Ensuring Online Course Quality Requires Constant Vigilance

Online programs are under a microscope. Some school faculty and administrators are concerned with maintaining academic quality, while others have already identified problems with quality and integrity. Negative media exposure has caused accreditors and other stakeholders to scrutinize online learning, and college and university administrators know that they need to respond.

The eQuality program, used at the Open Campus of Florida State College at Jacksonville, provides a method for ensuring and demonstrating quality across online courses and degrees. It provides both an overall plan and a framework, and it also allows colleges and universities to address concerns or issues as they arise.

The eQuality model is based on continuous process improvement. Quality is always the guide, and it is important to remember that quality is an ongoing effort, and not a destination or goal. Also, quality does not belong solely to instructors or administrators. All stakeholders are responsible for maintaining quality. Therefore, it is important to give a voice and an opportunity for input to everyone involved. Institutional administration, campus administration, instructors, staff, students, and sometimes even the community need to be involved in program development and updating.

Equally important is relying on data-driven decision making. Collecting the data is only the first step. Schools must then analyze and share the data so that all decisions are based on collected information. The data will reveal the best direction or course to pursue. The eQuality model is based and operates on a significant amount of data from various sources, including virtual focus groups, surveys, student feedback, and other observations. And because instructors and students are scattered around the world, even the focus groups at the Open Campus are run virtually.

Developing the eQuality Model
Creating and formalizing a quality program for online courses is a continuous process. This means that new data continually demands small tweaks or even substantial changes to program operations. Yet with the proper framework in place, it is possible to identify what changes need to be made. The framework also allows the school to measure the effectiveness of those changes.

The model development process at the Open Campus was based first on surveys from faculty, students, and administrators. Those surveys sought to identify what the various stakeholders knew and felt about quality. The next step involved breaking the stakeholders into focus groups of faculty, students, and staff to get more in-depth information about their perspectives on quality.

It came as no surprise that all three groups had different descriptions and definitions of what a quality course or program looked like, felt like, and accomplished. That information was synthesized with best practices from around the world to become the four areas of quality measurement for online programs. Those four areas became the four pillars: quality courses, quality instruction, quality support, and quality administration.

Structure of the eQuality Model
The foundation of the eQuality model is college leadership. For any quality program to succeed, high-level leadership is required to put it in place, support it, and make sure that it works.

Next, a quality program needs policies, procedures, and guidelines. These can change and evolve over time. It is critical that these policies, procedures, and guidelines do not build barriers to success but instead remove them so that instructors can teach, students can learn, and staff can support the entire program.

Further, all faculty and staff should have the technological resources they need to conduct their job effectively and efficiently. Those tools are part of the foundation of the program.

Finally, any online program must be founded in academic rigor and integrity. Online programs must have at least the same academic rigor and integrity as face-to-face classroom courses. Policies, procedures, tools, and program support must work collectively to ensure this; otherwise it will be difficult if not impossible to support quality learning.

Ultimately, all four pillars are critical to the success of an online program. Without quality courses or instructors, students suffer. Instructors and students both suffer without quality support or administration. A quality learning experience is contingent on maintenance of
all four pillars.

Above all, the goal is online student success. That means more than students passing courses. Students must pass courses at the level of learning that is expected by the school. In other words, online students must learn what the college or university wants them to learn. That should be what is included in the official curriculum outline, and it generally is the same material that is presented in face-to-face or hybrid courses.

Excerpted from Ensuring Online Program Quality with the eQuality Model, a Magna Publications white paper.
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