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The Commons: Three Steps for Energizing Quality Assurance in Online Course Design

Many institutional leaders recognize the need for a quality assurance program, yet faculty and staff buy-in to those plans can be elusive. Samford University recently took a collaborative approach to organizational change in its online and professional studies programs, ultimately creating an appetite for quality assurance by increasing awareness, generating buy-in, and empowering faculty through professional development programs. By sharing Samford’s experience and some takeaways from each step in the process, online leaders may use this as a guide to design and execute a plan for quality assurance in online learning.

Step One:  Establish a Task Force with a Clear Purpose

When Samford’s online programs hit a growth spurt, the University’s Provost, Dr. Mike Hardin, commissioned a task force to help guide the University’s online efforts. His top priorities — continued academic excellence and faculty professional development. The task force members were strategically identified and included key constituents such as online faculty members, technology support, and disability services personnel, as well as a representative from the university library. The key to the success of the task force was an understanding that its primary purpose was not to identify strategies to grow online programs, but rather to support and reinforce existing programs. This allowed for a collaborative “under the hood” evaluation of technology, faculty development, student services, accreditation standards, and best practices. Ultimately, the task force made several recommendations, including the establishment of a central support office for online programs, the establishment of a multi-layered course recognition policy, and the creation of professional development programs.

Takeaways: For institutions considering quality assurance initiatives, the creation of a working group or task force charged with reviewing online programs and the resources devoted to online learning can yield opportunities for collaboration and critical conversations regarding online program design and quality. Quality standards can include course level design from external entities (Quality Matters) or can be based on internal institution-specific standards. Further, institutional leaders may want to consider program-level (QM Program Certifications) and enterprise-level quality frameworks (Hallmarks of Excellence in Online Leadership).

Step Two:  Implement Reasonable Quality Assurance Initiatives

Following the recommendations of Samford’s  task force, a newly established “Office of Online & Professional Studies” began the development of a layered course review process. The first step in the process is to meet Samford-specific requirements and a broad application of the Quality Matters (QM) Standards. Then it progresses to a more specific application of the Standards. That’s followed by internal approval and finally QM external recognition. This process allows faculty to move forward with course reviews at a comfortable pace while building their confidence with each stage of recognition. Also critical to this stage was continual assessment and evaluation of the course review process with responsive modifications based on faculty feedback.

Takeaways: Creating a process for quality assurance cannot be done without input from faculty, administrators, and staff. Ultimately, those with knowledge of online pedagogy and design must be involved in the quality assurance efforts for online learning at an institution, either in the design phase or the execution phase of a new plan. Creating a process, with ample feedback opportunities as well as professional development, to familiarize stakeholders with new QA processes are vital components to any new quality assurance initiative.

Step Three: The Creation of Sustainable Professional Development Programs

The final step towards energizing quality assurance in online course design included the creation of relevant and sustainable professional development programs. Samford’s professional development programs were developed based on recommendation by the task force and the assessment of broad faculty need. The faculty development programs were designed to build awareness and empower faculty in the use of varied technology, online pedagogical strategies, and ease into quality assurance processes. A few of the most successful initiatives to date include:

  • Lunch & Learns — Samford began by creating a series of Lunch and Learn sessions based on individual Quality Matters Standards. This approach allowed faculty to dig deep into online course quality while taking smaller and more manageable bites of the new quality assurance process without becoming overwhelmed.
  • Diversified Professional Development — Samford developed a series of varied professional development opportunities with the intention of appealing to as many faculty as possible. Beyond the Quality Matters Teaching Online Certificate (TOC) program offered,  professional development opportunities centered around comprehensive training in the new learning management system (Canvas), sessions in the exploration of online pedagogy, renewed engagement with key national organizations such as UPCEA, and an exclusive four-day course design institute which has provided nearly 50 faculty with resources and support needed to optimize student learning in face-to-face and online courses.

Takeaways: New quality assurance efforts require continuous support and reinforcement until they are recognized as steps within standard operating procedures. As faculty, administrators, and staff see the benefits of these efforts they will become self-sustaining and just another component of online course and program delivery. Creating engaging and focused professional development activities produce new opportunities to engage faculty and create advocates for online learning and the online learning team(s) at the institution.


In conclusion, Samford worked to build a quality assurance process that considered institutional, faculty, administrator, and staff needs. The recommendations of a task force empowered a centralized unit to develop and execute a plan for quality assurance. By adopting an external quality framework widely available to institutions, faculty, administrators, and staff at Samford had confidence in the quality assurance process they designed.

Online leaders would be well advised to consider strategic collaborations with a clear purpose, support from institutional leaders, and continual evaluation and revectoring when needed as these are key components to implementing organizational change and energizing quality assurance in online course design. Further, institutional leaders should consider how course quality, program quality, and enterprise level quality all build towards a continuum of quality in online learning. A discussion of course quality is not the finish line but rather a starting point in terms of quality assurance in online learning.


Marci Johns currently serves as Assistant Provost for Online & Professional Studies and part-time organizational leadership faculty at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Her list of professional specializations includes working with regulatory and accrediting agencies, leading education technology initiatives, and developing, implementing, and assessing campus-wide strategic plans. Marci holds a J.D. from the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law at Faulkner University, a MA in Public Administration and a BA in history, both from Auburn University Montgomery.


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