Pandemic brings renewed focus to online quality assurance process

The abrupt shift last year to virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed focus to Indiana University's work with Quality Matters, a nationally recognized, faculty-centered quality assurance process for online and blended courses.

IUPUI student studying at a laptop covered in stickersView print quality image
IU has about 60 classes across five campuses certified through the Quality Matters process, but administrators want to increase that number. Photo by LIz Kaye, Indiana University

Right now, about 60 classes across five campuses are certified through the process. But administrators hope that number will skyrocket as faculty become more aware of the tools to help their students succeed in a virtual classroom.

The Quality Matters process helps faculty understand that it isn't just a matter of hosting what was created for an in-person class onto the internet, IU Quality Matters lead coordinator David Becker said. Instead, the process focuses on student outcomes first and works backwards to create a course structure more intentionally focused on student learning.

"Designing a high-quality online class doesn't just mean looking for ways to do what you do face-to-face in a virtual space," said Elizabeth Goering, IUPUI professor of communication studies and director of undergraduate studies. "It means knowing what you want learners to know and be able to do after they've completed your class, and then figuring out which online tools will best help them accomplish that."

Calling her department an early adopter of online education, Goering said she developed her first online course back in 2006. Then, in 2016, her department chair arranged for all faculty to participate in a Quality Matters workshop. Since then, her goal has been simple: "To ensure that the online courses offered in our department are of a high quality."

Online classes done well are particularly important now that COVID-19 has begun to change the very way education itself is delivered, said Armando Razo, associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Political Science.

"It's likely the pandemic will increase the demand that our coursework be more accessible to students who cannot be here in Bloomington, and there is greater awareness that online education can be offered at large scales," he said. "It's clearer to everyone that online courses can take a bigger role as regular teaching activities -- not just to fully online students but even for future hybrid education for residential students who might appreciate more flexible arrangements."

Razo's "Political Thinking and Research Skills Literacy" class is the first to be certified on the IU Bloomington campus. IU Southeast holds the bulk of Quality Matters certifications, with nearly 40 classes, followed by IU East with 13, IU Kokomo with five and IUPUI with two.

Goering said the university's work to help faculty quickly transition to virtual learning last year helped IU fare better than many other schools across the country.

"I worry, though, that now the line between courses that were intentionally and purposefully designed as online classes and those that were not will become even harder to detect," she said. "That's where QM certification can help: It's a signal to potential learners that this class was designed to facilitate online learning."

That "seal of approval" could make all the difference in a bewildering sea of available virtual coursework, said IU East assistant professor of education Joshua Tolbert, whose Educating Students with Learning Disorders class recently received Quality Matters certification.

"The pandemic has certainly added relevance or urgency to IU's commitment to accessible, high-quality online courses, particularly as I still encounter many people who view online courses as a pale imitation of face-to-face instruction," he said. "Effective teaching and learning can occur in both modes, and QM certification demonstrates our dedication to well-designed, student-focused online instruction."

The certification also carries a special meaning for him, Tolbert said. "Working in the field of special education means that accessibility and inclusivity are extremely important to me. To me, the QM certification is basically an outward expression, or confirmation, of those ideals."

For Razo, accessibility also played a role in his growth through certifying his class.

"The most unexpected, but also among the most enriching, experience was how important accessibility and a learner-centered orientation are for course design," he said. "On the accessibility side, I realized that not everyone perceives teaching the same way. That realization improved not just my ability to better serve students with disabilities but, from a broader perspective, put myself in students' shoes to offer not just more effective but more empathetic teaching."

Interested in finding out more about Quality Matters at Indiana University? IU Online provides funds for certification of online courses; these funds are disbursed through a process managed by your campus teaching center. Want to have your course formally reviewed through the Quality Matters process? Email David Becker at dabecker@ius.edu or inquire at your campus teaching center.