Instructors, Systematically Improve Your Online courses

Over the past 18 months, teachers have been assembling and revising online content on class websites, learning management systems and 3rd party solutions such as Google Classrooms. In many cases, it has been chaotic with sparse or unpredictable support as most institutions were not prepared for the pandemic in terms of technology, staffing and planning. As many regions are entering the second year of fully online instruction, teachers may be able to use their recent experience and hopefully, take advantage of improvements at their institutions to reorganize their online courses. Teachers can methodically enhance their online course wares by combining their recent experiences and labours with a structured rubric or checklist. (I will refer to these as rubrics for the remainder of this post.)

There are several course rubrics which can be retrieved from the internet. Once you look at a few of these, you must determine which one is most appropriate for your courses. An expedient method is to set your priorities for a typical course in a list. With this list, identify which of the available online rubrics provides the best match. If the connection is satisfactory, you should also consider researching the rubric’s organization and possibly become a member. A second method is to create a rubric from scratch. This is a challenge that may be unrealistic as remuneration must be negotiated, locating expertise and the extended development time to create an original rubric may push the release date to the following academic year. However, there is another path to using a prefabricated rubric.

A few years ago, I was involved with a project that endeavored to systematically improve online course content for blended courses. We leveraged a wealth of experience offered by existing standardized online course rubrics to set a pathway of continuous online course improvement. Read on to see how we merged and customized these tools to produce a system for our peers to methodically enhance their online courses.

Our Experience

Our challenge was to find a way to encourage our instructional peers and mid-level administrators with a means of continually improving our existing online courses that supported blended learning. Accepting that generating a course rubric from scratch was unrealistic, we decided to explore existing solutions and generate our own course rubric to meet the unique requirements of our college. Our team were already members of the Quality Matters (QM) organization. Quality Matters is a system of establishing and continuously improving online and blended courses. Our institution provided all interested instructors and managers with the opportunity of attending an introduction session and the course, Applying the QM Rubric. With this association, our problem was solved. Well, sort of. When we applied the rubric on our courses, there were elements that our team identified as missing, for example cultural and regionalisms, and others that were not essential. To ensure that we were not missing other rubric performance criteria, we examined other online course rubrics. None of these rubrics match our requirements completely. All were strong rubrics, but as with everything, we identified strengths and weaknesses in each of them. So, we agreed that combined the most relevant features of these rubrics, while shedding superfluous performance criteria, approach would result in a reasonable rubric for our educational peers and learners.

Rubric options

  1. Use an existing rubric, possibly join the organization for continued support
  2. Create a rubric from scratch
  3. Mash up existing rubrics combined with your experience and local requirements

Standardized Online/Blended Course Development Rubrics

Standardized online course rubrics integrate Universal Design for Learning best practices as well as incorporate digital accessibility considerations. These approaches to curriculum design help reduce barriers to online and blended learning. Accessibility practices endeavor to make digital resources and activities available to all users. To customize our own course development rubric we inspected the following rubrics:

  • Quality Matters Rubrics
  • OntarioLearn Course Development Checklist
  • Canvas Course-Evaluation Checklists
  • SUNY Online Course Quality Review Rubric

Deciding on Rubric Requirements

After investigating these rubrics, we decided on essential categories to meet the needs of our learners. We did not arrive at any innovative categories as the established rubrics fit our needs. We created performance criteria in each category. In our working sessions, each department included or discarded different performance criteria. After several debates, it was agreed that each department would create their own unique rubrics. However, essential criteria that all courses must include was established. These were required to pass an initial audit. Each performance criteria must be rated on a scale. Our team adopted a simple two point scale, Yes or No. To generate a continuous cycle of online course improvement an institutional framework was required.

Framework

Creating a rubric on its own may be useful for some instructors, however, it would not ensure consistency across the institution. Our team wrote a framework document to continuously enhance online courses. Elements included in this framework were:

  • set a baseline of performance criteria for a minimal acceptable course (e.g. course overview, introductions, course etiquette, …)
  • provide a suggested priority performance criteria pathway
  • set realistic enhancement targets/expectations (mandate a number of course augmentations to further align with the rubric) per term.
  • set a reasonable review interval (e.g. a third party review every six terms)
  • on a continuous basis, build and share best practices and learning objects to potentially enhance all courses
  • establish feedback loops to include all stakeholders in the process

Mash Up Steps

These are the steps you should consider to systematically improve your course if you are an instructor working on your own or on a small team. Larger institutions should have their own frameworks and rubrics. In many cases, teachers are not aware of these. Seek out assistance from your education support department.

  1. Define “robust course”
  2. Create an online course rubric
  3. Ensure the rubric addresses
    1. Learning objectives
    1. Assessment and measurement
    2. Instructional materials
    3. Activities and learner interaction
    4. Appropriate course technology
    5. Cultural and regional expectations
  4. Set minimum course criteria
  5. Set realistic enhancement targets
  6. Set a review process
  7. Set up supports

Conclusion

The concept of the quality of online courses is a moving target. Instructors are in a state of continuously improving their courses. Whichever path you choose: to embrace an existing course rubric, create a rubric from scratch or to mash up one from researching others, your courses will improve as the performance criteria are addressed. If your goal was to create a robust courses that continually improve and ensure that students and teachers can use the courses with confidence now and in the future adhering to a course development rubric is a reliable way forward.

Resources

Quality Matters Rubrics, https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/rubric-standards
QM Applying the QM Rubric course, https://www.qualitymatters.org/professional-development/workshops/higher-ed-appqmr
Canvas Checklists, https://tinyurl.com/v6md6dsw
Canvas Course-Evaluation Checklist, https://tinyurl.com/fht8y392
Ontario Learn Course Development, https://www.ontariolearn.com/checklist/ontariolearn_checklist.htm
SUNY Online Course Quality Review Rubric , https://oscqr.suny.edu

John Allan
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John Allan

John is a Canadian who writes about learning object development and online facilitation from a teacher's perspective.

One thought on “Instructors, Systematically Improve Your Online courses

  • 13th September 2021 at 11:30 am
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    I really like this strategic approach to improving courses John.
    Far too often I see courses that are simply not evaluated an improved by teachers, or organisations.
    Rubrics are so powerful in Moodle, and almost everyone that is trained in how to apply them really loves them 🙂

    Reply

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