Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online by Tony Bates


EC 201 passes QM Review

I teach a number of economics courses between Portland Community College and Portland State University. I teach face-to-face courses and online. In March I was asked by the distance learning department at Portland Community College to put my Principles of Microeconomics up for a Quality Matters (QM) Review.

A QM Review is a rigorous process that evaluates online courses in 8 key areas.

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

In June, my Principles of Microeconomics course (EC 201) passed the QM Review process with 95 points out of 95 points!  I am proud that my course scored so well.  It is now listed on the QM website as a QM Recognized Course.

QM Certificate for Rondi Schei
QM Certificate for Rondi Schei

My goal is to have all my courses QM reviewed and certified in the next year.

Saying “no” to publisher digital learning solutions

Publishers have developed content rich web-based learning solutions for students that please the senses and improve overall scores. They save time for the instructors as well. But, are they all they are cracked up to be…yet?

While I am a proponent of using publisher content that is freely available to augment my online courses, I am not a huge proponent of their digital learning solutions for several key reasons.

  1. Errors or inaccuracies with answers and the fact that the issue will not be resolved with your class.
  2. Glitches and system  “downtime.”
  3. The inaccessibility of the learning solution.
  4. Having to input grades into a LMS manually from the publisher learning solution.

When I first came across the digital learning solution for my textbook, I thought it was the next best thing to sliced bread. But after using it for several terms, I became quite frustrated and so did my students. I was constantly having to call in and have errors fixed.  My students were confused because they did not know whether their answers were actually correct or not.

When I began development on my online course, I  found that these “solutions” were not that accessible for students with disabilities. So, I decided  enough was enough. I came up with my own “learning solution” right in my LMS. This way, I was able to minimize those four issues I listed above.

I first considered what fundamental activities that publisher learning solutions provided, that work so well. I found self-assessments and auto-graded homework to be the two key features.  I then thought, how can I go about making self-assessments or providing them. My textbook fortunately had a couple of self-assessment activities that did not require student purchase of a digital learning solution.  But I wanted more.  Luckily my textbook has gone through a number of editions, so I utilized all the available test banks and created my own “Self-Quizzes” using Respondus StudyMate.  Most of the activities are keyboard accessible and they provide a different format than the D2L Quiz Tool.

As for Homework, I generally assign some analytical problems from the end of chapter problem sets. I utilized the D2L Quiz tool to create fill-in-the-blank multi-part questions that could be auto-graded. For each question, I would leave detailed feedback on how to work through the problem (not the answers) and the students can take a second attempt to raise their scores.

If I could recreate the instructor content from the test-banks, solutions manuals, and instructor manuals to provide a similar experience without the need for another learning solution besides D2L, I was saving myself headaches. I can now fix errors as they came to my attention.  This reduces the number assignments I must manually re-grade and also minimizes the number of students who may be confused by an error.  I only have to worry about my D2L being “down”, I do not have to worry too much about accessibility*, and I no longer have to transfer grades over either.

*Desire2Learn is considered to be one of the most accessible learning management systems available (along with Moodle).  Read the report A Comparison of Learning Management System Accessibility or view the related PowerPoint Presentation for more information.

Making the most of publisher content

In the beginning

I remember the first online course I developed. When I started the  project, I thought it would be relatively straightforward. After all, I had been using Desire2Learn extensively for my face-to-face courses; this should be a piece of cake, right? I soon found that the phrase “piece of cake” did not apply to the development of an accessible or engaging online course.

At first, I worked with tools that would easily augment my existing course materials. But as I progressed, I found myself thinking that the course I was building not only looked boring, but I was seriously considering the ability of my students to learn the material without more resources. The question I constantly asked myself was “If I were taking this course, do I have all the tools necessary to accomplish this assignment?” As an instructor, I sometimes forget that what seems simple and straightforward to me can be the biggest hang-up for a student.

My online classroom philosophy

My philosophy is that my course shell is my classroom. I do not want the students to have to traverse beyond the my online classroom unless they are doing independent research. I believe that everything the student may need to understand the subject should be available from within my classroom. I do not believe that my teaching style is the best for all students, and therefore I think it is important they have study aids made easily available to them. Having these additional resources increases the chances there is an explanation of a concept that will connect with their unique learning style.

So, I just had to find the right resources to facilitate that goal. That was a journey all unto itself! I needed to start with the textbook, one that would support the independent nature of online learning.

Supporting the independent nature of online learning

Laptop with informational resources on screen
Linked from: Online Learning Insights

Successful online learners are good at independent study because they are generally self-motivated and self-disciplined. But just because successful online learners are motivated and disciplined, does not mean that I should leave them in the deep end of my subject matter without some sort of life-line other than sending me an email.

The first reference that online students generally turn to is their textbook. So, I wanted to find a textbook that would provide great student ancillaries that were freely available. Students pay a small fortune for their textbooks and, in my opinion, access to well-developed student ancillaries should be included in the cost. Not only that, but I did not want to re-invent any wheels if possible.

It has become a best practice to provide students with an introduction and conclusion for each learning module. I know that sometimes I just don’t have the time to develop topic overviews, learning objectives, and detailed summaries from scratch.  Wouldn’t it be nice if all publisher materials provided instructors with this basic information?  Unfortunately, not all publisher instructional material is made equal.

I teach economics and after a long search through introductory textbooks and their ancillaries, I found one that freely provided:

  • Chapter Overviews
  • Chapter Learning Objectives, Instructional Objectives
  • Student Stumbling Blocks
  • Self-Quizzes
  • Historical pieces on concepts
  • Interactive Graphs
  • Advanced mathematical notes
  • Video Clips on nearly every economic concept
  • The first week’s chapter reading in PDF format
  • Additional worked problems
  • Test Banks

Wow! I hit a jackpot! Interactive graphs to boot! I was in instructor resource heaven and my students would not have to pay for anything more than their textbook. If they did not quite understand a concept from my lecture video, they could view one of the video clips. If they were history buffs, they could read up on the history behind economic concepts. If they were mathematical, they could look at the more advanced math notes. Here was a plethora of materials to appeal to a variety of student interests.

Final thoughts

image of mobile phone with multiple competing social media apps
Image: Instagram and other social media apps, Jason Howie

We are in an era where our online courses must compete against online entities such as Facebook and YouTube for our student’s limited time and attention. Making a content and resource rich online course has helped keep my students in my classroom and not out searching for additional content and getting distracted by the latest and greatest posts and uploads.

The wealth of ancillary content associated with my text was a great asset in the development of my course. I chose the ancillaries that matched my teaching style and supported my personally developed materials. As a result, my class averages are higher on all assignments and exams. In addition, my students tend to retain basic concepts from the first week and are able to reference and expand upon them in later weeks. Finding a text with great ancillaries was a win-win. It was a win for me in creating a content rich course and a win for my students in their ability to successfully complete the course.

Note: Sam Houston State University’s (SHSU) Online Newsletter posted an article in April of 2014 on Best Practices for Working With Publisher Content. It lists nine best practices for the use of publisher materials.

Originally posted at on May 12, 2014.