Measuring the Quality of Online Programs: We Still Don’t Have Guidelines

Judith McDanielBy Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

Sloan-C came out with a “Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Education Programs” last week.

I’m not an administrator and can’t speak to the efficacy of those measurements, but I am an online instructor who is very concerned with the quality of online course design and with the quality content of the courses we design.

I quickly pulled up the scorecard to see whether or not it could be useful to me. I ignored the sections on Institutional and Technology Support. Important, yes, but my concerns are more with the logic of a course design, with the involvement of students in what they are learning, and with my ability to assess that learning.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but not this:

1. Guidelines regarding minimum standards are used for course development, design, and delivery of online education.

We can use guidelines or not, but if the standard is too low or incoherent, the course will not be very good. I had hoped to see those guidelines specified.

Or this:

7. Student-centered instruction is considered during the course-development process.

“Considered”? How about actually designing for and using student-centered instruction? I’m concerned that administrators who might be reviewing my courses don’t really know much about student-centered instruction and would not know whether or not a course was actually using a student-centered focus. I’m not sure that an instructor who “considered” the student’s needs on her way to developing a course would be doing much at all toward a quality online course.

Other requirements are less remarkable. Put up a syllabus. Check. Clearly state expectations for performance. Check. Explain the links being used. Check. Documents students are expected to use are actually accessible. Check.

Why am I so disappointed?

checklist with Detail the general - Greet your students - Introduce yourself all checked

I use a checklist* as I’m designing a course. Best practices in course design are great, and there are a lot of them available today. One of the most helpful has been around for a while, and I don’t know that I could have muddled through my first online course without this help from Las Positas College in California:

The first standard under Course Organization and Design is:

1. Structure your course in a well-organized manner, and make it easy to navigate.

For someone who doesn’t know what that might look like, there is a description and then two examples:

Students should be able to intuitively get from place to place within the course.

What does that mean?

Content should be divided into learning units, appropriately labeled, and presented in a logical manner. Instructors typically divide these learning units into modules, chapters, etc.

View example course structure

View example module structure

This is how I want my courses to be evaluated. I want an informed assessor to be able to see the logic of the course design. I want that assessor to know when the learning outcomes for the students are connected to the content I have put into the course.

I can’t imagine an evaluation of my work based on whether or not I have “considered” student-centered learning in my course design.

We have spent time this month discussing how we assess our students in their online learning. I had hoped that the Sloan-C scorecard might be a way to discuss how we assess ourselves and our courses for quality and consistency. Unfortunately, this tool does not even begin the conversation.

* WebCite alternative.

5 Responses

  1. Judith, I’m glad you brought this up. So-called criteria for best practice are often so vague and inclusive that they’re useless. A lot of our course objectives are like that, too. “Students will learn how to think, read, and write critically.” Yeah, right. But it seems that’s all the accrediting folks are looking for — buzz words in the expected places. -Jim S

  2. Judith, I share all your concerns and frustrations. What you see in this is an overall timidity in creating guidelines that will be truly effective.

    Why does it say things like consider a student centered approach? Because most curricula do not use a students centered approach, and most school districts do not want one.

    Oh, the schools will all tell you they want student centered learning. They will call for higher order thinking skills. They will do all of that through their oratory, but the true test is what they will purchase for their online program.

    When it comes to such purchases, there are two distinct markets. It sounds simplistic, but that is how it is. One market matches their purchases with their words and implements the kinds of high quality courses you seek. The other market, by far the larger of the two, is looking for something decidedly different, something that will graduate students with the minimum of fuss and expense.

    For that second market, the student centered, thinking skills oriented courses are not at all what they want. Effective teaching of such courses requires time and skill. Each course must be taught by someone with expertise in the subject matter, someone who knows how facilitate learning effectively. Such teachers are hard to find. More importantly, such learning takes time, and time is money, for the major cost associated with online education lies in the student/teacher ratio.

    Programs in which teachers serve 400-500 students (and there are many like that), are quite cost effective. If your school can hire a part time teacher at $10- $12 per hour to teach those students in a variety of courses (and there are many like that), you can do even better.

    As one who has been there, I assure you that the pressure to meet the demands of that second market is tremendous. That is why so many courses are designed to require a minimum of teacher skill and a minimum of required teacher participation.Since that is what so many schools want, there is pressure on those who are creating quality guidelines to create guidelines that are generic enough to be used for both markets.

  3. What you say makes sense, John, though I’ve never taught or tried to teach one of those courses. I did do some training to teach online for a for-profit college, but it was so awful I quit before the end of the training because I knew I would never teach like that–a syllabus and lesson plans pre-prepared and ways of responding to students set out in a formulated set of emails. No deviation in the syllabus or lesson plans was allowed; I didn’t ever see a syllabus for the writing course I was training to teach, but the individual assignments were appallingly mindless.

    I suppose those deliberately vague guidelines would allow an administrator to give that program a high score, wouldn’t they?

  4. Thanks so much for bringing this topic to the forefront of our consciousnesses. It is important information and it is well received. Your dedication to the online community is greatly appreciated, Judith.

  5. Judith:
    Your concern echoes mine. I had more hope for Sloan-C but I do believe, as John says that the commercial interests have been able to influence this effort.

    I do have to say, I’m not surprised though, because standards that try to treat online education as a single approach will fail because they try to cover such a broad area. There are, or should be, significant differences in pedagogy between an asynchronous and a synchronous online course in design, delivery, and facilitation. Making a standard that covers that broad an area, ends up being equally broad and meaningless.

    And, if a standard is made to work well, it often requires an insider’s understanding of the field, which means it doesn’t work well for those who haven’t been in the field long enough to know the issues.

    It is unfortunate that this scorecard doesn’t help with the understanding of what it takes to make high quality online courses. The information exists on how to design and teach high quality online courses, and has been around for more than a decade. It would be great to see that information used.

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