December 21, 2017

Questioning the Quality of Online Learning Programs

Selecting a book out of a laptop representing online learning programs

By: Damayanti C., Associate Web Content Editor

Online learning is growing in popularity, and according to a report from the Babson Survey Research Group, one in four students are enrolled in online courses.  While popular,  many of the digital offerings don’t follow any strict guidelines for quality, structure or design. They can cost more than on-campus programs, and often don’t get a vote of confidence or buy-in from faculty and others working in academics. This begs the question – do online courses deliver the same quality as traditional courses?

Yardsticks for Online Course Quality

So how does one gauge online course quality? That depends on several criteria, according to the The International Association for K-12 Online Learning. The  iNaCOL has put together the iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Courses, but when it comes to online courses in higher-Ed, things get murky.  Every university or college has its own course guidelines and is structured differently. Even within the same university, online courses and traditional courses are not managed by the same authorities. In Canada, post-secondary education is governed by each province, but in the U.S., only K-12 education is the state’s responsibility.


Many universities simply take their regular courses and offer them online with little or no evaluation or review, which is something they wouldn’t do for on-campus classes. This adversely affects course quality since the teaching environment and medium varies widely between online and face-to-face classes. All online courses (even those that were reviewed for on-campus offerings) should be reviewed by faculty members for appropriateness and continuously monitored.

Instructional Design

Close interaction between faculty members and instructional designers is essential for the success of online education, especially during the initial stages of course development. This is not the case if the department that oversees online courses is not located on campus or is a separate entity. The course materials should be based on student needs and incorporate multiple learning paths. Opportunities for online interaction (chats, forums) between students and instructors should be built into the course design.

Student Assessment

While there are multiple ways to assess students’ progress, it is important to have frequent assessment with timely feedback. This way students and instructors are aware of the students’ mastery of learning objectives. Data from student assessment can be used to compile annual student learning outcomes, which in turn will help instructors design more effective courses.


Online courses must use a variety of tech tools and be user friendly. Instructors should be able to add content, assessments, and rich media (video, CDs and podcasts) to enhance learning. Ease of navigation and consistency is also a big plus!  Additionally, the interface should be secure and able to handle sensitive student information.

Course Evaluation and Support

Continuous evaluation of courses ensures that the content, technology and course design is up to date. Courses should be evaluated every five years, if not every year. Technical support must be readily available to students and faculty 24/7. An orientation course offered to help students understand the software and hardware requirements, how to set-up their computers and how to navigate through the course materials, is highly desirable.

Instructors are the Last Piece of the Puzzle

Online teaching has its challenges, and even highly qualified and experienced teachers may not have the skills to successfully teach an online course. That is why Seton Hill University mandates that every full-time or part-time instructor undergoes a three-week training for online teaching before they become online instructors. Not all universities have strict standards for online instructors, who usually end up being adjunct faculty or part-time teachers. These instructors miss out on the training and tools that are usually available to full-time faculty.

Committing to Quality

Universities could benefit from joining membership organizations such as Quality Matters, that provide guidance and resources geared toward quality online education and learning. Some schools have their own quality guidelines based on student and faculty feedback and outcomes. It is surprising to note that there is no independent organization that oversees the quality of digital classes in higher-Ed in the U.S.

The quality of online courses is a concern to students and educators alike, but as you can see, a lot of tools are available to instructors and universities to continuously improve and certify the quality of their courses. The good news is that many universities, like Seton Hill University, are focusing on quality and student outcomes. George Washington University put together a faculty task force to review online course quality and the committee came up with a report sometime in February 2017. This trend will expand to many more centers of learning in the future because online learning is only going to grow in the years to come. Universities will simply have to find a way to make their digital offerings as effective as their classroom courses. Also universities would benefit from an independent council that can propose and agree on industry-wide standards to improve the state of online education in America.