Good instructional design is a key component of quality education. This is widely understood and accepted. In the arena of online education, this element becomes more critical due to the distance in space and time between teachers and students. Without the direct presence of a teacher, students rely on the designed curriculum for procedural direction and a clear scope and sequence of material.

Assessments in particular are important in online courses to reinforce the learning and to give students feedback and an idea of their progress. Judy Montgomery, University of Nebraska High School (UNHS) Assistant Director for Curriculum, speaks of the several different types of assessments that are in the courses emphasizing that they are there for a reason.

“There is a purpose and we make sure that all of objectives are covered, not necessarily in every assessment, but by the time you’ve gone through the course, you’ve been assessed on every objective," Montgomery said. "Every lesson objective.  Every course objective.”  

UNHS is fortunate to have a team of instructional designers responsible for developing and maintaining our curriculum. These individuals work as an integral part of the high school and collaborate with teachers, administration, IT professionals and customer and student services personnel.

The role of an instructional designer is part visionary, part guardian. They use their vision and creativity working with teachers to develop classes to capture the interest of students. At the same time, they zealously guard the quality of our courses through careful review and they ensure our school is compliant with all requirements for accreditation.

“Due to the considerable amount of planning required to design and develop an online course, it is beneficial to have a guide or rubric for reference to ensure that the needed criteria are met for a quality online course,” UNHS designer Melissa Morris said.

Recently I spent additional time with this team to gather their thoughts on quality in online education, specifically in instructional design. They are a unique group of people who operate as a very collegial team and I found it interesting that their thoughts tracked so closely. All agreed that three things are important in their work:

  • Essential quality
  • External standards
  • Variety of assessments

Essential Quality

Essential quality in a course is viewed as the same in an online course as it is in a classroom course. Instructional designers focus on quality instruction without regard to form of delivery. Quality instruction comes from good material and good teaching.

"I think that quality in an online course is in many, many respects the same as quality in a face to face course. You need quality materials to work with. You need quality instruction to go with those materials. You need good instruction that directly relates to the materials but also expands the materials and provides supplemental information for those materials."
Judy Montgomery

David Amstutz, UNHS designer, agrees that quality is platform agnostic.  

"Quality means providing students with a lasting understanding of subject matter that will prepare them to succeed in the world," he said. "This is the function of education, regardless of whether you are teaching in a classroom or in a distance education format."

Importance of Standards

The importance of designing instruction according to standards appeared as a strong theme in the conversations with our designers. A variety of standards were given as examples. The national group for K-12 online learning is iNACOL. Their standards for quality online instruction are used by instructional designers developing courses for online students. AdvancEd, the accrediting agency has criteria which are used.  The Nebraska Department of Education standards as well as Bloom’s taxonomy and Marzano’s The Art of Science of Teaching were also mentioned.

The iNACOL standards are for online courses; however, some individual standards presume a cohort of students interacting and working together. This is not an exact match for self-paced independent study. Nonetheless, the designers consider these standards of great importance and use them as a design guide aiming to hit the highest standards.

“There are very few that we do not hit 4s," Montgomery said. "They range from 0 to 4, and if we don’t hit 4 it’s because of the unique way we deliver our online instruction and the way students work."

All designers noted the importance of course objectives and state standards as a framework for quality. Tricia Kehn, UNHS designer, relates these quality standards to the review and evaluation of the work.

"Quality is what drives course assurance and valued instruction. Without adopting quality standards for online course design, then our ability to track and use learning management system data is compromised."
Tricia Kehn

Variety of Assessments

Both instruction and assessment are embedded in UNHS courses. Assessments may be formal or informal assessments. Informal assessment is viewed as a teaching tool whereas formal assessment is viewed as an evaluation of desired learning outcomes (learning objectives, meeting standards, proof of knowledge). All assessments are viewed as interactive mentoring opportunities—the diverse arrangement of assessment methods allows students to evaluate their own progress through the course material. 

“Online leaning is most effective when delivered by experienced teachers in their subject matter; those teachers that are fully invested in exploring and challenging all individual learning styles," Kehn said.

Assessing student learning in a holistic way, the UNHS approach uses a variety of assessments to incorporate elements such as students’ perspectives, results over a period of time, student-content formed during learning, and the instructor’s course experience.

Quality instructional design is a commitment of the University of Nebraska High School. We take pride in our curriculum and in the professionals who develop it.