What are the principles for a quality online course?

Consider your experiences as a teacher, or even as a student. What are the key principles for a really high quality course? What does a teacher need to do? What do students expect from a course and the teacher to help them understand their place in the course? What do these aspects look like?

Seven principles for success in quality online courses

An internet search for the 'principles of good online courses' generates tens of millions of hits. However, let's start with what we know are best practices and which have been proven to work in reality. For example, let's look at Chickering & Gamson's (1987) 'Seven principles of good practice for undergraduate education', and how they might apply to improving student experiences in the online learning environment. Many of these you know intuitively, but have you really thought about them as key principles? Or how to integrate them into your courses?

The seven principles are based on adult learning theory and form a model of what teachers need to consider as they move to an online environment. As such, it is also important for you, as the designer or teacher, to consider these principles prior to planning a course:

Useful links

Find Chickering and Gamson's 'Seven principles of good...

  • Encourage student-teacher contact
  • Encourage cooperation amongst students
  • Encourage active learning
  • Give prompt feedback
  • Emphasise time on task
  • Communicate high expectations
  • Respect diverse ways of learning.
Source: Adapted from Chickering & Gamson (1987).
Used with permission from the American Association For Higher Education & Accreditation (AAHEA).

In the following activity, click on each principle to see a description, and then click 'Next' to read related strategies for online learning. Use the 'Back to menu' button to select the next principle in the list.

The following paragraphs will explore these principles in greater detail, and present some related strategies for online learning.

Interactivity icon

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Designing and developing your online course
UNIT | 2 : Things to consider before you start designing your course
PAGE TITLE | The key principles of quality online courses

Principle 1 of 7: Student-teacher contact

By encouraging contact and interactions, teachers can develop social presence with their students and encourage an open community by serving as a role model. The level of access to (and sharing of) resources and the degree of participation in learning experiences are both broadened by these interactions.

Strategies:

  • Let students know the various means by which they can contact you, whether it is via email, instant messaging or social media.
  • Create a bulletin or announcements area, promoting up-to-date course notes, resources, and reminders.
  • Establish and use discussion boards or chat rooms to create dialogue with students; an 'Ask the Teacher' or 'Ask a Peer' discussion thread is a good means of getting started. Provide guidance and feedback as the thread evolves.
  • Make sure that students know when you will be available to chat online; use online office hours and make students aware of virtual chat or video-conferencing sessions.

Principle 2: Cooperation amongst students

For most learners, the optimal online learning experience should enable them to learn from one another's experiences and postings, and allow for social presence to build amongst students. A word of caution to teachers and designers: students new to online learning and/or a particular course may not be prepared to interact effectively, efficiently and/or meaningfully without guidelines or expectations being provided.

Strategies:

  • Students and the teacher post course biographies. This creates a sense of presence and engagement. Having them post an interesting fact will help you better recall each student. Indicate the importance of biographies by providing course points!
  • Create online discussions centred on course readings or activities. Effective course-based discussions will expose learners to different experiences and thought processes and help them find like-minded peers.
  • Use team-based projects or assignments. This strategy can resemble real-world projects in that learners need to learn to work together, cooperate, and possibly take on various roles within a group.
  • Incorporate peer reviews or peer feedback for projects or assignments. Students will often reflect more deeply on their own work if they have to review another person's output.
  • Allow students to post 'karma' points for what they consider exceptional posts by peers in online discussions; this also reduces teacher workload (Dunlap 2005)!

Principle 3: Active learning

Description: Active learning, in contrast to passive learning, can be defined as any teaching method that engages students in the learning process; it requires students to complete meaningful learning activities and to think about what they are doing (Bonwell & Eison in Prince, 2004).

Strategies:

  • Ask students to apply, synthesise, and reflect on their learning.
  • If applicable, develop a project that incorporates the theories or principles being studied. For example, in an educational multimedia course, ask students to develop a piece of multimedia to reflect on the principles explored in discussions and readings.
  • Ask students to take a role in the online discussions – perhaps the lead facilitator role.

Principle 4: Prompt feedback

As Chickering & Gamson (1987, p3) explain, 'Knowing what you know and don't know focuses learning'. As with any learning activity, prompt feedback is a necessity and should be planned for in advance.

Strategies:

  • Plan to make assignment submission processes simple for both you and the learner. A single place or method for submission is ideal and can be easily incorporated in many learning management systems/virtual learning environments.
  • Make learners aware of expectations in advance (e.g. one week for feedback from deadline) and keep them posted (announcement: 'all projects have been marked').
  • Many online LMS/VLE systems have auto-grading options. For example, some enable you to create tests that are multiple choice, true/false, or short answer essays, and allow you to set the assessments to automatically provide feedback.
  • Incorporate a peer feedback process into your courses through student assignments. Students get an initial level of feedback before handing in the assignment, and you get a better assignment in the end.
  • Encourage students to identify and evaluate the kind of feedback they receive and/or prefer.

Principle 5: Time on task

Many learners need assistance with planning and managing their time – especially their time spent on each assignment.

Strategies:

  • In the course introduction or syllabus, stipulate the hours that are anticipated for the course each week (e.g. a three credit course means you should expect to spend 15 hours or more per week on this course).
  • When a particular assignment is 'light' or 'heavy', let the learners know so they can plan accordingly (e.g. although this week's assignment may appear easy, be aware that the assignment due next week is substantial).
  • Encourage learners to plan for coursework at the beginning of the course, mapping out deadlines across courses.

Principle 6: High expectations

As Chickering & Gamson (1987, p3) assert, 'Expect more and you will get it'.

Strategies:

  • Communication is key in how the instructions, learning objectives (or intended learning outcomes), and assessments are explained to learners. Provide very detailed information about expectations.
  • Consider developing and including detailed rubrics that show students your expectations for assignments or projects.
  • One way to raise expectations is to take the best samples of previous projects (with permission of course) and use those as examples!
  • Provide 'real world' or authentic tasks and projects that students can equate with professional examples.

Principle 7: Diverse talents and ways of learning

No matter what learning theory or theories you subscribe to, most agree that not all students learn the same way. The technology available in online learning environments can afford or constrain opportunities for the individual.

Strategies:

  • Much work on the development of multimedia for educational purposes talks about how the use of multimedia can be employed to address the needs of diverse learners, especially with its affordance for multiple or flexible representations of information (see Clark & Mayer, 2011; Rose & Meyer, 2002; Rose, Meyer & Hitchcock, 2005).
  • Add some variety to your course; spice up the activities! Don't make it all about readings and discussions. Some students will thrive with visual assignments, others with narrative, some with teamwork, etc.
  • Be aware of the potential for cultural differences, which may influence the way in which students from varying backgrounds interact with teachers and peers.
Source: Seven Principles adapted from Chickering & Gamson (1987).
Used with permission from the American Association For Higher Education & Accreditation (AAHEA).

Adapting the principles to blended learning

Blended learning icon

If your course is blended, as opposed to fully online, you and your students are likely to be meeting face to face every few weeks or so, and therefore some of these principles can be applied in different ways. For example, active learning can be facilitated both via an on-ground classroom discussion and via an online discussion, depending on your preference.

Relating the seven principles to your own course

Portfolio activity

Work through the 'seven principles of good practice for undergraduate...

Keeping these seven principles in mind as you design and develop your own online or blended course will help you achieve a good quality of learning; one that both you and your learners find high satisfaction with. Use the 'Portfolio activity' pod on the right-hand side of this screen to consider how you might incorporate these principles into your online course. Of course, there are other possibilities and variations on the principles we have just reviewed, but this is a good place to start.

Keeping these seven principles in mind as you design and develop your own online or blended course will help you achieve a good quality of learning; one that both you and your learners find high satisfaction with. Use the 'Portfolio activity' pod at the end of this section to consider how you might incorporate these principles into your online course. Of course, there are other possibilities and variations on the principles we have just reviewed, but this is a good place to start.


Useful links

Portfolio

Duration: 30 minutes

Work through the 'seven principles of good practice for undergraduate education', recording how and to what extent you incorporate each one in your current online course (or note how you will incorporate each one in a future course).

Use the attached document to record your notes, or complete the relevant page of your Teaching Online portfolio.