Sustainable Quality Design and Continuous Improvement in Online Learning

Concurrent Session 7

Brief Abstract

High-quality online courses are current, well-planned, and strategically designed.  We created the Quality Framework for Designing Online Courses to guide the design, delivery, maintenance, and evaluation lifecycle. It is grounded in well-established frameworks and provides guidelines and tools for its use within an online learning design unit. 


Laura Winer (PhD, Educational Technology) is the Director of Teaching and Learning Services at McGill University. Her dossiers include course evaluations, McGill's online programs and MOOC project, graduate education initiatives, the appropriate and effective use of technology in teaching and learning, and policy development. Before coming to TLS she was in the Office of the Provost, as Special Advisor to the Provost. She also spent four years in the Office of the CIO as the Senior Educational Technologist and began her career at McGill in 1999 in the Centre for University Teaching and Learning, the precursor to TLS. She has taught in the Faculties of Education at McGill, Universite de Montreal and Concordia University, conducted research on educational and training applications of information and communications technology, most recently in the field of medical education, and published and presented nationally and internationally on faculty development issues and integrating ICT into teaching and learning.

Extended Abstract

One of the burning questions facing universities offering online programs is how to ensure quality in the design and development of these programs over their lifecycle. This challenge is particularly acute in a large, decentralized university where program development and maintenance are the responsibility of many different units. To address that challenge, the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principle (Academic) and Teaching and Learning Services, the central units at McGill University with responsibility for supporting online learning, developed a Quality Framework for Designing Online Courses and materials to facilitate its implementation. This framework is intended for use by units dedicated to  the design, delivery, maintenance, and evaluation of online programs, including academic administrators, instructional designers, courseware developers, and content experts. The framework guides the (re)-conceptualizing of courses and programs and the maintenance of programs once they are launched. 

Inspired by the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000), the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), we created a framework that integrates their principles to provide a structured design process that promotes inclusive pedagogy, and a protocol for continuous improvement to reflect our commitment to these areas of design. 

While online learning presents some unique or specific design challenges, we start from the principle that “good course design is good course design.” Our foundation remains Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education which were developed in 1987. These principles have stood the test of time and apply equally in online learning as on campus.  

  1. Encourages contacts between students and faculty.
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Uses active learning techniques.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Chickering and Gamson’s work has proved its relevance over time, but we also looked to other works that provide theoretical support. We know that learner engagement and experiential learning are key to an enriched learning experience; online, it can play a significant role in student satisfaction, motivation, and may help reduce feelings of isolation (Martin & Bolliger, 2018). As those responsible for the support and oversight of the development of online learning and teaching at McGill, we felt that it was critical to provide the community with tools to guide them. 

We identified the following three frameworks as foundational to our work.

Community of Inquiry (CoI)

Developed in 1999 by Garrison, Anderson and Archer for the online instructional context, the CoI approach ( promotes the use of social, cognitive and teaching presence interdependently to create deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experiences (Garrison et al, 2000).

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) (, a non-profit education research and development organization, created the UDL framework in the 1990s to provide a set of principles to support the design of learning materials that include multiple forms of engagement, representation, and ways to demonstrate learning 

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)

WCAG are technical guidelines and an international standard produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) ( for creating online materials and environments that allow access to and interaction with online materials by people with disabilities. 

The principles of CoI, UDL, and WCAG complement each other to reinforce the importance of designing online courses to create supportive, meaningful, and successful learning experiences that can be accessed by the largest number of learners. Our framework promotes deep learning while allowing for the application of various learning theories and teaching strategies to create engaging, interactive, and rewarding learning experiences.

The framework was first developed in 2018 and has been in use at McGill University since 2019. Initially, it was focused on principles of online course design, and we expanded it in 2021 to add inclusive pedagogy and continuous improvement. 

Inclusive pedagogy
A learner-centered approach to teaching that makes sure all students feel like they are a part of the learning community and prevents the marginalisation that can happen when the diversity of learners is not reflected in the design of the content, activities, and assessment (Sanger, 2020).

Continuous improvement
A protocol to ensure that courses and programs adhere to a three-year cyclical review at the end of each course offering based on the experiences of students, instructors, and learning analytics. 

Our goal in presenting at OLC Innovate 2023 is to assess the framework’s application in contexts other than our own. After an overview of the framework and its toolkit, we will discuss with participants its usability, adaptability, and potential areas for further evolution. Depending on the number of participants, we will do small group activities with a shared debrief or a plenary discussion. We will address topics such as: 

  1. Does this framework resonate for you in your context? Is anything missing? Is there something that would never apply?
  2. Are the components of the toolkit helpful to employing the framework?
  3. In the design process, how do we build in sustainability for the transition to new instructors and new designers?
  4. How can we measure quality and manage quality over the lifecycle of a course/program?
  5. How can we address the challenge of change management? What strategies might we use to engage different levels of university stakeholders in ensuring quality assurance for online courses/programs?


Chickering, C. and Gamson, Z. (1987) Seven Principles For Good Practice in Undergraduate Education Retrieved from

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Martin, F. & Bolliger, D. (2018) Engagement Matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Online Learning, v. 22, n. 1 Retrieved from

Sanger, C.S. (2020). Inclusive Pedagogy and Universal Design Approaches for Diverse Learning Environments. In: Sanger, C., Gleason, N. (eds) Diversity and Inclusion in Global Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. Retrieved from