Ensuring the Quality of Your Online Courses: Considerations for Local Policy and Practices

Chair, ASCCC Online Education Committee
Interim Chief Professional Development Officer, Online Education Initiative

While local curriculum processes for the approval of courses for online delivery are intended to ensure that the course in question can be effectively taught online, these processes often do not involve any means of ensuring the quality of online instruction. Although some faculty argue that additional scrutiny of any sort that is not applied to campus-based courses should not apply to online courses, the truth is that the modalities are fundamentally different. If a campus-based course is taught in a room without seating, ventilation, lighting, or an instructor, the remedies are readily at hand. In fact, seating, ventilation, and lighting are not even controlled by the campus-based instructor. In contrast, the online faculty member is in complete control of the online classroom and may effectively create an environment as uncomfortable and chaotic as a room lacking seating, ventilation, and lighting. Furthermore, faculty may even opt to send students elsewhere – beyond the environment maintained by the college – potentially placing students in a space without technical support and potentially even in violation of laws intended to ensure student privacy. For these reasons, local senates should take steps to promote and ensure the quality of their colleges’ online courses.

One obvious approach is to locally adopt a rubric intended to inform and possibly assess the quality of online offerings. Various sources exists for such rubrics, including Quality Matters (https://www.qualitymatters.org/), Blackboard (http://www.blackboard.com/consulting-training/training-technical-services/exemplary-course-program.aspx), and the Online Education Initiative (http://ccconlineed.org/faculty-resources/professional-development/online-course-design-standards/). A review of any of these rubrics provides the reader with standard principles related to quality online course design, principles that should be evident in the design of all online courses. Such rubrics can be employed to engage in formal reviews of existing courses or to facilitate a self-check. Ideally, such rubrics are used in the development of new online offerings.

The criteria employed to ensure quality in online courses also ensures the accessibility of all course components. This area is an increasing concern that all colleges should be actively addressing, as was discussed in the September 2015 Rostrum article “Accessibility in Online Education” (http://asccc.org/content/accessibility-online-education). Educating the entire college community about the importance of accessibility is essential to ensuring the availability of necessary resources. Identifying accessible options becomes a higher priority when colleges are faced with the students who need those options, which can be particularly challenging in online classes.  Colleges need to continue to ensure that the needs of all students are being met, regardless of modality.

While quality course design and accessibility are important to offering the best possible online learning experience for students, another area of consideration relates to the use of proprietary resources that are not instructor-generated.  While this subject often is a reference to materials provided by a publisher, various entities may offer materials or tools that faculty integrate into their courses. A number of levels of concern may arise with the use of such resources, including concerns regarding over-reliance on such materials, accessibility, the availability of support when using technologies not supported by the college, and student privacy rights (i.e., FERPA). 

The use of and concerns regarding proprietary materials are not limited to online classes; the increased availability of these materials has led to more faculty using them in all course modalities.  While many of the materials are useful and in some cases provide information for students that are necessary for success in the course, the use of proprietary materials to the exclusion of instructor-generated content raises the question of why the instructor is teaching the course in the first place.   While the physical presence of an instructor in a classroom-based class at least ensures that he or she is present to provide context to any proprietary resources employed to facilitate the presentation of course materials, no such assurances exist in the online realm. Materials produced by publishers with problem sets, ancillaries for the text, test banks, and even lecture materials are readily available and are often offered free of charge to the faculty member. Merely providing such resources to students in an online course absent any supporting instructor-generated material is akin to asking students in a classroom-based class to read the text in lieu of attending lecture. The presence of the instructor in the online classroom is more than simply regular, effective, and substantive contact; it is his or her involvement in all aspects of the course, including the construction of the materials used for instruction. Both preventing and defining “over-reliance” on proprietary materials are unique challenges best handled through local policies that are consistent with the local culture. Colleges need to find an appropriate balance between respecting faculty autonomy and ensuring an effective experience for students.

Accessibility is a concern whether or not proprietary resources are employed. Publishers often provide exciting tools that are beneficial to many students but may be woefully ineffective in meeting the needs of students with a wide variety of limitations. Only through our advocacy will publishers make the investment necessary to ensure comparable accessible experiences for our students who need them. Before requiring students to access any proprietary materials, faculty should consult with the appropriate campus entity to ensure the accessibility of such resources. This practice is even more important if you are requiring students to purchase access to such materials.  The recent amendments to Title 5 regarding instructional materials and access must also be followed. More information on those regulations can be found at http://extranet.cccco.edu/Portals/1/AA/Miscellaneous/InstructionalMaterialsGuidelines1.28.13.pdf.

Another issue regarding student access to proprietary materials arises when the students are leaving the local course management system and engaging with technology that is not supported by the college. The use of such resources potentially creates additional issues related to the Family Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA). Local policies could address these issues by borrowing the following language from the Online Education Initiative Course Design Rubric:

  • Software used for the course is adequately supported by the institution, including information for students on where they can obtain help
  • All activities that might create educational records (as defined by the Family Educational Records Privacy Act) or that involve regular effective contact are conducted within district- or college-supported systems.

As accreditation standards require that online students have access to the same resources as campus-based students, such policies would ensure that faculty are not permitted to run afoul of those standards and students are not directed to resources that are not supported.

Ensuring that quality exists within online courses is a responsibility of both the individual faculty member and the local academic senate. In the interest of addressing this issue, the ASCCC and the Online Education Initiative will be working together to develop materials on effective practices with respect to integrating proprietary materials into online courses as well as other guidelines to ensure that online courses meet federal, local, and accreditation standards and provide the highest quality education to the students enrolled in those courses.