/ Publication / Committing to Quality Online Learning

Committing to Quality Online Learning
Published on September 29, 2020

Modified on October 19, 2020

Written By: 

Christa GreenMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

|

Dr. Christopher HarringtonMichigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Suggested Citation

Green, C. & Harrington, C. (2020). Committing to quality online learning. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University. Available from https://michiganvirtual.org/research/publications/committing-to-quality-online-learning/

The need for standards of quality

As an increasing number of schools and districts throughout the state of Michigan are including an online learning format in their academic programs, there is a related and growing need to ensure students are receiving the highest quality education in this format. Having a set of nationally-recognized “standards of quality” for schools and districts will help school leaders plan for the development of high-quality online courses, instructional practices, and school- or district-wide programs. 

Michigan Virtual has maintained a long-lasting relationship with two education entities that have been at the forefront of virtual learning in the United States: the Virtual Learning Leadership Alliance (VLLA) and Quality Matters (QM). When these organizations teamed up to revise the outdated national online learning standards developed by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (now called Aurora Institute), Michigan Virtual stepped into leadership roles in the development of the new National Standards for Quality Online Learning. Through their participation, Michigan Virtual remains poised to serve all Michigan schools as they move forward with the ongoing development of their own online learning programs.

The need for Michigan Virtual’s expertise has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic as schools and districts across the state are relying heavily on the use of online or virtual learning to help with their continuity of learning during the 2020-21 school year.

Overview of the National Standards for Quality Online Learning

The National Standards for Quality Online Courses, Programs, and Teaching have been the most widely used and accepted benchmark for states, districts, and schools that use an online learning model or are working towards incorporating one. With a goal of providing the K-12 online and blended learning community with an updated, refreshed set of openly licensed standards to help evaluate and improve online courses, online teaching, and online programs, the VLLA, QM, and expert project contributors began their work. The standard sets, updated in 2019, include standards for quality online programs, quality online courses, and quality online teaching. Each individual standard is accompanied by a set of indicators as well as explanations and examples, which will allow for a variety of program types to understand the standards as they relate to their unique model and needs. The standards will be continuously and regularly revised and updated in order to reflect the most current research and best practices in the field of online and blended learning and to serve as a useful benchmark for schools, districts, and statewide programs. 

The National Standards for Quality Online Programs are intended to provide guidance and serve as a framework to improve online and blended learning programs. The standards address the principles of a quality online program including components of quality online teaching and quality course design and are broken down into the following 14 standard categories:

  • Mission Statement: With a focus on learning, clearly convey online program purpose and goals. The mission statement serves as a guide for day-to-day operations and for future strategic planning. 
  • Governance: A governance structure is developed with transparent roles and responsibilities designed to ensure long-term success. Governance members are knowledgeable about K-12 online learning and collaborate with the leadership team to implement policies and procedures that are in alignment with state accrediting agencies. 
  • Leadership: In a quality online program, the leadership team is responsible to the governance body and responsible for setting and meeting goals in support of the program’s mission. 
  • Planning: In order to reflect upon and improve organizational effectiveness, leadership should engage in regular strategic planning. Goals should be updated annually and shared throughout the organization. 
  • Organizational Staff: Staff are qualified, well-trained, and provided with ongoing support and the resources needed to achieve organizational goals and oversee the instructional learning environment.  
  • Financial and Material Resources: Plan for and manage financial and material resources in order to accomplish the organization’s mission and vision. 
  • Equity and Access: Policies and practices ensure that all learners are able to access the program, and accommodations are made to meet a variety of student needs. 
  • Integrity and Accountability: Leadership provides regular and timely updates on progress towards goal attainment, alignment to standards, student learning achievement, and meeting or exceeding industry standards related to course rigor. 
  • Curriculum and Course Design: Instructional design methods are implemented to enable effective online instruction for all courses and licensed content. Courses utilize regularly evaluated technology, and content is aligned with appropriate learning standards.  
  • Instruction: Leadership ensures excellent teaching is provided for students through instruction that is guided by evidence-based practices, self-assessment, inclusivity, academic integrity of assignments and assessments, and using learning analytics to inform changes in pedagogy and instructional practices. 
  • Assessment and Learner Performance: Multiple methods are used to assess student progress towards stated learning goals, including formative assessments, as well as providing timely, effective feedback. 
  • Faculty and Staff Support: Faculty and staff are provided with regular feedback regarding their performance and that of their students, professional development opportunities aligned to the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, and timely and effective technical support. 
  • Learner and Parent/Guardian Support: Support services are provided to both guardians and learners to address their varying needs, including academic advising, and to ensure learner success.                                                                     
  • Program Evaluation: Regular program evaluations, both internal and external, are conducted to inform all processes that affect teaching and learning.

The National Standards for Quality Online Courses provide a framework for schools, districts, and agencies to improve online learning courses. The standards should be modified to meet the individual needs of users and can be used as a tool to guide decision making. The standards are separated into the following seven categories:

  • Course Overview and Support: Overall course design and policies, as well as learner expectations, are available and made clear to the learner at the beginning of the course. 
  • Content: Various content options that promote student mastery of course content that are aligned with state or national standards are provided within each course as well as measurable objectives that state what learners will be able to demonstrate upon course completion. 
  • Instructional Design: Instructional materials, activities, resources, and assessments are aligned to standards, engage all learners, and promote achievement of stated competencies and academic goals. 
  • Learner Assessment: Various assessment strategies are used throughout the course and are geared towards learning and engagement. Assessments are linked to stated course competencies, and learners are provided with feedback on their progress. 
  • Accessibility and Usability: Course design reflects a commitment to accessibility and usability so that all learners can easily access and interact with all course materials and components. 
  • Technology: Course technologies promote learning and support course competencies without impeding the learning process. 
  • Course Evaluation: Course content and design are kept up to date and evaluated regularly for effectiveness. Findings from course evaluations are used as a basis for improvement. 

The National Standards for Quality Online Teaching provide a framework for schools, state agencies, statewide online programs, and other interested educational institutions to improve online teaching and learning. While the instructional philosophies and models for online teaching vary widely, these standards serve as guidance but provide flexibility. The National Standards for Quality Online Teaching are broken down into the following eight categories:

  • Professional Responsibilities: The online teacher has academic credentials in the field in which he/she is teaching and keeps up to date with the best practices in online teaching and learning pedagogy. 
  • Digital Pedagogy: The online teacher supports learning, uses digital technologies thoughtfully, and recognizes the impact of using (or not using) digital tools on learning. 
  • Community Building: To build a supportive online learning community, learner-learner interaction and collaboration are encouraged but are guided by expectations for appropriate behavior. 
  • Learner Engagement: Learner success and engagement is promoted through interactions with peers, with other stakeholders, and in learning activities. Learner agency is encouraged and the online teacher enables a learner-customized pace. 
  • Digital Citizenship: Standards for learner behavior related to technology use are established. The online teacher creates learning opportunities to model and promote digital citizenship. 
  • Diverse Instruction: Instruction is personalized based on learners’ diverse needs. Data are used to identify those learners who need additional support. 
  • Assessment and Measurement: Online assessments are reliable, valid, and varied to accurately measure learner progress and achievement of learning objectives. Assessment data are used to create personalized learning experiences based on learners’ needs. 
  • Instructional Design: Instructional resources are created to engage all learners and to ensure learner achievement of academic goals.

Promotion of the standards in Michigan

Michigan Virtual continues to promote the National Standards for Quality Online Learning throughout the state of Michigan through the writing of blog posts and reminders of their availability through social media and website publications. In their Success in Online Learning blog series, Michigan Virtual referenced and discussed the standards throughout the series in several posts, tying topics back to the standards while promoting and clarifying the meaning of individual standards. 

For example, the National Standards for Quality Online Programs standard of Program Evaluation was discussed in the blog What Do Successful K-12 Online Programs Have in Common?, the standard of Leadership was discussed in the blog Instructional Leadership: Supporting Online Teachers, the standard of Faculty and Staff Support was discussed in the blog Why Online Teachers NEED Ongoing Professional Development, and the standard of Learner and Parent/Guardian Support was discussed in the blog Creating a Supportive Learning Environment for Online Students: Communication is Key.  

Additionally, the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching standard of Learner Engagement was discussed in the blog Communication & Engagement in the Online Classroom, the standard of Diverse Instruction was discussed in the blog Online Student Support and Enrichment, and the standard of Professional Responsibilities was discussed in the blog Connecting Teachers: A Community of Practice

Michigan Virtual also offers online program reviews to Michigan K-12 schools and districts with supplemental online learning programs at no cost to the schools. These program reviews are directly aligned to the National Standards for Quality Online Programs and present an opportunity for schools to reflect on what’s working in their programs and which areas to modify in order to increase program effectiveness. Programs are analyzed based on existing evidence, and schools receive customized feedback and targeted resources related to their future growth areas. Schools are also provided an opportunity to discuss their results with our researchers and to ask questions tailored to their needs. 

In developing the review process, Michigan Virtual identified key areas of successful supplemental online programs rooted in the National Standards for Quality Online Programs: 

  • Program foundation
  • Curriculum, instruction, and assessment
  • Teacher and mentor support
  • Student and parent support
  • Communication, and 
  • Program evaluation

Through conducting these online program reviews, Michigan Virtual aims to help schools and districts increase student achievement in online learning as well as to help them align their practices to the National Standards for Quality Online Programs.  

Raising the quality of online learning in Michigan

As Michigan schools continue to develop and expand their online or virtual learning opportunities for students, it is highly recommended that they incorporate the National Standards for Quality Online Learning into the design, implementation, and ongoing refinement of their programs as a way to ensure that students experience high-quality learning. To that end, Michigan Virtual has created a series of online professional learning courses for teachers and administrators that are grounded in the NSQOL standards. The courses are designed to help schools increase the quality of their online courses, the related instructional practices, and the strength of their online learning programs, in general. The four courses are self paced, provide an opportunity for educators to receive SCECHs upon course completion, and are available at no cost to educators. Each course is designed to support educators by helping them to modify existing practices in a remote or blended learning environment in ways that are aligned with the National Standards for Quality Online Learning. 

In Course 1: Getting Started, educators are introduced to the National Standards for Quality Online Learning. The course focuses specifically on the quality online Teaching standards of Digital Pedagogy, Digital Citizenship, and Community Building. Upon completion of the course, educators should be able to promote clear expectations and guidance for learners in online courses as well as to examine indicators of (a) successful digital pedagogy practices, (b) impactful community building practices, and (c) practices that help to foster students’ digital citizenship.

Course 2: Course Content and Design focuses specifically on the quality online Course standards of Content and Instructional Design and the quality online Teaching standard of Learner Engagement. Upon completion of the course, educators should be able to examine indicators that promote learner engagement as well as to examine indicators of effective instructional design and effective content identification, alignment, and use. 

Course 3: Assessment focuses specifically on the Course standard of Learner Assessment and the Teaching standard of Assessment and Measurement. Upon completion of the course, educators should be able to examine indicators that support assessment variety, alignment, learner progress, and learner needs. 

Course 4: Meeting Needs focuses specifically on the Course standard of Accessibility & Usability and the Teaching standard of Diverse Instruction. Upon completion of the course, educators should be able to examine indicators of diverse instruction and indicators that promote accessibility and usability. 

Throughout each course, specific examples (with links to resources) are provided as to how teachers can meet specific standards at both the elementary and secondary levels. Educators are invited to add their own ideas and suggestions, interact thoughtfully with the course content, and reflect upon their own teaching practices. The courses provide a plethora of ideas that teachers can immediately implement in their own classrooms or within their own courses to improve their instructional pedagogy and align it more closely with the National Standards for Quality Online Learning. 

The National Standards for Quality Online Courses is also used in the quality review process required for virtual courses to be included in Michigan’s Online Course Catalog. The course syllabus includes the result of the Course Review with the rating and comments by standard.

As the number of students and teachers who are learning and teaching in some form of an online format continues to grow, schools and state-level leaders are encouraged now, more than ever, to engage with Michigan Virtual in order to learn more about how to increase the quality and impact of their online or virtual learning programs. Whether that means encouraging teachers to complete the series of online professional learning courses geared towards exploring the National Standards for Quality Online Learning, engaging with blogs and other content, signing up for a free online program review, or just exploring the wealth of resources available on their website, Michigan Virtual is committed to providing quality online learning experiences for all of their students and serving as a resource for others who share the same commitment to quality online learning. 

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