By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Not to brag, but let’s brag: IU Southeast now offers 56 Quality Matters-certified online courses.
That’s twice as many as the rest of the IU system combined, and good enough for 19th place nationally.
Not that we’re keeping score.
Then again, the numbers say something about our commitment, not only to online education, but to making online education as good as it can possibly be.
Quality Matters (QM) certification is the gold standard for online courses.
The standards from the Quality Matters higher education rubric cover every aspect of course design and practice.
A certified course is one in which students are informed of expectations from the very outset, learning objectives are measurable outcomes, technologies are appropriate and current, and tools are provided that promote active learning. Materials, learner support and assessment are all measured components. “Netiquette” and other policies are stated and agreed to. Efforts are made to accommodate learning differences and accessibility to all technologies and media are assured. Students are given multiple opportunities to track their own learning progress.
For IU Southeast to have come so far, so fast, is due to the strong advocacy of the Institute for Learning and Teaching Excellence (ILTE), which has provided guidance for instructors earning certification for their courses.
But ILTE expertise would be nothing without the desire of IU Southeast faculty to make sure their online courses are presented in accordance with best practices, and offer students as immersive an experience as possible in the virtual environment.
For those instructors who have achieved certification for their courses, QM has become a mindset that impacts their teaching more generally, and positively informs their relationships with students.
Jacob Babb, associate professor of English, teaches two QM-certified online courses, ENG W231, Professional Writing Skills, and ENG W500, Teaching Composition.
For Babb, QM has been something of a journey to make the inner workings of his courses more accessible to students.
“I have been surprised at how often the purposes and principles that guide my course design remained implicit,” Babb said. “QM encourages teachers to make our pedagogy visible to students.”
That visibility ultimately contributes to increased student success, according to Babb.
“Because the QM certification process makes learning outcomes and the purposes of different assignments more explicit, students are able to better understand why they are completing different activities and assignments,” Babb said. “I think that students perform better when they know why they are completing assignments and how the work we do together helps them to move forward along their educational paths.”
Jennifer Lathem, lecturer in geosciences, teaches GEOG-G108, a physical geography lab. Lathem has been teaching it as an online asynchronous course since the Spring of 2016, and it received QM certification in July, 2019, making it the first science lab course in the entire IU system to be taught completely online.
To conform with QM standards, Lathem had to overcome issues relating to the accessibility of maps, tables and other documents used in the course. Her solutions not only helped her earn certification for the course, but helped her revamp her face-to-face courses and become, in her eyes, a better instructor.
“Many of the QM standards apply to courses in other modalities as well,” Lathem said. There were modifications I made within all of my courses that improved the course design as well as my performance as an instructor.”
This was especially true of the assessment and measurement standards on the QM grading rubric, which led Lathem to implement rubrics with specific and descriptive criteria for the evaluation of students’ work.
“Implementing and improving grading rubrics allowed me to provide students with more effective and timely feedback,” Lathem said. “Students review this feedback provided within Canvas and the grading rubrics to learn from their mistakes on the weekly lab assignments.”
Across campus, Samantha Earley, teaches ENG-L207: Women and Literature online. She has learned that certification is “a multi-step, multi-year process.” But it’s one that rewards instructors and students alike.
“What I appreciate the most about QM is that the guidelines and processes that they suggest for course building are backed by research,” Earley said. “They have done the research on the most effective ways that online asynchronous courses should be designed in order to maximize student learning, so I know that if I follow the guidelines in building my courses, my students will have a good learning experience.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in the QM process, instructors get to be students again. Some have taught online but are challenged to unlearn and relearn, while others are complete newbies to this modality, though they may have been teaching face-to-face for decades.
For Earley, one of the challenges came in the area of alignment–making sure that the course materials and assignments allow for students to learn and be assessed on the course outcomes.
“Having the structure of QM has made it easier for me to build new courses, faster,” Earley said. “I have a clear idea of the way that the course should be laid out and I understand how the materials and assignments should build on one another.”
QM also helps with scaffolding, enabling Earley to gracefully blend students with differing levels of subject-matter knowledge into a cohesive group.
“In a well-laid-out online asynchronous course, students are able to focus on the materials and the learning that they need to do, rather than to be stressed about finding stuff and missing deadlines and assignments because they don’t know where they are,” Earley said. “Having a ‘Getting Started’ module helps, as that walks the student through the basics of the design, and they know how to work through the course.”
When it comes to grading, Earley has noticed that her bell curve is now inverted, with more students getting A’s than C’s.
She also has student feedback to rely on. In an evaluation of the course, one student went into detail.
“She said that she was happy to see that the course was organized into modules and that the learning outcomes, assignments, and assessments were in a table, because she knew then that the course would be organized and she would be able to find what she needed,” Earley said.
With the pandemic having accelerated the expansion of online learning at IU Southeast, the commitment to QM is a way to ensure that with quantity there is also quality.