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Creating Consistency in Your Online Courses

As a prospective online student you may find that your courses are standardized, meaning that they have been designed to deliver the same content across all sections of a course, and in every academic term, but facilitated by different instructors. These courses share a set of common, reusable elements. This is a direct contrast to the more traditional approach to course design in which each faculty member crafts his or her own courses. Standardized courses are prevalent in online programs, and traditional college programs are taking steps to standardize as well.

These courses are usually developed by a design team including professionals with skills in instructional design, educational technology, curriculum design, project management, graphic design, programming, and expertise in the specific subject matter of the course. Faculty members occasionally serve on these teams as subject matter experts, ensuring that the content of the course is accurate, appropriate for the learning objectives, and up-to-date in the field.

Mary Bart from Faculty Focus points out that "there are those who feel 'standardized' means 'canned'," but from the instructor's perspective, this approach to course design can be beneficial. Creating a new online course is time intensive and requires work beyond determining content and assignments. The design team approach to the development of standardized courses means that instructors can "spend less time preparing" and more time actually teaching the course and providing feedback to students.

Why are courses standardized?

You may have already experienced standardized learning materials. State K-12 curricula are increasingly developed against a specific list of learning standards and often workplace training is standardized so that all employees receive a similar learning experience, no matter when or where they complete the training. There are multiple forces driving a move toward this method of course design and development:

  • Learning Analytics: Educators and higher education administrators continuously seek to improve online courses. They want courses to be efficient in helping you to learn and to facilitate your connections with instructors and classmates. As increasing types of data become available through student participation in courses, learning analytics specialists are finding ways to use this information for decisions about course materials and revisions. Standardizing courses makes it easier to measure their effectiveness and control changes.
  • Learning Objectives: These statements describe what a student should learn through the completion of a lesson or entire course. Not all educational or training events have these formal objectives, but they are becoming much more prevalent as a way to begin the course design process. These objectives become standards against which students are measured at the end of a lesson or module. Carnegie Mellon University provides a list of learning objective samples
  • Administrative Purposes: Establishing standards for course design and development can lead to faster production of new courses and revision of existing courses. When courses have the same look on-screen and include similar components, they can be more quickly updated with new content and corrected when errors are found. Researchers from Coastal Carolina University identified 10 foundational components for standardizing online courses and advise, "standardizing the components will facilitate course navigation, promote efficient content reusability, and improve the potential for student success."
  • Accreditation and Quality: Establishing standards for how courses are developed and offered may also facilitate accreditation and other reviews related to evaluating quality. These reviews often address areas of program planning and maintenance, as well as course structure.

What does this mean for you as a student?

Consider the following areas as you continue your research before enrolling in an online program:

  • Ask questions about how the programs and courses you are considering were designed and developed. Are the courses in these programs standardized? What is the process used to design and develop each course and who is involved in the process? It may also be interesting to find out how often courses are scheduled for review and revision. Check out school websites and ask admissions and academic advisors for more information.
  • Ask questions about faculty qualifications and their ability to modify courses. Who is teaching the courses you want to take? What is their experience with the subject matter? Just because a course has standard components and can be taught by multiple instructors, doesn't mean that it can't be changed. Instructors can and do tweak these courses to match their teaching styles and to include additional resources, but policies about what can be changed and how it can be changed vary by school. Ideally, there will be flexibility so that instructors can take some ownership of the courses they teach and infuse the standardized portions with their own personalities and expertise.
  • Look for online course samples and tours. These demonstrations allow you to experience the look and feel of an online course, and provide examples of navigation tools that allow you to work in the course site and submit your assignments. These features are usually standardized across a program or school and will be common throughout all of the courses you take.

I've worked as a member of design teams tasked with creating online courses at multiple universities, and as an online instructor teaching courses that others have designed. From my experience it may be online students who reap the greatest potential benefits of the standardization process. Standardization, when it is well-executed and allows instructors to enhance and supplement the materials, not only creates a level of consistency within a course and across all of the courses of your program, but also allows for assessment of course effectiveness and quick updates to ensure that the courses are helpful to you and are current.

What are your expectations for taking online courses? Through future use of learning analytics educators will learn more about which components work best in different academic settings, with specific types of learners, and with varying levels of customization from individual instructors. I expect the standardized approach to course design will continue to gain ground as more traditional schools "go online."

Image credit: Schlusselbein2007, Flickr, CC-BY