Designing Online Courses & Road Maps

by Ursula Pike, Associate Director, DigiTex; System Lead, Texas Quality Matters Consortium

Rest Stop Map by QuesterMark is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I love road trips. The thought of piling up my car with snacks, downloading hours worth of my favorite podcasts, and settling in for hours of sitting behind the wheel is enough to make me want to begin planning a post-pandemic drive somewhere. Carefully mapping out the trip beforehand is critical to a successful trip. I rely on GPS and apps that map out the stops along the way to navigate the road trips. I’ve ended up on enough dead-end roads in the middle of nowhere to understand that I need to know where I’m going.  My preference for a roadmap extends to my work, especially in new positions like the one I began in November 2019, as the Associate Director role at the Digital Higher Education Consortium of Texas (DigiTex).     

My understanding of the Quality Matters Program (QM) was limited when I stepped into this role. A few years earlier, in a former position at Austin Community College, I had researched QM for a grant that used the professional development trainings offered by QM. I learned about the guidance for online courses and heard faculty say the QM trainings helped their face-to-face, as well as online and hybrid, courses. Little did I know that QM would become the major focus of my position at DigiTex in 2020. As the System Lead for the Texas Quality Matters Consortium (TxQMC), I now work with 30 institutions across the state of Texas using Quality Matters to train faculty in the best practices of online learning. 

I wasn’t sure what the first stop should be in my journey to learn as much as I could about QM. In May 2020, TxQMC began offering QM’s Designing Your Online Course (DYOC) training for the first time, and I decided to enroll in a two-week DYOC training. As I learned almost immediately, Designing Your Online Course is very challenging, involving much more than reading and watching instructional videos. QM expects that participants will need to spend 16 to 20 hours on the course to complete all of the modules. The workshop included an overview of the QM Rubric and provided a framework to design an online course plan.  

The most difficult part of the training for me was creating a Course Development Plan — a document demonstrating the alignment of several elements of the course, including learning objectives, assessments, learner activities, and the instructor’s planned interactions with learners for my sample course. Alignment meant that everything had to be intentionally connected to the course objectives. The intentionality of the plan required research and revision. Luckily, there was an active message board where I could engage with the other training participants and the instructor to ask how they were building their Course Development Plan. Seeing the examples of their aligned courses was helpful and after multiple revisions, I finally understood the through line that would connect everything in my planned course. 

As a former grant writer, I found something familiar about the Course Development Plan. It took me a while, but eventually I realized that it shared many elements of a logic model. “A logic model is a graphic depiction (road map) that presents the shared relationships among the resources, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact for your program. It depicts the relationship between your program’s activities and its intended effects” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). Once I started using logic models in grant projects, I understood that it was an important first step in building a sustainable and effective project. A logic model, like a Course Development Plan, is a road map that shows the connection between everything. 

What all of these resources have in common, whether they’re a Course Development Plan, a logic model, or a road map, is a way forward that shows the connection between everything. They demonstrate intentionality in a process, and they keep you from ending up on a dead-end road. DYOC was a useful training because it was immediately applicable even without a thorough knowledge of the Quality Matters program. The course taught me how to use the Course Development Plan to build an entire aligned syllabus. From the “Start Here” instructions to the final exam, DYOC required me to look at everything and assess whether or not it was guiding learners toward the learning objectives established at the beginning of the course. QM has many useful trainings, but I would recommend DYOC to instructors new to QM looking to find resources that they’ll be able to use immediately.