Quality Matters – For Students and For Online Schools

Quality Matters – For Students and For Online Schools

The quality of online degree programs is an important consideration for students and schools, especially during a time when questions are being raised about the value and cost of these online degree programs. If you are a prospective student trying to determine the quality of an online school or program you may not know how to make an accurate assessment. Sometimes students make a decision based on their perception of quality, which may be influenced by the marketing strategies used by online schools.

Advertisements for online schools often point to the convenience and accessibility of the classroom, along with the real-world experience of the instructors teaching courses that are designed for non-traditional students and working adults. How do these points translate into a statement of quality, or should you look for other factors? In my previous post, Quality Assurance in Online Education, I talked about quality assurance programs and one of these programs is called Quality Mattersâ„¢. Once a school has courses that are QM certified by a trained team of reviewers they can indicate this designation on their website, which gives you something to look for as you are reviewing an online school.

I recently attended QM training and now have an insider’s perspective of the certification process. According to the organization’s website, Quality Matters is a faculty-centered, peer review process that is designed to certify the quality of online and blended courses. QM is a leader in quality assurance for online education and has received national recognition for its peer-based approach and continuous improvement in online education and student learning. What is important to emphasize is that this process is focused on the students’ perspective, which means that review is not about the instructor’s actions during the course – it’s about the course design and the students’ experience with the course.

The QM certification process is completed on a per-course basis – a school does not receive an overall quality rating. The process begins when a school submits an application to have a course reviewed. Only a “mature” course will be reviewed, which means that it should have been taught at least three times. Once the application is approved, the course is reviewed by a team of three faculty peer-reviewers and a faculty course developer. The criteria for serving as a course peer reviewer include experience as an online instructor and completion of QM training. One of the peer reviewers must not be associated with the school, either as an employee or adjunct faculty member, in order to ensure an objective evaluation.

Quality Matters Rubric Components

The QM peer review rubric ensures that each course is reviewed against the following eight standards:

1. Course Overview and Introduction: Reviewers consider what the students experience when they are first introduced to the online course – including instructions, policies, and expectations. The emphasis of this component is on the establishment of an environment where information is easily accessible and readily available.

2. Learning Objectives: Course learning objectives should not only be provided to students, they also need to be measurable. For example, if an objective indicates that students are to “understand” a concept it is not easily measurable. Reviewers look for objectives that can be measured, which includes action verbs that are based upon Bloom’s taxonomy.

3. Assessment and Measurement: This standard is in place so the reviewer can make certain that the assessments are in alignment with the learning objectives and course resources. Other elements include grading scales and policies related to grading, along with information that is clearly provided about the way that work (assignments and participation) will be evaluated. As an example of a good practice, I’ve found that it is helpful to clarify the assessments by posting a weekly message that provides additional notes about the assignments and the grading form (rubric) that will be used, which allows students to self-check their work.

4. Instructional Materials: Reviewers examine the course materials from the perspective of how those resources support achievement of the learning objectives. Online (for-profit) schools often provide instructors with a textbook that has already been selected for the course and they do not have the flexibility to change it. What many online schools have encouraged me to do, as an instructor, is provide supplemental resources such links to current and relevant websites that support the pre-developed course materials.

5. Learner Interaction and Engagement: Reviewers consider if the learning activities support achievement of the learning objectives and promote meaningful interactions. This standard is in place to make certain that students are not only engaged in the class, they are involved in a meaningful way that supports the process of learning.

6. Course Technology: When a peer reviewer looks at the technological aspect of the course the learning management system (LMS) (e.g. Blackboard, Moodle, eCollege) is first reviewed for ease of navigation and access. Another important aspect reviewed is the variety of features and functions utilized to address different learning styles. The QM process encourages the use of lecture replacement tools or supplemental tools such as podcasts, blogs, and social media.

7. Learner Support: This standard is met when there are instructions, links, and/or information is provided that directs students to support services. This includes academic, technical, accessibility, and student support. Academic support may include access to an online library and student support services may include advising and student organizations.

8. Accessibility: For this final standard the online classroom is examined for its ability to accommodate assistive technologies. This includes providing students with information about obtaining accommodations when needed.

Each of these standards is assigned a fixed number of points. If two of the three reviewers have stated that a standard was met, full points are earned. Once all points are added up the course must receive an 85% overall quality score to meet the QM criteria and become a “certified” course. Successful completion of the review means that 85% of the standards have met, which indicates above-average results.

Once a course has been QM certified, the school can post the QM logo on its website. Here are two examples of online schools that have received a QM designation for some (or potentially all) of their courses:

#1. “Ashford University is committed to implementing the Quality Matters standards for the design of online courses, and is systematically building and evaluating its courses based on these rigorous, research-based standards. The Quality Matters standards ensure that the online components of these courses promote learner engagement and provide students with the tools and information they require to be successful learners.”

#2. Capella University – “Capella’s Public Safety programs “” as well as other courses “” are recognized by Quality Mattersâ„¢ for our commitment to a long-term, systematic approach to course quality assurance.”

The benefit of a Quality Matters review extends beyond the value offered to students. It provides the school with an opportunity for continuous improvement because the reviewers provide feedback and recommendations that are constructive in nature and specifically serve as a means of diagnosing areas of needed improvement. The QM program has been developed as a collegial review process rather than an evaluation of a specific instructor, gaining continued acceptance among online schools and “has been recently recognized by both the Sloan Consortium and USDLA for excellence.

When you visit a school website and find the QM logo you know that there are courses that have successfully passed the review. What this means to you as a prospective student is that the QM certified course has been well designed and you are likely to have a positive experience because the activities, interactions, resources, and assessments are all properly aligned to support achievement of the learning objectives. If you do not find the QM logo present you can ask your advisor if the school has any courses that have been certified or are being certified. This is not the only industry standard or the only quality control measure used by online schools; however, it does provide an indicator of the school’s commitment to creating a meaningful learning experience.

Does your online school have a QMâ„¢ logo on their website and courses that are QM certified? Share your feedback @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Ocean/Corbis

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