Why Quality Matters Doesn’t Matter
Not all of QM’s prescriptions for online instruction are created equal, and they should all be taken with context.
Quality Matters (QM) promises to provide online instructors and instructional designers with a set of best practices for online teaching. QM is often recommended to those new to online teaching as a cornerstone resource. Unfortunately, new online instructors who just want to get started might find themselves overwhelmed by QM’s many rules for best practices.
College instructors are all online instructors now. Unfortunately, they largely have no experience designing online courses, and little understanding of how to structure an online course so that students are successful. In these trying times, Quality Matters should be offering instructors with a very basic guide and promoting cognitive science-based common sense in online course design.
Yet, instead of advocating for inter- and intra-course consistency and minimizing learners’ extraneous cognitive load, QM’s prescription is to heap extra information on top of course content, creating more content for learners to process. This means that more things can go wrong.
For example, QM dictates that you should include navigation instructions in your course so that students know where they need to go to find materials and why.
On the contrary, I believe course navigation should be as intuitive as possible. Use established templates and mental maps to make it easier for students to navigate your online course, without lengthy instructions. Once they find something once, they’re likely to find a similar assignment in the same place again. And please don’t put similar materials and submission boxes in different places and then expect student to find them just because you provided navigation instructions. That’s not how students process online learning.
What about instructor self-introduction videos?
QM recommends them, but I don’t think they’re necessary. For one thing, students don’t always watch this kind of content because it doesn’t feel relevant. And if they are taking an all-online course, they don’t really need to know about you. They just need your email address and other contact information so that they can reach you with questions. Sometimes, students have a question that they need answered, even if you already put the information out there. Sometimes they just need to connect with you. That’s a much more powerful than an intro video because it’s an interaction.
In the same vein, QM would have instructors include a “Start Here” link.
In most contexts, this is a great opportunity to bring learners to the spot where they will be accessing most of the course content. But if that spot is out of the way, or doesn’t go to a place that students need to find again, it’s a wasted opportunity that may only create more confusion.
Maybe QM’s rules aren’t so bad. For example, QM states that spelling out course expectations is very important.
But I would add the caveat to not put these in a document far away from their associated course activity — put this information where it’s needed, as close to its associated activity as possible. Otherwise, students won’t see it, and they won’t use it. Tie things together and students will do better.
Online learning needs to be cohesive, and QM’s rules can lead well-meaning instructors in the opposite direction.
Learning is a hard task for many students, especially those with learning disabilities and differences. That’s why QM should remind instructors that all of their best practices don’t mean much when their course designs don’t fit the needs of the learners themselves. Every student, in every class, in every semester is different. Best practices are contextual.
What’s the solution? There’s nothing more effective than watching someone navigate your online course for the first time. There’s no alternative to user testing. Get someone to try to find content or pretend to complete and submit an assignment. It can be a former student, an incoming new student, or anyone else who is available. You never know what you will find.
Let the learner show you. Not QM.