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Quality Matters: Your Guide to Creating Powerful Online Courses

/ Tyler Agnew

Higher ed students working on laptop in library.

A professor's inbox never sleeps. Instructors teaching online and blended courses know this truth more than most. Take an issue: technical problems, for example. Students panic. It's 2 a.m. I need help now, they think. Stop. They remember their instructor's guidelines and support documents linking to helpful technical support.

Thanks, Quality Matters (QM).

QM is a widely recognized framework that provides a set of standards higher education institutions and K-12 schools utilize to assess the quality of online and blended courses.

Undoubtedly, QM provides a needed resource. The online educational landscape shifts often and quickly — Quality Matters provides stabilization.

Learn more about QM and why it’s important. We’ll cover:

What is Quality Matters?

According to the organization itself, QM,  "is a research-supported approach to quality assurance and continuous improvement for online learning." At a high level, Quality Matters breaks down into three components: 

  • QM-designed rubrics help create effective online courses and the online aspects of blended learning.
  • Quality Matters provides peer review processes for evaluating online courses and a way to provide certification. 
  • Professional development opportunities teach faculty how to use the standards and develop conducive online learning environments.

Ultimately, Quality Matters improves online course design, which boosts student learning, engagement and satisfaction. Progress is key. 

The history of online learning

Online learning evolved from distance learning (now often used interchangeably), which is "an instructional mode in which teacher and student are separated by space or time," noted microbiologist Roy D. Sleator.

Sleator documented distance learning's beginning. Framed inside British North American Colonies, Boston, 1728, teacher Caleb Phillips buys an ad in the Boston Gazette promoting a revolutionary way to learn. Times change. So should education.

He's organized lessons on shorthand — a way of fast writing using symbols and abbreviations instead of words — and assures prospective students they "may, by having the several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston." 

He sends his lessons via the post.

A history of distance learning tells the story of advancements in online learning. In 1858, the University of London used Phillips’ approach of sending lessons through the post but at a larger scale. In 1892, the University of Wisconsin coined the term ‘distance education’. Not long after the turn of the century, the institution began recording lectures and sending phonographs to learners as part of lessons.

Computers changed the game. Using the IBM 1500 network, learners in the University of Alberta’s class of 1968 logged on for some of the first online classes. More institutions joined in. But until Quality Matters arrived, institutions often carried the burden of providing quality online instruction alone. 

Who started Quality Matters?

The MarlylandOnline (MOL) consortium began in 1999 with the goal of "(leveraging) the efforts of individual campuses whose academic leaders were committed to the expansion of online educational opportunities in Maryland through collaborative activities."

MOL submitted a proposal titled "Quality Matters: InterInstitutional Quality Assurance in Online Learning" to the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) to create a rubric for the design of online courses.

Success. Funding achieved. Institutions and K-12 schools across the globe now rely on QM in their course design.

Why is Quality Matters Important?

About 60 percent of all postsecondary degree seekers in the U.S. took at least some online classes in 2021; around 30 percent studied exclusively online. Online education's ascent remains steady. Learners need engaging, understandable, and impactful online courses. Without QM, online learning drifts, anchorless.

Quality Matters is essential for many reasons. Student retention holds a top spot on the list. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sarah Carr noted that retention rates in online distance learning courses ranged from 50 to 80 percent. So, what are the rates for face-to-face classes? 80 to 90 percent.

However, a trio of Miami University instructors provided evidence that QM's rubric and course design requirements boosted student retention rates to around 95 percent.

WATCH: Learn how Shoreline Community College uses Quality Matters.

Quality Matters defines best practices in providing interactive components, effective communication, and accessible materials. QM's ultimate goal is to provide the language and methodologies needed to create conducive learning environments. Its focus on continuous improvements ensures the following: 

  • Institutions emphasize student-centered course design.
  • Quality assurance processes evolve and produce high-quality training for faculty.
  • A process for vetting and incorporating new technologies helps keep learning engaging and effective.
  • Creating collaborative spaces for instructors and sharing across institutions improves levels of achievement on a grander scale.

Institutions with Quality Matters certification prove their commitment to providing excellent online learning opportunities.

QM serves as a mirror. Students know this truth. 

What do learners say about Quality Matters?

Learners understand QM creates better online courses. As research continues on their perceptions of Quality Matters and its effect on learning, many clearly appreciate QM. 

In a survey, students noted the Learning Activities and Learner Interaction guidelines (Standard 5) impacted them most in their course. They also noted clear and measurable learning objectives (Standard 2) helped them engage with the course and "led to improved learning" overall. 

Learners value clear instructions. Researchers found they desire transparent learning outcomes, understandable grading policies, and teacher feedback on assignments and assessments. 

For many young people, courses using learning tools and media that support and engage them provide better value.

What types of learning tools meet QM standards?

Choosing learning tools for an online course is easier using Quality Matters. QM breaks down learning tools based on their handling of student privacy, focus on accessibility, ease of obtaining, and ability to engage students.

A learner uses a laptop.

Online instructors must weigh the tools they choose.

1. Does this tool align with my learning objectives?

Focus on verbs. What are you asking students to do? If the tool helps learners meet the requirements, it may make the cut. Keep it simple. Build a list of tools, collaborate with peers, and seriously vet each learning tool. Seek out potential issues. If a tool detracts from learning outcomes at any stage of the course, reevaluate its usefulness.

2. Is the tool comprehensive enough?

Many tools do one thing well. But requiring several tools for students to accomplish the learning outcome? That's an issue. Search for tools with multiple use cases.

WeVideo’s interactive video design studio, PlayPosit, meets all the requirements.  Tools like PlayPosit afford course designers and teachers greater flexibility without burdening students with a bulky edtech stack.

Course developers need tools with comprehensive documentation and support on utilizing a tool. Does the tool in question integrate with other learning tools and a Learning Management System (LMS)?

What is the Quality Matters rubric?

The Quality Matters rubric contains eight comprehensive standards that cover essential elements of course design:

  1. Course Overview and Introduction
  2. Learning Objectives (Competencies)
  3. Assessment and Measurement
  4. Instructional Materials
  5. Learning Activities and Learner Interaction
  6. Course Technology
  7. Learner Support
  8. Accessibility and Usability

Each standard has specific criteria and annotations, guiding course developers and educators. An essential tool used by educational institutions and instructional designers, the Quality Matters rubric aids in evaluating and enhancing courses. By setting a standard for online courses that prioritize student learning outcomes, engagement, and accessibility, the rubric fosters collaboration among course creators and educators.

What is the QM peer review process?

QM’s peer review process helps maintain high standards of quality and effectiveness for online courses within the framework. Trained QM peer reviewers utilize the Quality Matters rubric to evaluate the course. They provide valuable feedback to foster continuous improvement in online course design.

The first step of the QM peer review process involves carefully selecting a team of peer reviewers who have received specialized training in the Quality Matters rubric. These reviewers, often faculty members or instructional designers with extensive knowledge of online education, thoroughly evaluate the course. They work closely with the course developer to ensure the course meets the highest quality standards.

A woman sits on the floor while using a laptop.

What is the 85 percent rule in Quality Matters?

Online courses receive a score based on 44 Specific Review Standards during the peer review process. The course must meet all Essential Standards during the review. These are 3-point, specific standards. A course must capture 85 percent of the points possible to attain QM certification.

Reviewers must provide evidence supporting their score. When a standard is "Not Met," Quality Matters requires the reviewer to give suggestions for improvement, including specific changes that a course developer should implement to meet the standard.

How long does a Quality Matters review take?

A Quality Matters review is an extensive, systematic, and thorough process. Typically, a course review takes four to six weeks. If an evaluation falls below the 85 percent threshold, instructors can submit an amended course within 14 weeks of receiving the final report.

What is the impact of Quality Matters?

Quality Matters helps institutions across the globe produce better online learning environments. It improves online instruction, and students' stress levels decrease. Their engagement levels rise. Resolutions manifest quickly.

Online learning is as effective as it can be in a world hinging on digitization and multiple modes of learning.

Tyler Agnew
Tyler Agnew is a writer, TEFL-certified educator, and web designer. He has contributed sports stories to USA Today and reviewed restaurants for Traveling and Living in Peru. Tyler now puts his M.Ed. in Administration to use by helping K-12 schools and higher education institutions develop microcredentials and adopt Open Educational Resources (OER).