Quality Matters in Online Courses

Quality matters in online courses as much as it does in face-to-face courses. Teachers, course designers, administrators, students, the community have a stake in what and how students connect with the content, the instructor, and each other in online courses. While evaluating and measuring course content and student engagement is very important, how do we go about it?

Quality matters require that we evaluate the layout, instructional design, learning outcomes, and student feedback of online courses and programs for the purpose of improvement. What criteria can be used to evaluate online courses?  Is there standardization for the quality of online courses? What action can teachers take to online courses?

Quality Matters in Online Courses

The demand for fully online and blended learning courses in K-12 and higher education has been growing at a very rapid rate for the past 10 years. The debate of whether online courses are as good as traditional face-to-face courses hasn’t stopped, but there is an interest in ensuring the quality and improvements of the programs. A standard assessment tool called Quality Matters was developed to meet the demand for evaluating online courses.

Quality Matters (QM) (see website) refers to a a peer-review rubric that measures the quality of online courses to ensure that organizations in higher education, K-12, publishing, corporate, government, continuing professional development and others provide quality online courses.  For example, the 2014 quality matters rubric for higher education consists of 43 items under eight categories. Instructors and stakeholders are able to check whether the instructional design principles of their online courses meet the criteria for each category or not. The rubric can be downloaded for free from the QM website.

The QM is a non-profit organization similar to a review board that reviews online courses. However, the information on the site clearly states that “The QM Rubric, as well as the Quality Matters name and logo, cannot be used without the explicit written permission of MarylandOnline, Inc. (Courses that were reviewed and that received QM Recognition to date may continue to use the logo they received)” (see website page).

Quality Matters offers stakeholders and the general public free information regarding evaluation of online learning (see website page). The database consists of the following standard categories:

  • Course Overview and Introduction
  • Learning Objectives (Competencies)
  • Assessment and Measurement
  • Instructional Materials
  • Course Activities and Learner Interaction
  • Course Technology
  • Learner Support
  • Accessibility and Usability

Evaluation Objectives

We want teachers, course developers, and students to be able to evaluate their online course. If quality matters, evaluators must learn what it means to evaluate and what they are actually evaluating and why. The quality matters standards assessment must align with learning objectives, assessment and measurement, instructional materials, course activities and learner interaction, and course technology of a specific course.

Learning to Evaluate Online Courses

Teachers and stakeholders have the opportunity to learn about and follow a standard quality assurance program via Quality Matters before developing and teaching an online course. I will be teaching a course on online evaluation in the fall of 2015. The course will combine action research and evaluation of past and current online courses. The program will be fully online and will require teachers to be able to do the following:

  • Define face-to-face, blended, and fully online courses.
  • Define evaluation and measurement of online courses from the literature.
  • Adapt a working definition of evaluation and measurement of online courses.
  • Identify competencies that require evaluation in an online course.
  • Evaluate student engagement with the content, peers, and instructor
  • Identify expectations of an online course
  • Identify whether the expectations were met.
  • Identify problems that may have prevented the expectations from being met.

Take Action to Improve Online Courses

A team of researchers used Quality Matters (QM) and Community of Inquiry (COL) models in a collaborative design-based research study for the purpose of improving instruction and learning (Swan, Day, Bogle, & Matthews, 2014). The results of the study indicated that QM provide provided assurance that the courses adhered to the standards, but “COL student surveys allowed faculty to identify specific, actionable areas for ongoing improvements in the learning process” (Swan, Day, Bogle, & Matthews, 2014 p. 80). The recommendation is to check criteria for standardization and then take action.

Action Research

Action participatory research (AR) is a tool that can be used to evaluate online and face-to-face courses. The tool allows teachers to study current and past courses for the purpose of improvement. Learning to investigate your own course empowers because it allows teachers to identify the problems they encounter in class and resolve them through research. ARP can bring quality into the evaluation process.

Through ARP, teachers can learn to:

  • Identify areas requiring research and assessment in evaluating your online course.
  • Define action research for educational purposes.
  • Identify the basic steps in developing an action research plan to evaluate an online course.
  • Examine scholarly literature to document research problems and solutions in conducting online courses.
  • Examine methods of collecting, analyzing, and organizing data to evaluate an online course.
  • Develop a questionnaire for a needs assessment for participants of an online course
  • Prepare and deliver an oral presentation of a proposal for an action research project
  • Reflect on the process of conducting an action research project as a way to evaluate and measure online courses.

Action Research

Action research (AR) allows teachers to step back, observe, and reflect on their work. Action Research Projects to Improve Instruction and Learning: Becoming a Reflective Practitioner is the name of an online course that began on February 1, 2015 and will end at the end of November 2015. The course provides teachers with the tools required to observe, orient, make decisions, and take action in the classroom. As a result of AR, participants will improve their classroom performance and students learning outcomes.

The course is free and open to anyone, who teaches, provides on the job training, shares information, manages workers, is involved in community building, and/or presents at conferences or at meetings.  Participants will learn to:

  • collect and analyze data
  • apply the information
  • take action
  • evaluate the results
  • adjust plans
  • take action
  • re-evaluate

The course is not only suitable for degree and non-degree practicing teachers or instructors, but it also caters to MA, and doctoral students. It includes reading material, writing tasks, and ongoing support by Nellie Deutsch (Ed.D), the instructor of the course. Enrolment is open: http://www.integrating-technology.org/enrol/index.php?id=335


Karen, S., Day. S. L., Bogle, L. R., and Matthews, D. B. (2014). A collaborative , design-based approach to improving an online program. Internet and Higher Education, 21, 74-81. Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B9yM0mLi7BhsTDQ4Q3hWV2JxZkU/edit

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