The Commercial Appeal
Northwest online program implements quality assessment
Northwest Mississippi Community College has recently begun a journey to make its online eLearning program the best it can be. According to Phyllis Johnson, dean of eLearning, the college now has a membership in “Quality Matters (QM),” a nonprofit organization whose mission is to define and maintain quality assur- ance in online learning.
According to the QM website, the organization began with a small group of colleagues in the MarylandOnline, Inc. (MOL) consortium who were trying to solve a common problem among institutions: how do we measure and guarantee the quality of a course? In 2003 MOL outlined how the Quality Matters program could create a scalable process for course quality assurance, and applied for a Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant enabled QM to develop a rubric of course design standards and create a replicable peer-review process that would train and empower faculty to evaluate courses against these standards, provide guidance for improving the quality of courses, and certify the quality of online and blended college courses across institutions.
“It is basically an evaluation system, set up with a rubric that aligns the course from the course objectives down to the assessments. So you know exactly what the students are going to be learning and the students understand what they are going to be learning,” said Johnson.
Johnson first learned about QM when it came out, when the online program at Northwest was in its beginning stages. “I was interested, but we were trying to get everything started in our program. Last year at a conference, there was a session on QM, and how they used it to improve their online classes,” Johnson said.
After researching QM online, Johnson inquired about the other community colleges in the state and found that Northeast Mississippi Community College was looking into it and Hinds Community College was also interested. The three colleges came together to form a consortium agreement and were able to get a cost break on their membership.
Johnson began the training to become a QM reviewer, as did several other Northwest instructors and employees. Reviewers must take two courses in order to be qualified to put an online or hybrid course through the QM rubric, and master reviewers need three courses. Johnson has become the only QM master reviewer in the state of Mississippi thus far.
Johnson compares the rubrics used to determine QM certification for a course to a building structure. “The base of the structure is the course objectives, or what we call ‘Student Learning Outcomes’ (SLOs), and the walls are activities and lectures or any classroom tool used. The roof would be the assessments of those objectives. You can’t have a good class with any of those things missing, and how they teach the class is up to them. Instructors still have a lot of academic freedom as to how they present the subject to the students,” Johnson said. She stated that what QM does is ensure that the tools instructors use point back to at least one of the course objectives.
Northwest has instructors who serve as eLearning coordinators for courses in their division. Johnson asked the coordinators if they would like to become reviewers, and all of them agreed to be trained. In addition to Johnson, current reviewers at Northwest are Beth Dickerson (business and office technology), Kristin Watson (human growth and development), Beth Adams (English), Angel Nickens (biology), Marcus Perkins (mathematics), Trent Booker (history), John Randall (eLearning specialist, DeSoto Center), Stacey Smith (instructional technology specialist) and Carla Townsend (eLearning proctor.)
Most of the reviewers who are instructors have begun to prepare for QM reviewing by unofficially reviewing their own courses. Watson, who teaches both online and in the classroom feels like it is a great tool for instructors. “It helps not only with online courses, but also in my classroom. It really made me evaluate how everything worked together. So the assignments I do relate to the overall objectives in my course. It just makes you take a really good evaluation of what you do in class,” Watson said.
Johnson’s plan is to roll out QM over the next three years. She hopes to have at least 10 courses QM certified by the summer. She will start with the coordinators and will ask other instructors to volunteer to have their courses reviewed and certified. The review team for each course should be made up of three reviewers: Johnson as the master reviewer, another reviewer who is a subject matter expert and a third reviewer. Johnson hopes that some others will become master reviewers as well.
Watson thinks that she will be able to communicate to instructors better about their own courses since she has already reviewed her own course. “I know that having reviewed my own course will be beneficial to me when I start to review others. It is much better when you get to experience it yourself before you try to explain to someone else how to do something,” Watson said.
Johnson feels that Northwest has taken a lead in the state in using QM as a tool. “The state is looking into it for all of the online classes. Quality is one thing we are looking at as a state, and this Quality Matters program that Maryland has put together is a really good rubric and has a lot of research behind it. They are constantly doing research and revising it as needed. We want to be the best in the state. That is a goal of mine. We have great classes, but the quality of our classes is something we needed to look at to make them even better,” Johnson said.
For more information on Northwest’s eLearning program, visit the college’s website at northwestms.edu, and to learn more about Quality Matters, visit their website at quality matters.org.