Evaluating and assuring online course quality: beyond checklists

Online and blended courses present particular learning design and learning experience issues that need careful instructional design – as do face to face classes. However adequate negotiation of these particular hurdles should not be the only or even the primary measure of success or quality. This is like reviewing a play by assessing the stage design without seeing the play.

Many of the evaluation rubrics and assessment checklists developed for online and blended courses can assist educators to run a useful diagnostic on their online course design. Checking for:

  • alignment between objectives, learning activities and assessments;
  • clarity of explanation;
  • transperent online structure and navigation;
  • adequate opportunities for collaboration and communication;
  • integration and alignment between face to face and online components;
  • clearly sequenced and signposted activities; and
  • clear articulation of expectations and transeprent assessment rubrics;

are clearly important in any kind of learning design. Some of these factors – such as navigational clarity, signposting and provision of clear communication options – are particularly important in blended and online courses where there is limited or reduced direct contact with teaching staff.

However, as Kelvin Thompson points out, these kinds of standards-based checklists run the risk of highlighting issues of instructional design rather than learning design or learning experience. Thompson’s Online Course Criticism method, which employs detailed narrative-based, ethnographic principles, is a much richer approach, yet it is one which is much more difficult and time consuming to implement.

Although a standards/checklist approach to course evaluation and quality assurance is not restricted to online and blended courses, I think there is a tendency to resort to this method more often in assessing digital courses because the challenge of online and blended courses are seen primarily as implementation challenges not learning design or learning experience challenges. This is often because online and blended courses are transformations or iterations of pre-existing face to face courses, so the tendency is to try to measure successful adaptation, rather than focus on the new learning and teaching experience.

Measuring the quality of an online or blended course design ultimately depends on providing a range of rich learning experiences. The quality of this essential learning experiences can ultimately be better assessed and assured by looking at broader frameworks such as Northumbria’s Assessment for Learning model rather than purely through markers of online fluency. The Northumbria model, for example, outlines key elements in the way that assessment and learning tasks need to be sequenced, developed and co-ordinated to provide for vibrant interactive and long lasting learning impact. Such standards apply to any successful learning delivery environment, although how they are implemented may be quite different.

So how does your online or blended course measure up against the Northumbria guidelines:

1.  Does it have an emphasis on authenticity and complexity in the content and methods of assessment rather than reproduction of knowledge and reductive measurement?

2.Does it use high-stakes summative assessment rigorously but sparingly rather than as the main driver for learning?

3.Does it offer students extensive opportunities to engage in the kinds of tasks that develop and demonstrate their learning, thus building their confidence and capabilities before they are summatively assessed?

4.  Does it providing an environment that is rich in feedback derived from formal mechanisms e.g. tutor comments on assignments, student self-review logs?

5.Does it provide an environment that is rich in informal feedback, eg peer review of draft writing, collaborative project work, which provides students with a continuous flow of feedback on ‘how they are doing’?

6.  Does it develop students’ abilities to direct their own learning, evaluate their own progress and attainments and support the learning of others?

Starting with these types of standards as the key evaluation questions will inevitably lead to an examination of specific instructional design issues that may be unique to blended or online courses, as we drill down into course detail. But these implementation specifics are not then mistaken for markers of quality they are merely diagnosed as efficient or inefficient delivery mechanisms which provide one part of a quality framework or infrastructure.

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