The 7 Qualities of an Effective Online Course

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  • Most quality standards for online courses consist of similar components.
  • Standards include learning objectives, course activities, and student and teacher interaction.
  • Student perceptions of online class quality are key to designing an effective course.
  • Those looking to enroll in online programs should research what schools do to ensure quality.

The concept of quality has played an important role in online education debates for decades. Now, as remote learning situations caused by the coronavirus outbreak evolve into more robust online education offerings, the topic has taken on new urgency.

Even before the pandemic, BestColleges' online education trends study found that the "quality of instruction and academic support" was the biggest concern for students considering online learning over campus-based programs. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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According to BestColleges data, the “quality of instruction and academic support” is the biggest concern for students considering enrolling in an online program.

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Although accreditation is a good indicator of the quality of an overall institution or program, what about individual courses? The truth is that the main elements of a high-quality online course don't differ much from those of a high-quality in-person class. But that doesn't mean every class will incorporate these attributes or use them effectively.

Schools new to the development of online learning options, as well as those with established online programs, have access to multiple resources they can use to guide their work.

7 Factors for Ensuring Quality in Online Education

There are loads of sources that can help faculty members and instructional design teams create high-quality online learning experiences for students.

Quality standards are commonly used to guide online course design and development.

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For example, quality standards like those developed by Quality Matters and the Online Learning Consortium are commonly used to guide online course design and development. Alternatively, some schools may develop their own collection of standards. One method is not necessarily better than the other.

Most quality standards for online classes are based on "best practices" identified through experience and research. These standards share the following seven core components for creating an effective environment and facilitating the learning process.

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    Learning Objectives

    What can you expect to learn in an online course? Objectives are usually listed in several places, including the class syllabus, and state what you should know or be able to do as a result of successfully completing the course. Learning objectives are typically developed for both individual courses and full programs.

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    How will your professor know you've achieved the course learning objectives? Each class includes multiple assessments — such as quizzes, exams, papers, and projects — all designed to measure your progress toward those objectives.

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    Course Materials and Activities

    A curated collection of materials and activities — sometimes called "course content" — supports your path to learning. This collection can vary widely from class to class and usually depends on the course's level and subject matter. The materials and activities in an online science lab course, for example, will differ greatly from those in a literature course.

    But the goal remains the same: to provide the relevant resources and practice opportunities so you can achieve the learning objectives.

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    Faculty and Student Interaction

    While online courses typically offer a lot of scheduling flexibility and options for self-paced work, it's important to remember that you're not in the class alone. The best online courses will integrate multiple communication tools — like email, video conferencing, and messaging — as well as ways for you to interact with your classmates and professors (e.g., exercises, discussions, and group projects).

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    Online Student Support

    High-quality online courses give you access to a variety of resources developed to support your learning. Expect to have access to your college's library and research librarians, a technology help desk, math and writing centers, disability services, and tutoring. Links to these and other student services are sometimes embedded in digital class materials.

    Ask your instructor if you're not sure where or how to access something.

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    Technology Requirements

    Besides technical assistance provided by a help desk, other forms of support may include software tutorials, reference guides for applications used in your courses, troubleshooting tips, and information about privacy and data. High-quality online classes use technology to enhance the learning experience — not complicate it.

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    Evaluation and Improvement

    It takes time and resources to develop good online courses, but the job isn't finished when a course is completed. Good programs have plans for continuous review and revision to make sure all aspects of its courses are up to date, from technology and interactions to materials and assessments. These reviews and revisions should include feedback from faculty and students alike.

Student Perceptions of Online Course Quality

The work that goes into quality assurance focuses on the student — that includes student success, the student experience, and student satisfaction. But can students see the impact of these efforts to improve online classes?

Research published by EDUCAUSE in 2017 examined a University of South Carolina online course that was designed using the Quality Matters approach. According to the report, the vast majority of students said that the course had met or exceeded all general standards, which included variables like learning objectives, instructional materials, and learner support.

Similarly, in earlier research conducted with online students at the University of South Australia, three primary factors of student satisfaction were identified:


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What is required in an online course? How is student work evaluated, and when? Online students want clear communication about what's expected from them when they begin a new class and how they're doing as they make progress on assignments and activities.


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Online students prefer assignments that challenge them. They want their courses to include interesting content that's relevant to their lives and work; they also want support in terms of resources and time.


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Communication and interaction are critical to student satisfaction in an online environment and can happen in many ways. Active learning strategies, such as simulations, case studies, concept mapping, and problem-solving, encourage engagement and understanding of the subject matter.

All three of these factors are related to cognitive load, or the way we process and remember information. It's no surprise, then, that cognitive load considerations are also addressed through the components of today's quality standards for online classes.

The Importance of Researching Online Program Quality

Prospective students have many online learning options to compare; therefore, it can be helpful to research what the schools you're considering do to develop their online programs and support online students.

Prospective students should research how schools develop their online programs.

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For example, the University of Florida's Quality Assurance Committee explains how it uses the Quality Matters rubric to design online courses and provide periodic reviews and revision. Likewise, Penn State offers a summary of the Quality Assurance e-Learning Design Standards it established to guide the development of new online courses.

You don't have to be an expert in online education or web design to assess how an institution can ensure a high-quality online experience for students. Just being aware that a process is in place to develop effective courses can help you learn more about a school's commitment to providing you with the tools you need to succeed.

Feature Image: damircurdic / E+ / Getty Images is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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