How do universities and content providers ensure their online courses are engaging, rigorous, and appropriately aligned with key mastery outcomes?
This question is not asked that often. Most of us simply assume the courses we’re taking have been put through a painstaking vetting process before we ever click on the first lesson. This assumption makes sense because universities typically state that their course review process centers on the promotion of student learning and teaching effectiveness and also abides by a specific framework that ensures quality standards are always met. SUNY Canton is one of many schools that list their course review policies on their website, and it is clear how mindful they are of the quality of their online courses.
We have a similar process at TEL Education. We have spent the last four years developing 29 courses. During this time, we have discovered how important it is to continuously review our courses for quality and clarity. We want to ensure the content of each course is relevant, rigorous, and appropriately aligned to the crucial skills and competencies students need to become effective critical thinkers, creative problem-solvers, and capable managers of information.
So, how often are courses targeted for review and what does that course review process look like?
In short, we’re always in the process of reviewing our courses. We will complete reviews of our Biology, College Algebra, and American Government courses this fall and will start a round of reviews for three more courses in January.
The results of a course review center on the feedback from professors and subject-matter experts that we have recruited to join our Advisory Review Committee (ARC) for that course. Every ARC meets to review an assigned course in their field of expertise. After the reviews are collected, TEL’s Curriculum Development and Academic Services teams will convene a working session with advisory committee members to discuss specific details related to the reviews.
This is the course review process in a nutshell, but I think it’s important to consider what we hope to accomplish with each review, and I also think it would be helpful to further break down the process in the spirit of transparency.
There are five overarching goals we hope to accomplish with each review:
- Increase student engagement through relevancy and interdisciplinary connections.
- Reduce student confusion, support tickets, and general course questions.
- Clarify more difficult course content.
- Provide additional resources for student self-directed learning and goal setting.
- Stay current with the needs of college-credit courses and any potential expectations or changes in the subject area.
A course will often be moved to our review queue when a few students have identified a common issue with the content, assignments, or assessments. We take the feedback from our students seriously and work quickly to address their concerns in all matters, especially if their frustration comes from a small roadblock they’re experiencing on our platform.
Each review has three specific goals that help us reach the broad goals.
- Conduct an overview of the course.
- Analyze relevancy, rigor, and alignment of mastery assignments.
- Analyze relevancy, rigor, and alignment of exams.
It is a balancing act to ensure that we clarify difficult content while keeping it rigorous. Our content is college-level and should be challenging, but assignments or assessment questions should exist within an appropriate level of difficulty. Defining “appropriate” in this sense is one of the more challenging conversations we have during ARC reviews.
Let’s get into some specifics about the ARC review process.
Members of an ARC will spend an estimated 8-10 hours reviewing their assigned course and making recommendations to be shared with the rest of the committee. They will be expected to meet two to three times with leaders of TEL’s Academic Services and Curriculum Development teams to discuss their recommendations and concerns pertaining to their assigned modules or components within the course. Specific rubric questions and discussion topics may vary by course and discipline, but they will all address some of the following general categories:
- Scope of course content appropriate to the target audience
- Balance of course content and its topics
- Sequencing and instructional scaffolding of course content
- Time estimates and allocations related to course content, including a rigorous review of contact hours calculation
- Appropriateness, specificity, and measurability of current learning outcomes for the course content
- Content types (text, media, interactivities, assessments) and effectiveness for learning
- Effectiveness and appropriateness of current assessment and assignment types for achieving learning outcomes
- Effectiveness of assessment questions related to learning outcomes and content
- Engagement strategies for increasing cognitive presence and making interdisciplinary connections
- Effectiveness and relevance of mastery assignments and rubric accuracy
To reiterate, it is our mission to develop content that is relevant, rigorous, and appropriately aligned to universal standards that prepare students for an ever-changing world after higher education. We believe that through our review process we can achieve this mission and continue to provide affordable and flexible college credit for high school students, independent learners, and students who are entering their freshman year of college.