Posted by: Gene Shwalb | November 23, 2010

Assessing the Quality of Online Courses: Quality Matters

Quality Matters iconHow does a college assess the quality of its online courses, ensuring that they are as effective as possible?  The most comprehensive response has been the work of Quality Matters (QM)[1], an inter-institutional consortium of distance education programs dedicated to online course quality assurance which has developed a faculty-centered, peer review process designed to certify the quality of online courses and online components.  The College of Nursing and Health Sciences has led the UMass Boston campus in adopting quality matters standards.

With over 300 institutional members (including UMass Boston) in 38 states QM, developed out of a Department of Education funded project and has trained over 3000 instructors and instructional designers.  Based in national standards of best practice, the research literature and instructional design principles, the QM Standards (described below) are designed to promote student learning and continuous quality improvement within a faculty-driven, collegial peer review process.[2]   Quality Matters has generated widespread interest and received national recognition for its peer-based approach to quality assurance and continuous improvement in online education.

The Rubric is made of up 40 individual standards classified into the following seven general standards:

  1. Overall design of the course is made transparent to students at the start of the course (so that each course be introduced clearly, with an overview of its components and expectations for students’ entering minimum content and technical knowledge);
  2. Learning objectives are clearly stated and explained (so that course materials describe learning objectives that are measurable, with clear information for students on how to meet them);
  3. Assessment strategies use established ways to measure effective learning, evaluate student progress by reference to stated learning objectives, and are designed to be integral to the learning process  (so that outcomes and means of assessing them be clearly described, with clear criteria for the evaluation of students’ work and participation);
  4. Instructional materials are sufficiently comprehensive to achieve stated course objectives and learning outcomes and are prepared by qualified persons competent in their fields.
  5. Learning activities should align with the course and module objectives of the course by engaging students in activities that directly contribute to the achievement of those objectives and integrating smoothly with the tools and media that enable these activities (so that appropriate tools and media are used to support student engagement and learning).
  6. Course navigation and the technology employed in the course foster student engagement and ensure access to instructional materials and resources. (Courses must also meet common accessibility standards.)
  7. The course facilitates student access to institutional services essential to student success (and course instructions provide information about technical support).


While these standards are used for external institutional reviews, the rubric can also guide in-house course development and review.  As the past director of the online RN to BSN program, Kathleen Polley initiated an internal review process that was followed by the submission of several core courses to QM for external review of the course design.  Two courses have now been QM certified—approved as meeting all of the standards without need for revision—and a third is under review.  The current program director, Sheila Cannon, plans to continue this process.

In my role as an instructor in the master’s program in Instructional Design and an instructional designer in IT, I (Gene Shwalb) have been trained as a certified peer reviewer for Quality Matters and have worked closely with nursing faculty as they have brought their courses forward for review.  I can provide information and support for other departments and faculty who are interested in the QM review and certification process for either their online or their web-enhanced courses.


Much of the information in this article originally appeared in a report to the Faculty Council from the ELearning Quality Task Force, charged with addressing the quality of online learning on campus.  The full report can be found at .


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