How do you ensure quality in online courses? That word gets a lot of buzz in higher ed! Today’s Frontiers post is all about quality and how to implement a course certification process. Joining us from the University of Central Florida is Senior Instructional Designer Aimee deNoyelles, who co-designed an online course review process for her institution. I was excited to hear all about this process and especially enjoyed hearing how involved their faculty were in this program and about how they use digital badges.
Enjoy today’s read and enjoy your day!
Lindsey Downs, WCET
Quality. Once you start looking for the word, you will find it all around you. In restaurant slogans, in Amazon product descriptions, even in public restrooms. In any context, quality is subjective, ineffable, and often elusive. When it is uttered in the online education realm – especially when it precedes “assurance” – even more so. Tensions inevitably rise among those teaching in those contexts. Who determines my online course is a quality course? Just what constitutes a quality course, anyway?
And yet, the notion of quality assurance in higher education online teaching and learning environments is more prevalent than ever before. In my state of Florida, the 2025 State University System Strategic Plan for Online Education (2015) challenged each institution to implement a course certification process. Acknowledging that the “quality of online education can be complex and difficult to define” (p. 2), this certification process would serve to more explicitly recognize the development of quality online education across the state.
For over 20 years, efforts to instill quality in online learning have been taking place at the University of Central Florida (UCF). This is mainly by preparing faculty to create and teach online courses through rigorous front-end professional development, guided by an instructional designer such as myself. After this credentialing, the relationship continues. Great success has been realized in this approach with regards to faculty satisfaction, student satisfaction, and course performance.
Four Steps to Assuring Quality
Agreeing that a certification process would further reinforce quality design of online courses, as well as give us an additional venue to foster relationships with faculty, we began the journey. In 2017, I was charged with overseeing the implementation of an online course review process at UCF. Two years and over 200 online course quality designations later, I’d like to share four recommendations to those challenged to implement such a quality assurance process in their institutions, with an eye toward assuring those directly involved – the faculty designing online courses.
1. Engage in Dialogue
Talk with faculty about quality online course design in general. What elements constitute a quality learning experience, in their view? Are some harder than others to actually implement? Engage in this dialogue before generating a list of quality standards. When the items do become more settled, it can be shared that faculty directly informed them. In addition, insights generated from the conversation often influence other areas in faculty development.
Before going live, reach out to your online faculty champions and those serving in an advisory capacity, and present the communication plan. We generated an FAQ of sorts (“What is the Quality Online Course Review?”, “Who is eligible?”, “Why should we do this?”) and asked those faculty to provide feedback on how our answers could be potentially interpreted. For instance, the question of “Will my course be reviewed without my consent?” was added to the list when one faculty identified it as a possible concern, a concern we had not initially considered.
Engaging in dialogue after reviews have taken place yields helpful findings as well. Nearly a year into the reviews, we surveyed faculty about motivation to participate, incentives, satisfaction, understanding of items and processes, and perceived benefits. We also asked what they would be willing to do, such as peer review an online course or have their own course peer reviewed. Inevitably, something will surprise you. For instance, more faculty indicated they would rather have students review their course than other faculty. This particular finding may not reflect the culture at your institution, so it’s best to talk with those directly involved.
2. Emphasize the Guiding Philosophy
Each quality assurance approach is going to vary, based on the culture and expectations of the institution. Select a few simple phrases that represent the underlying philosophy of your quality assurance approach. Recite them early and often, and pepper them throughout the website. Here are a few of ours, bolded for emphasis:
- Ultimately, this is about the success of your students.
- The items address effective online course design rather than teaching.
- Reviews are intended for continuous improvement rather than evaluation.
- Engage in a collaborative course review with an instructional designer.
- The process is designed so that all courses reviewed have the potential to achieve a quality designation.
These deliberately chosen phrases get at the heart of what the certification process is about, and steers away from what it’s not. For us, reviewing online courses for quality course design is not a process that will be done to faculty, but rather with faculty, for the ultimate betterment of students.
3. Amplify Student and Faculty Voices
Survey results revealed that 96% of participating faculty agreed or strongly agreed that the review process improved their course design. An open-ended survey question asked them for more details – details that can then be shared in campus presentations and websites (“What Faculty are Saying”) to entice other faculty. Faculty comments like, “I was inspired to add more activities to promote student interaction,” “Better navigation for students,” and “The accessibility of my course was greatly improved,” help other faculty understand the tangible benefits of participating in such a process.
In several cases, students have been surveyed to provide their feedback about the course design before the review takes place, offering a “pre” and “post” comparison of sorts. I find that faculty sometimes value student voices more than mine, and faculty are often pleasantly relieved by their comments, sometimes being a bit too hard on themselves.
4. Celebrate the Successes
Recognition goes a long way. Each semester, we publish the list of faculty who have achieved a designation in our department newsletter. Each faculty member also receives an acknowledgement letter from the Vice Provost of Digital Learning, commending their commitment to student success. This serves as a useful piece of teaching evidence that can be included in a dossier. Digital badges offer a bit of flair for the student eye.
These four recommendations – engage in dialogue, emphasize the guiding philosophy, amplify student and faculty voices, and celebrate the successes – have been instrumental in promoting the course review process and designating over 200 online courses at UCF. Now that the certification process is implemented, we turn our eye toward reaching faculty who have not yet participated in a review. Beginning in the fall, we will feature a quality standard in each departmental newsletter, which will direct readers to a dedicated area on the department’s website.
We can’t wait to learn more from our fellow colleagues about what works in their contexts. Please post your insights in the “Comments” section” or tweet comments to WCET using #WCETFrontiers!
Senior Instructional Designer
University of Central Florida