The Hidden Heroes of Successful Online Courses


Last month, our team discussed key systemic program supports for K-12 online learning based on the National Standards for Quality Online Programs released by Quality Matters (QM) and the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance (VLLA). This month we discuss key elements of quality online courses and quality online instructional design.

To see more elements related to effective online learning courses, please review the National Standards for Quality Online Courses.

When conjuring up an image of an online course, one may imagine content housed within a learning management system (LMS). And while this is an accurate depiction, there is so much more operating in successful online courses to facilitate student learning. In this post, we discuss the importance of course overview and supports, accessibility and usability, and course evaluation.

Course Overview and Support

By the time students reach high school, they have had several years to learn the structure of their face-to-face courses, where to go, how material is presented and accessed, how they are assessed, and where to go for help and support.

The same cannot be said of online courses, of which the largest population of students is supplemental. That is to say that they are taking one or two online courses in addition to their face-to-face curriculum, and for many it may be their first time taking a course online. Online courses are  structured differently, often with all or most of the material accessible right at the start of the course, rather than a teacher pacing for the whole group each day.

Arguably, one of the largest differences is the physical and temporal distance between students and teachers which drastically changes how students are able to ask for and receive help and support.

Because of this, it is so important that online courses make it clear how the course is structured, how to move through the course, and most importantly how to ask for help from the online instructor. This means a course syllabus is provided as well as a recommended pacing guide so students can work at their own pace but understand their progress within the larger context of the course. This also means that minimum technology requirements are provided to ensure that students are able to access all the course materials.

Learner expectations and grading policies must also be clearly defined as again, many students are new to online courses and may not be aware of the necessary commitment required to be successful.

Accessibility and Usability

Pacing guides and syllabi are immensely helpful, but they operate under the assumption that a course is easy to navigate, intuitive to use, and that the structure of the course itself is not a barrier to student learning.

Accessibility and usability addresses Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by following (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) WCAG 2.0 AA standards, but it is so much more. Adherence to universal design principles ensures that all students are able to access all course content and activities as well as easily navigate and interact with all course components.

This translates to online courses that are logical in structure and most importantly, consistent. This also means that the course facilitates readability and that it provides content and materials to meet the needs of diverse learners.

Course Evaluation

The final unsung hero of successful online courses is course evaluation. In our last post, which covered commonalities of successful online programs, we discussed the importance of program evaluations. Online courses, too, need regular evaluations for effectiveness and use of a variety of assessment strategies.

Importantly, online courses need to be regularly updated to include new research and insights in the domain as well as updated technology and learning strategies. Online courses should be on a schedule of review and updated through a continuous improvement cycle based on the findings from the ongoing reviews.

Like the systematic supports we discussed previously, these elements of successful online courses operate behind the scenes. It is not clear to students that a course is under evaluation; however, the results are apparent in that they contribute to high quality, effective online courses.

The same is true for overview and support, and accessibility and usability. When these elements are operating successfully they are largely invisible, but when they are not, it is apparent and ultimately student learning suffers.

Success in Online Learning blog series

In our Success in Online Learning blog series, we discuss all things K-12 online learning in Michigan and across the nation. Our hope with this series is to provide a primer on K-12 online learning, cover established and emerging topics, and provide relevant research and resources. Stay up to date on future blogs in this series by signing up for email notifications!

About the Authors

Kristen DeBruler
Dr. Kristen DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University. She taught in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program at Michigan State University for three years. Her work focuses on K-12 online learning policy in Michigan and nationwide as well as understanding online learning best practices.

Christopher Harrington
Dr. Christopher Harrington has served public education as a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, and a consultant for more than 25 years and has experience assisting dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended, online, and personalized learning programs. He has worked on local, regional, and national committees with iNACOL and various other education-based organizations aimed at transforming education through the use of technology.

Picture of Michigan Virtual

Michigan Virtual

Michigan Virtual partners with over 500 Michigan K-12 school districts to provide students with high-quality online courses taught by highly qualified, Michigan-certified teachers and educators with affordable professional development opportunities.

The Digital Backpack

Get our latest articles sent straight to your inbox every week!