Published on 2013/12/16

Quality in Online Learning: What Does that Mean for the Online Learner?

Quality in Online Learning: What Does that Mean for the Online Learner?
Any judgments on the quality of an online learning program should be focused on whether the courses are meeting the needs of the students themselves.

What does “quality” mean in online learning?

It’s an interesting question, one around which there is growing concern. There are so many ways to define quality that the conversation is often at cross-purposes. When we talk about the quality of a course or a program, are we talking about outputs such as grades, degrees, competencies and jobs? When we say we have a high-quality offering, are we really talking about inputs? Is it about the expertise and national reputation of the faculty and/or the institution? Is it about the money spent and the production value of videos and other content in the course? Is it about the sophistication of the technology platform that can support large numbers of students? Or are we really, specifically, talking about the student experience in a course?

Let’s be explicit and transparent in our definitions. What kinds of experience or results (for whom and in what context) define quality? Whose definitions matter in deciding when we have achieved quality and what standards measure it?

For students, the practical, transactional and (we all hope) transformational experience of the course matters at least as much as the outcomes beyond the course.

Non-traditional learners have specific motivations and priorities that tend to be well suited for the online course format. Many of these needs and interests are reflected in the opinions of the whole online learner population. Within this population, the line is blurring between traditional and non-traditional learners. They indicate the same concerns with quality.

Students enroll in online courses for convenience, flexible pacing in program completion, work schedule issues and program requirements. In the course, elements about the way it is designed and supported are more important to them than any other factor outside of direct, instructor-related factors.[1] In a broad survey involving more than 2,300 online students from 31 institutions, respondents reported that course design standards represented in the Quality Matters Rubric were important to their success and contributed to the quality of their experience.

As we increasingly focus on issues of quality in online (and classroom-based) education and develop new tools to extract data on student behavior in these courses, we should continue to be mindful about what students themselves tell us about quality. What they are saying is that we aren’t meeting their expectations for some of the educational experiences they most value: clearly-defined assignments, instruction excellence and faculty responsiveness.[2] These elements are important. They don’t require technology, but they do require attention and rigor. Many institutions have begun to focus on these components of quality, but more improvement is needed.

By paying more attention to what students have to tell us about quality, and evaluating it in more rigorous ways, we can do better to help them do better.

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[1] Penny Ralston-Berg, “Online Course Quality: The Student Perspective,” Penn State World Campus Learning Design, 2011.

[2] Noel-Levitz, “National Online Learners Priorities Report,” 2012. Accessed at


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Readers Comments

Henry Smalling 2013/12/16 at 12:16 pm

This is a really interesting and important question that we ask of ourselves and our colleagues on a regular basis.

What is quality?

Is it measured by the outcomes our students achieve post-graduation, or by the knowledge they gain, or by the skills they acquire?

I think we will find that different institutions make different promises to their students and, based on what they have promised, the outcome measurement will vary.

To be honest, this is what scares me most about performance-based funding. Either it will be so specific in its metrics that non-aligned institutions will suffer, or it will try to include such a wide array of metrics that it will wind up ineffectual.

Vera Matthews 2013/12/16 at 4:52 pm

One of the challenges of defining and measuring quality for online education is that the educational pathway of an online student is often difficult to track. With traditional, on-campus students, it’s possible to track their progress through different courses and determine whether a credential was earned. That could serve as a measure of quality. On the other hand, many online students are occasional learners, or might attend more than one institution in their pursuit of a credential. It’s thus harder to determine what they did with the knowledge/skills gained from the course (if any).

Anon 2013/12/16 at 5:12 pm

My team is currently undergoing an assessment of the eight Quality Matters standards. We are finding that the fifth one — learner interaction and engagement — is the hardest to integrate into our course design. Are there any strategies you could recommend? (This question is open to all commenters.)

Deb Adair 2014/01/06 at 2:07 pm

In reference to the question above, it’s a difficult one to respond to in any detail in this discussion forum.

QM’s 8 General Standards are really the organizing structure for the 41 specific review standards. So General Standard 8 includes all of the specific standards that focus on engaging students to become active learners in ways that contribute to the learning process and student persistence. The 4 specific standards in this section are each supported by detailed annotations that should provide the kind of guidance you seek while ensuring the activities used promote the achievement of the learning objectives.

By the way, this guidance is customized to the type of course and particular rubric you are using. If this is a for-credit, higher education course, then the core HE Rubric would be the appropriate one. If this is a non-credit course, the Continuing and Professional Education (CPE) Rubric would contain the appropriate guidance. You would need access to the complete QM Rubric(s) to see these resources.

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