Using a Systems Approach to Build a World-Class Online Program


Dr. Michele Norton and Dr. Ben Zoghi, Texas A&M University

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High-quality online learning programs require the expertise of many. Finding the bridge between all the expertise embedded within your organization is critical to developing highly effective learning experiences.

During the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) Quality Scorecard Review journey for our online Master of Engineering Technical Management at Texas A&M University, our team uncovered how widespread the depth of expertise that was influencing the success of our program was and gained insights on how to better leverage that system to enhance the effectiveness of our program further.

In this blog, we unpack some of our insights and capitalize on them as we take a systems approach to continue building a world-class online program.

Insight 1: Shifting from Assigning Tasks to Developing Collaborative Partnerships

We often create to-do lists for all the aspects of our online course: the videos, the articles, the quizzes, putting it on the LMS, etc. We forget that they all go together to create one learning experience for our students.

The person who edits the videos has ideas you may never have thought of, even if they are not experts in your content. Thoughts are everywhere; you have to value each person that has a hand in the process and be open to building a collaborative partnership instead of navigating a transactional checklist.

In going through the OLC Quality Scorecard Review process, we learned just how valuable those partnerships could be as we tried to gather the evidence across the different domains. No one person can hold all the knowledge needed to make each course the best it can be; it does take the whole system- all the resources, knowledge, and talent of a diverse group of people to create the valuable learning experiences students need.

Insight 2: Minimizing Assumptions on Who Owns What

The level of support needed by faculty members and students became evident through the OLC Quality Scorecard Endorsement process. One area that this was particularly evident was in creating more accessible courses. If you want a course to be the best it can be, no one person can own an online course, not even the faculty member teaching it.

In developing our program, we have one person that is the accessibility expert. Still, if we waited for that person to make all the changes to the courses to make them more accessible, we would become inefficient and ineffective at creating high-quality courses that met the needs of all learners.

Having someone that was not involved in the details of each course but that could take the big picture and look for ways to minimize the assumption that someone else owns that part and bridge the ownership helped speed our path to developing inclusive courses.

Insight 3: People May Not Know What They Need

Faculty are experts in the content, but not necessarily the designing of effective online learning. The assumption that faculty will ask for what they need and the right questions limit the creative solutions necessary when creating an effective online course.

The OLC Quality Scorecard Review process helped stimulate conversations that uncovered areas where the team did not fully understand each other’s needs and fueled conversations that brought about new possibilities that could increase the learning in our program.

Diverse perspectives and expertise can lead to energizing and creative discussions that push the edge of an online course, but we have to create the space for these conversations to happen. These conversations help to shift online education from the transmission of knowledge to an environment where deep, experiential learning experiences help students learn in meaningful and lasting ways.

In my opinion, using the OLC Quality Scorecard Review process as more than an evaluation but as a discussion across the diverse perspectives in your organization is where the true value explodes. It helps us to think about what effective online learning is and what it could be.

Insight 4: Online Courses are Never Done

Many suggest that a significant benefit of online courses is that they should just run on autopilot once they are created. The OLC Quality Scorecard Endorsement process helped bring to light the importance of gathering continuous 360-degree feedback and then having a concrete plan for moving that feedback to continually improving the courses and the program.

As a program, we were constantly getting feedback and making changes, but standardizing that process and creating the documentation trail of the changes and reasons for the changes, helps our iterations be more effective and meet the needs of our learners.

The extensiveness of the OLC rubric helps shed light on the massive undertaking online learning is and the enormous responsibility we have to use online learning in a way that provides high-quality education, not just a convenient education.

Final Thoughts

Taking a systems approach to designing online learning programs helps learners gain the skills and capabilities to operationalize their learning in the workforce.

We have well-accomplished professors of practice with tremendous real-world experience that we want to bring our Master’s of Technical Engineering Management students. The expertise across the A&M system helps us bridge our professor’s knowledge, expertise, and stories to create engaging and effective online coursework.

The OLC Quality Scorecard Review process deepened our conversations across the systems and opened up new possibilities as we continue to design an evolving world-class education that will develop the engineering leaders of tomorrow.

Texas A&M University – Master of Engineering Technical Management earned the OLC Exemplary Review status for the Quality Scorecard for the Administration of Online Programs. Learn more about the OLC Scorecard Review process here.

About the Authors

Dr. Michele Norton is a Postdoctoral Research Associate with Texas A&M University with an interest in leader, team and organizational development and how we can take a more holistic view of learning so learners can design and flourish as the best-loved self and the best-loved team. Norton also does work with the Faculty for METM on designing experiential online learning experiences that foster deep learning within the virtual space.

Dr. Ben Zoghi holds the Victor H. Thompson Endowed Chair Professorship and is the director of the Master of Engineering Technical Management (METM) online program and the RFID/Sensor Laboratory at Texas A&M University. His primary research interest is RFID/sensors for situation awareness and emotional intelligence for leadership development. Zoghi believes that “We are each the common denominator in the success or failure of everything we do. The fastest, surest way to improve our outcomes is to improve ourselves.” His passion is working with professionals by helping them develop their personal and professional leadership effectiveness by focusing on emotional intelligence (strengths, challenges, and opportunities) and expanding their leadership capacities for optimal success.

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