Last year, in its final annual report on online learning, the Babson Survey Research Group found that the number of U.S. higher education students taking at least one online course reached 5.8 million (nearly one half taking all their classes online). More than one quarter (28 percent) of all students enrolled in higher ed took at least one online course.

This is a continuation of the long-term trend that the survey has identified. With online education having gone mainstream, the report’s authors no longer see the need to focus their resources on it. (The National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System is now closely tracking online and distance education.)

As interesting as the numbers are, it’s of equal importance to see that a significant majority of academic leaders (over 70 percent) believe that the learning outcomes achieved by online education are equivalent (if not superior) to those found in the face-to-face classroom.

The growth of online education, and the acknowledgement that it works, is heartening to those of us who recognize its importance in reaching nont-traditional learners. However, there remain underlying questions about the uneven caliber of online courses.

Competing on Online Course Quality

Quality is starting to matter–and matter a lot. With almost 6 million learners taking online courses, there’s a large and growing market of providers. Moreover, as students are presented with added options, the institutions are now competing on course quality.

All this is translating into colleges and universities taking course design extremely seriously, and making sure that they are providing a quality experience that’s consistent, engaging, and accessible.

Essential steps to building high-quality online courses are numerous and expansive, but let’s look at three crucial phases that can make a difference.

1. Upfront Analysis

When it comes to instructional design, one of the most important investments a designer can make is in the upfront analysis. Analysis should occur first at the institutional level – what is the institution’s culture, history with online learning, timeline, and mandates? Then the analysis moves to the program and/or course level. This is the time to ask a lot of questions:

  • What are the accrediting outcomes that learners need to achieve?
  • Who are these learners? How have they been previously onboarded to online?
  • What’s the expectancy of time on task?
  • Where is the course content coming from? Is it to be transformed from a face-to-face course, does it draw on existing content contained in an LMS, or is it something completely new that’s just now being developed? What technical or functional constraints exist in delivering this content?

Many designers, under pressure to begin producing courses immediately, tend to take face-to-face lecture notes and force them into an online format and neglect to spend time on this crucial analysis stage.

The key, however, is taking the time to get the upfront analysis accurate and work from it as everything else will be realized from it.

(Next page: Steps 2 & 3 for crafting a high quality online course)


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