Online Course User Experience: Standards Matter
Standardized distance learning classrooms have demonstrated higher student success and retention than any other online courses across the country. Highly successful colleges and universities—including Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University and Arizona State University among others—have long used standardized course design for online courses.
However, despite research and data demonstrating student success and retention, standardized online courses are not the norm across the country. In 2014, we deployed a standardized and mandatory distance learning (DL) classroom for online courses in our learning management system (LMS).
Over two years, the results from faculty and student satisfaction surveys have confirmed success in teaching and student satisfaction, though not without bumps.
Importance of Consistency in Online Course Design
Research has shown that the design of online courses is an important factor for students learning and success in online courses. “Consistent course design is the most vital factor for students’ interaction and success in a course.”
Most of our daily lives consist of a common understanding of the order of life and things around us. For those of us old enough to remember think back to when Microsoft Windows redesigned their menu system, Windows Vista. Multitudes of Windows users were frustrated and confused with the new design and didn’t know where to find “the old” tools, much less intuit that to shut down you had to click “Start.” Imagine the design changed every time you tapped onto your tablet or smart phone, requiring you to reorient to the new interface and relearn where your information went or how it was structured. Design standards help us understand and make sense of information and to use content without thinking of the context.
The same holds true for students in online courses. Courses that are designed to a standard online design allow the student to concentrate on the content, not on thinking about the context or hunting for the information.
Making the Case
Prior to 2014, online courses at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) were designed by individual faculty members, some with course design skills, some not. As a result, more than 900 online courses were all designed differently. A student enrolled in two or more online courses would get a totally different user experience and interface for each course.
The most significant barrier to standardizing online classroom were the faculty. Faculty cited academic freedom as the reason for their reluctance. So our distance learning department set upon developing a strategy to address their concern. We employed an analogy, a research report, webinars and infographics and student satisfaction data to make the case.
Faculty needed to be convinced that the design of the course was not a dictate on how to teach the course or what to teach. When a faculty member teaches in a physical classroom, certain design elements—such as windows, doors, AV equipment, screens, and sometime desks and tables—are fixed. The physical classroom design does not dictate how to teach or what to teach. The physical classroom provides a physical user experience for the students. It sets the stage for learning and teaching.
During our informational sessions and webinars, we frequently used this analogy to make the connection to faculty.
Two CNM online faculty, Brandon Morgan, Ph.D. and Kevin Dooley were contracted to conduct research on the benefits and applications of standardized classrooms.
In their research, Morgan and Dooley researched peer institutions, provided narrative on the current state of DL at our college, and outlined best practices. Their summary stated the use of the standardized classroom, DL Classroom, should be supported and was validated based on their nine-month research project. Faculty were given access to this report and the findings were used in informational sessions and training sessions to make the case.
Webinars and Infographics
Simultaneous to Morgan and Dooley’s research, DL course design staff created “Why Standards Matter” infographics and pre-recorded webinars for online faculty.
Using supporting data from our own best practice research, rubrics and standards from Quality Matters, we launched the infographics and webinars to faculty on our department website and within our LMS Faculty Knowledge Base community.
The Student Data
In fall of 2015, one year after the DL Classroom was deployed across the LMS, we began conducting online student mid-term surveys to assess the students’ experiences in online courses.
In Fall 2015, we received a 54-percent response rate; Spring 2016 an 89-percent response rate; and Summer 2016 an 84-percent response rate. Students could opt out of the survey, and for each of the three terms listed above the average opt out was 12 percent. Evaluation questions ranked as strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree and strongly agree.
There were 18 questions in seven categories. The three most important categories for us to review to determine if standardized structure of the online courses improved student experiences are:
1. Course Orientation
2. Learning Support for the Course
3. Course Accessibility and Usability
The other evaluation categories provide us with insight into what DL staff can focus on with collaborating with faculty on the course design process, such as use of technology, and instructional materials. Additional comments were also solicited in the survey. You can click here to see the survey results in full.
Continuous quality improvement
Using a customized course compliance rubric (aligned with QM standards) course designers evaluate each online course before the start of each term to assure compliance with the use of the DL Classroom. Faculty also receive constructive feedback on how to improve their courses based on Quality Matter standards (click here to see the compliance rubric).
In addition to providing faculty with feedback, the compliance reports are also emailed to the academic school deans, associate deans and directors. This ensures those courses with low compliance ratings are addressed through additional training, advice to seek out DL course design assistance, or on occasion, peer faculty assistance to improve course design.
Each term, DL staff update information within the DL Classroom template to reflect changes in our technology or instructional policies. The template is then deployed across the entire LMS for all courses (both online and face-to-face).
Two years later faculty at our institution are realizing the benefits to students and the ease of using a standardized template which allows them to focus on the content of the instruction and not the structure of the online classroom.
A Happy Ending?
Based on initial student feedback, it appears that the majority of students are satisfied with their online courses related to DL Classroom course design evaluation. However, it is interesting that the further out we go from the initial data collection, the lower the satisfaction percentages. A possible explanation could be students’ expectations of online learning are higher than two years ago
Students enrolled in courses that were DL Classroom compliant may be taking courses that are not and are reporting those that are not compliant to be less than helpful.
So, to sum up, here are a few key takeaways:
- Standards for online course design matter
- Make a case
- Obtain faculty buy-in.
- Establish continuous quality improvement measures
- Never give up, because student success matters
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 Anthony, K.V. (2012). Analyzing the Influence of Course Design and Gender on Online Participation. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 7(3). Retrieved June, 15, 2016
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Dooley, K. Morgan, B. (2013) The New Distance Learning Classroom at CNM. Central New Mexico Community College.