Concerns about the need for oversight of online programs, as discussed in a recent article by Inside Higher Ed, are not uncommon, and it’s not just faculty that are interested in more closely examining the online classroom. There are quite a few stakeholders, from accreditors and government regulators to governing boards and consumers. Online learning is often seen as a growth strategy for institutions, and that means that implementing measures to sustain a quality, student-centered online program should be a priority.
Questions about consistency and centralization of programs often come up at this point. However, every institution that offers online courses has a different approach that ranges in the spectrum from centralized to decentralized. While there are definitely arguments that one method is better than another, there is no such thing as a one size fits all model for online learning. In fact, when I am asked the question about the best approach, my response is that it depends on the culture of the organization. That being said, there are some best practices that are highly recommended and can help the institution provide a quality online learning experience for their students—after all that is what this is all about.
These best practices can be found in the free Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Programs. This research-based method provides a way for institutions to evaluate the overall effectiveness of their online program against 75 benchmarks in categories such as:
- Institutional Support
- Technology Support
- Course Development and Instructional Design
- Course Structure
- Teaching and Learning
- Social and Student Engagement
- Faculty Support
- Student Support
- Evaluation and Assessment
Institutions that use the scorecard often comment on how the thoroughness of the areas covered really made them take a close look at areas they had not previously considered as important. In fact, I often see institutions provide quality measures for online course design and stop there. That is not enough. The thing to remember here is that if there is process, policy or service that impacts a student enrolling in an online course or program, it is equally important to course design. Using the Quality Scorecard, institutions can validate where they are successful and identify those areas where they need to improve.
One other area that needs to be addressed is consistency in the online learning experience. This can be tricky with a decentralized approach to online learning in an institution. Standards of quality, if they exist, can differ between academic disciplines. This can become a huge pain point for your students. Even something as simple as navigation for an online course needs to be standardized. If there is ever a question about why this is important, take a moment to consider this from the student perspective. In the traditional, face-to-face classroom, they know where to go for classes and for the services they may need (e.g., tutoring, library, etc.). Why should this be any different in an online classroom? (Do you make them wander the halls because you move classrooms around before each class?) Adding in some standardization can make life easier for the student so they can focus on the important stuff – the expertise and content provided by the faculty member.
Providing oversight for an online program should be considered critical for any institution offering online learning. How oversight occurs can be handled in many ways, but it should be adapted based on the culture of the organization and the approach taken to online learning. The key is really to identify where improvements are needed and then develop a plan that addresses the processes, policies and services needed to provide a quality program. Don’t forget to also include the appropriate players who work directly with students (e.g., faculty, staff, etc.) to create an effective learning environment that supports success.