Quality Matters in K12 Online and Blended Learning

By: Jim Snyder 

Quality Matters is a widely adopted program for quality assurance in online learning serving K–12, postsecondary, and other organizations involved in e-learning in the United States and internationally. The primary offerings and components are a set of design standards (or rubric) for the continuous improvement of online and blended courses, a peer review process for applying these standards, and related professional development.  The Quality Matters Rubric, with versions for continuing and professional (corporate) education, educational publishing, secondary education, and post-secondary education, is based on recognized best practices, built on the expertise of instructional designers and experienced online teachers, and supported by distance education literature and research.  The Rubric and web-based tools are complete with annotations that explain the application of the standards and the relationship between them.  The goal of the program is to increase student engagement, learning, and satisfaction in online or blended courses by implementing better course design.

Professional Development supports the QM program components and is an important part of a quality assurance effort.  After taking QM’s K-12 Applying the Quality Matters Secondary Rubric workshop – the most comprehensive approach to the K-12 Secondary Rubric that QM offers — Elliott Lemberg from New-Albany-Plain Local School District in Ohio stated that he learned how to use the Rubric to evaluate the quality of online and blended courses and, “this course has been an edifying experience for me. Not only did it reinforce what I had already deduced about online learning environments through other workshops I have taken, but it also opened my eyes to the rigor of designing a blended or an online course. It showed me how the [K-12 Secondary] Rubric can be invaluable resource and tool for ensuring continuous improvement in those courses by guaranteeing they are aligned to the learning objectives. In my years as an educator, I have encountered many educational rubrics that purport to promote constant enhancement of design and pedagogy, but this rubric is the first one that truly achieves that goal. It is accessible and lucid and provides great insight and spurs tremendous professional reflection for all educators.”
The Education Service Center of Central Ohio turned to the Quality Matters Program (QM) to promote rigorous, uniformly applied standards for online courses for students and online professional development for educators.[1] Through the Quality Matters Professional Development Grants, eTech Ohio sought to identify agencies with the capacity and desire to deliver professional development to schools and educators throughout Ohio. “This grant provides key infrastructure to support Ohio’s K-12 teachers in their efforts to provide high-quality online instruction,” said Greg Davidson, interim executive director of eTech Ohio. “It is an important component of the state’s overarching support of digital learning initiatives.”[2]
In 2010, the Quality Matters Program collaborated with the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), a leading provider of online courses for students in grades 6 to 12, to create the first G6-12 rubric.  The G6-12 rubric was created to address the need for a set of standards that is specific enough to guide the development, enhancement, and evaluation of online and blended courses for middle and high school students.  The Second Edition, The QM K-12 Secondary Rubric, integrates existing national standards for K–12 online education from:

With the development of the K-12 Secondary Rubric there was a need to compare these standards to those of in the second edition of iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Courses issued in 2011. All of the iNACOL standards are compared with equivalent standards from the QM Rubric except for the iNACOL standards for course evaluation (Section E), since the QM Rubric addresses only course design and not data gathering efforts to evaluate the course after delivery.
The Quality Matters Program demonstrates that the close correspondence between the iNACOL course standards and the QM Grades 6-12 Rubric, shows K-12 teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders that the QM Rubric can be an effective tool to achieve the iNACOL goals in addition to implementing the more detailed and explicit QM design elements.
The Quality Matters Rubric was designed to enable peer reviews of existing online courses.  Any subscribing organization may conduct its own internal or informal reviews or contract with Quality Matters to conduct an official QM-Managed review.   A course is evaluated by a team of three reviewers who have been trained in the application of the QM Rubric.  The team members include subject matter experts, experienced online instructors, and in some cases, instructional designers.  One member of the team is designated as the chair, an experienced QM reviewer with advanced training.
A dedicated research team is one way that Quality Matters keeps current with the latest K-12 online and blended research.  Last month they compiled a summary of the latest research literature. The current research literature on online and blending learning has concentrated upon first defining and then describing the benefits and challenges of K-12 online learning. The review revealed, among other important information, the following themes:

  • Various levels of professional impact
  • Benefits and challenges of virtual schools
  • Online course standards (Authors matched iNACOL’s National Standards for Quality Online Courses)
  • Different types of virtual schools

In 2012, Wiley partnered with Quality Matters to modify their rubric so that it can be used to certify publisher-created online courses. Wiley knows that having an independent validation by a respected organization such as Quality Matters instills confidence in Wiley’s users that their courses in the WileyPLUS program meets a standard of reliability from a course design standpoint and delivers a solid presentation of course content.
K-12 Publishers are also using the Quality Matters certification mark to indicate courses that have met QM standards in a formal course review.  In the state of Maryland, an effort to provide high quality online learning courses for students has led to the adoption of Senate Bill 674, establishing direction for process and procedures.  The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) document Process and Procedures for Offering Student Online Courses in Maryland Public Schools outlines a course review process which allows for reviews conducted by MSDE approved course review providers.  The Quality Matters Program is approved by the MSDE to provide this service, and has conducted over 70 such reviews for K-12 Publishers like Apex Learning and Connections Academy (part of ConnectionEducation.edu, a Pearson Company).

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