ISTE | Q & A

Designing Your Online Course: Learning From an Expert

Interview with Christine Voelker, K–12 program director for Quality Matters.

Online courses, open educational resources (OER) and virtual schools are all the rage nowadays.

Christine Voelker teaches other teachers how to build their own online courses.
She’s the K–12 program director for Quality Matters, a nonprofit educational organization based in Annapolis, MD.

Voelker’s got a background in childhood education and library science. She has also helped start libraries and three brand new schools — one elementary, one middle and one high school. Plus, she has extensive experience in starting and maintaining online courses. At the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference in San Antonio, TX, she will be presenting “Designing Your Online Course” Sunday, June 25 from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Preregistration and an additional fee ($239) is required.


Christine Voekler. Photo by Jay Mallin.

THE Journal: How did your organization, Quality Matters, start?

Christine Voelker: We are a nonprofit. We’re based out of Maryland. It’s pretty much a virtual organization. Quality Matters 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? This question was especially important as institutions began to create a system where they could share available seats in their online courses with other institutions. They needed a way to ensure course quality — that courses would be equivalent — for their students, regardless of where the course originated.

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. As word spread that there was now a tool for assuring quality across courses, more institutions became interested and involved in the QM process. By the end of the three-year grant period, we had trained 694 peer reviewers from 154 institutions in 28 states, and we had conducted more than 100 course reviews. While QM could have been just another bound report on a shelf somewhere, everyone saw the positive impact of the QM Rubric and peer review process. As a result, we expanded QM’s quality assurance tools and professional development to include organizations outside of the higher education sector, including K–12, continuing and professional education, course publishers and education service providers.

In 2014 we began operating as a standalone nonprofit organization to broaden our reach worldwide, build new partnerships, and take on a greater leadership role as we continue to champion quality assurance in online learning and provide the gold standard for certifying the quality of online courses and programs.

THE Journal: Do you guide students through online courses, or do you teach teachers how to make online courses and how to instruct online?

Voelker: I don't guide students through online courses. I help schools engage with tools and resources to develop and deliver quality online courses. My job primarily is to work with schools that are developing online courses, or to help them make good decisions about online courses. There are schools and districts who have the capacity to go it alone. At QM, we have many professional development opportunities for teachers to help them with this process. Our Continuing and Professional Education Program helps them with the resources and tools to design quality professional development opportunities for their teachers.

THE Journal: How do you ensure quality in an online course when there are so many variables, from subject to student-to-teacher ratio to the amount of time spent online by students?

Voelker: That’s a really good question, because there are so many variables.

We do certifications on the courses. Certain vendors will come to us to have their courses reviewed.

We have a set of standards that are based on best practices, and we revise them every three years. All that apply and want to be part of the group — we make sure we do a literature review. We want to make sure they’re grounded in literature, yet  still relevant, based on best practices.

Our professional development helps teachers and institutions learn how to apply these standards to an online course. A vendor like Edmentum, for example, will say, “We have this chemistry course, we’d like you to review it,” and we’ll review the course, using those standards.

THE Journal: How do you start your workshop on “Designing Your Online Course”?

Voelker: I always start off with this question: “Have you ever felt inept, because you tried to open a door the wrong way?” There are these types of doors called Norman doors. You get confused about whether to pull instead of push, or vice versa. Don Norman was the author of The Design of Everyday Things. In the case of Norman doors, it’s poor design. If you’re opening a door the wrong way, that’s a fleeting moment. But if you start off a course on the wrong foot, because it’s poorly designed, that sets the tone for the whole rest of a student’s experience with the course.

We look at a teacher-developed course. We look at that first walking through the door — when the student begins, is there stumbling around? That’s one of the first things we’ll do in that workshop. We’ll look at the foundation. The we look at module or unit level objectives — ultimately what we want our students to learn.

If we have time, we really construct the course. We want to meet and master those learning objectives. Then there are things that the district provides, like technical support. And we think about how do we make that course acceptable for students with disabilities.

It empowers teachers to know that they can do this. Sometimes there are supports. Sometimes, they’re the only ones in their districts doing this.

[The administration] might pick an all-star teacher in their district. The [administrator or teacher] might say, “We need it for September, and now it’s May.” That sense of panic comes into play. I used to work for a district, so I’ve been there.

THE Journal: Are there more special needs learners taking online courses than the general populace?

Voelker: Actually, I just came across a study done by the National Education Policy Center. One in 10 students enrolled in a virtual school have a disability. We need to provide these students with an equitable learning environment.

THE Journal: How do you make sure everything in your online course, from lessons to assessments, is aligned with Common Core Standards and other external factors or expectations?

Voelker: Yeah, we look at this concept of alignment. So when we talk about alignment, I guess you can equate it to an electric train — the track is aligned, the direction is correct, you can take it in the direction you’re going to take it.

We have to look at not only the content and materials; the assessments need to be aligned as well. Are things in alignment to help students? We look at all that, to make sure they’re all in tandem with one another.

THE Journal: Are there challenges or stumbling blocks that people who are building their own online course for the first time typically face?

Voelker: The challenge/biggest stumbling block for people building their own online course for the first time is taking the time to plan out their course from start to finish, and then finding someone else to take the time to put their eyes on it before it goes into they actually teach it. It is a capacity issue. It takes a lot of time and human resources to develop an online course. For many schools and districts, there is no one person who is dedicated to this cause — so it’s tapping supervisors and teachers, content area specialists — who are probably skilled in what they do, but this new instructional environment is new to them, and they don’t necessarily know how much work will really be involved. Some are lucky enough to work with an instructional designer who has that online expertise, but many are not. So, to do it right, they need to invest in professional development and have a good set of guidelines to help them get it underway. But, it doesn’t stop with the development. They need to keep their courses fresh, and make continuous improvement a priority.

THE Journal: What’s the difference between presenting an all-day workshop, as you are at ISTE, versus one or two hours?

Voelker: I’m going to be able to dive a lot deeper in this workshop. You can really chunk things out. I’ve done it in two-hour stints. That just scratches the surface.

THE Journal: What are you looking forward to at ISTE, besides your own presentation?

Voelker: I always look forward to going to a session and sitting down next to someone and hearing their story. Everyone who’s there has a story to tell. Everyone who’s there is championing something. Sometimes that person is the only one in their district or school who is fighting for it.

At ISTE, everyone is like you. It’s good to be able to sit down and have those conversations. They do a really good job with the program I have to say, in selecting programs that are engaging. There have only been a handful that haven’t been worthwhile.

I look for those interactive pieces — you can have those conversations and walk away with a great contact. You can help them make those connections, and find people like them, who they can bounce ideas off of; mentor them and help them.
I’m planning to meet up with some of the people I’ve been working with — that’s always fun. It’s a chance to see old colleagues. It’s neat. A lot of us run in the same circles.

THE Journal will be exhibiting at ISTE, June 25-28, in booth 754.