Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On adopting Quality Standards

Quality does matter

As is typical, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about quality in online courses.  It’s usually on my mind in part because it’s my job, and because I hold teaching and learning, and access to learning as integral to my philosophy. I often find myself reflecting on what I know that we do at our university and what I want us to do.  I really believe that we can do better and frequently have ideas for how.  Of course, university politics and process usually slow me down.

A few years ago our institution finally adopted the QualityMatters ™ (QM) standards for online and hybrid courses.  I advocated often for adoption, to our faculty governance council, to our administrators who influence or make these decisions, and to faculty who had more influence than I in such matters.  Now a few years later, we are members, but not much further in implementing these standards across the university.

Quality Matters is, in my thinking, the closest thing to national standards for online course development that we have.  It was created by higher education faculty members for higher education faculty members, initially as part of a FIPSE grant. Now, as a copyrighted and subscription based program, the QM organization continues to engage higher education faculty in the 3-year cycle of reviewing and updating the standards.  Most valuable to me is that they also publish the bibliography that informs each standard and sub-standard.  (Also see for this and additional documents.)

A little history

Through most of the dozen-or-so years that I’ve been an instructional designer and part-time faculty member at our institution, I’ve been one of a few leaders in what has turned out to be a mostly grass roots effort to engage faculty in the development and teaching of online courses.  At one point, I organized a group of faculty from various disciplines who were teaching online courses.  Our university’s online course offerings were still emerging and no fully online programs were offered yet.  In trying to gauge the external and internal environment, and anticipating changes in how our administration thought and how they would be influenced by cultural and economic shifts, I proactively suggested that our group, the Webslingers, develop our own guidelines for quality in online courses.

The process was worthwhile, if not a bit difficult at times.  The faculty received no acknowledgement for participating in this group, so adding one more thing to their list made it challenging to complete the process.  But we did.  We modeled it after several rubrics that were already developed and available from other colleges and universities.  I was thankful that they went before us!  What we all learned is that the essential elements of quality are consistent across institutions.  Some had elements not held by others, and some phrased similar things differently, but what all considered as integral to quality aligned with what we already promoted.  That was not a surprise, but still reassuring.

Although it took a few years longer than I anticipated, I was right about the impending interest and administrative support for online and hybrid courses. Our institution first engaged the faculty senate to consider making changes to the faculty handbook.  The changes included a process for formal approval before a course could be delivered online, and a requirement for faculty new to teaching online to complete a specific workshop that would lay the foundation for development online courses.  I was privileged to develop and facilitate this, and redevelop….and redevelop….actually, it’s an ongoing process! 

The approved additions to the faculty handbook included a charge for faculty governance to establish a council with a remit to recommend policy and review online course proposals.  Early in their formation I suggested that they consider the adoption of official standards, and presented to them the QM program.  It was too soon in their responsibilities and learning to understand what I was proposing and my suggestion was met with pessimism and was tabled for an unforeseen time.

Those of us in higher education know that sometimes the only way to get things done is to work behind-the-scenes to gain support.  I talked it up to anyone who would listen.  It took about a year, but I was finally invited back to the faculty council to discuss QM.  I presented the history, an earlier version of the full rubric that was available, and, I felt most importantly, the literature that QM provides that informs each and every standard.  By the end, we finally had consensus that this would be the formal recommendation, and shortly thereafter, we became institutional members.

Our QM rollout is, in my impatient mind, painfully slow because of the same factors that kept us from earlier adoption.  A draft of our proposed plan for a formal rollout was tabled over a year ago and has not yet been resurrected.  Where once we could see a need and simply address it, we are now bound by faculty governance approval. It is great to have administrative support for institutional adoption, but we are now also caught up in the higher education timeline for getting things done.

Responding to our implementation reality

The Instructional Design team here started by participating in the online QM training.  Each of us has completed between 1-3 QM workshops, moving towards Master Reviewer status, and eventually to Facilitator Certification.  Our attempt at moving the institution forward began with offering introductory sessions on what QM is including why we adopted it.  Our next step were Faculty Teaching Circles.  We have had a few departments request and receive grants for an Instructional Designer facilitated Teaching Circle.  We have additional requests coming forward.  The grants have so far been department specific, and this works well because of the way it builds community and mentorship from within each unit.  My attempt to offer an academic year First-Friday series has not yet been successful due to low enrollment - all from the same department.  A Teaching Circle is in the works for them. 

I hope that we will receive additional support to move forward with more of the formal opportunities that the QM membership offers.  I am, however, quite certain it will not happen in the timeframe that I want.  Higher Education operates on its own time!

Thanks for checking in,


Legon, R., & Runyon, J. (2007). Research on the impact of the Quality Matters course review process. Presentation at the 23rd Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning. Retrieved from:

Pollacia, L., Russell, J., & Russell, B. (2009). Developing an online program in computer information systems using Quality Matters standards.  MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5 (2), 304-315. Retrieved from


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