changes on the fly. "With online teaching you have to design it all out ahead of time, and that is the thing that QM helps with so much," she said. It helps faculty think through not just the pedagogical design, but also about things specific to the online classroom — creating a good course structure and good navigation; inserting the teaching presence into the course; and having students create their own social presence. "I need to purposefully think about all those things before my course begins," Simunich added. "The QM rubric goes through all of that to make sure I have all the facets of my course. When I design an online course, I think about the entire design before the course begins. When it starts, I concentrate on teaching."

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