What Makes an Online Course a Good Experience?

Spring semester is under way! Now that you have a few weeks under your belt, the folks in Learning Design are wondering if you would like to weigh in on elements of quality in online courses.

Instructional designer, Penny Ralston-Berg.

Penny Ralston-Berg, an instructional designer with Penn State World Campus Learning Design, works with faculty to design and develop courses for the General Undergraduate Portfolio (GUP) and Labor and Employment Relations online programs. She is the co-author of MindMeld: Micro-Collaboration between eLearning Designers and Instructor Experts.

Penny also coordinated a recent large-scale study built on previous work done at the University of Wisconsin Extension called Online Course Quality: The Student Perspective. This study examined the Quality Matters rubric for quality assurance in online course design and other quality benchmarks. The goal was to gain insight into student perspectives of quality in online courses.

During 2009 and 2010, over 2,300 student responses were collected from 31 institutions in 22 states. In 2011 an additional 750+ responses were received from World Campus students. The information collected has been presented at several national conferences. World Campus data is summarized in a document titled – World Campus Learner Perceptions: Top 30 Elements of Quality in Online Courses.

The top five elements, according to the students’ response, are as follows:

  1.  Clear instructions: how to get started; how to find course components.
  2.  Criteria for how work and participation will be evaluated are descriptive, specific.
  3.  The grading policy is stated clearly.
  4.  Technologies required for the course are provided or easily downloadable.
  5.  Assessments are appropriately timed within the length of the course, varied, and appropriate to the content.

Do you agree with these results? What do you see or experience in these first few weeks that gives you a feeling the course is going to be good? If you were judging or evaluating a course for quality, what would you look for? Please leave your feedback here or e-mail us at WC_Community@outreach.psu.edu.

8 thoughts on “What Makes an Online Course a Good Experience?

  1. Thank you for the feedback, Ryan! I’ve passed your comment along to Learning Design, so they may respond to your concerns.

    –Kim, student communications

  2. “What Makes an Online Course a Good Experience?” I believe the experience starts in the virtual classroom. To elaborate, the necessity of student forums are crucial in forming a relationship between our peers and the instructor. In a traditional classroom, students can ask a question or discuss a lecture during or after class with peers or the instructor. This enhances critical thinking and develops a sense of community. I have encountered various forums on Angel that are considered student forums. In one current forum, both students and the instructor can answer questions in relation to course material, technical matters or just share ideas and support one another. Most of the courses I have taken do include student communication. However, there is absolutely no peer interaction in one course that falls under the category of social science, Frankly, I find it astonishing that there is no discussion, so much so, that I have decided to write my final essay in English 015 on the topic. In my research thus far, I have found that the learning design team makes suggestions and the individual instructor has the final say on the course management layout. In an effort to help form a greater learning experience, I encourage the learning design team to address the faculty on the importance of student interaction.

  3. Jennifer and Valerie–

    Thank you for your comments about the exam functions in Angel, the ability to print lessons and courses material, and the inability of ANGEL to work well with the latest version of Firefox. In terms of the specific exam question problem that Valerie highlights, we will pass this along to the designers of the course and they can review the issue with the faculty member.

    With regard to ANGEL and Firefox, we realize this has been problematic for all of us over the past several months, as our current version of ANGEL has not worked well with the new versions of Firefox. The good news is this summer the university has decided to upgrade to ANGEL 8, which should resolve these issues and also allow our students on Mac systems to use Safari. We will be testing browser functionality in the ANGEL 8 as soon as the new version is released to us, to assure we can inform students of any issues and more importantly let folks know which issues may be resolved with the new update. Also, as you may have heard the university is in the process of reviewing new LMS systems that we may move to over the next year. Angel was purchased by Blackboard two years ago and our ability to continue to upgrade or make enhancements to the product is limited. I know the above comments are not good excuses for our students, and for that we apologize, but I did want to make you aware of the upgrade plans and plans to move to a new LMS.

    In terms of the ability to print course materials and exams–I want to address this question in two parts. First, we are working to assure that all course content material can be printed if it is allowed by the copyright holder. We know this is an important feature for our students and we hope that this is available in all our courses over the next few semesters. That being said it is not always possible to allow students to print copyrighted material, as the owners of the material may request that we not allow students to download or print their images or works. While we always request the right to be able to include material in a printed lesson, we cannot always guarantee that this will be allowed by the copyright holders.

    Turning to the question of being able to print exams, this is a little more difficult and one that is determined by the faculty member. In general most of the quizzes are designed so they cannot be printed and this has to do with exam integrity and academic integrity. Also, it is a usual practice that the exam questions are drawn from question pools so each student receives a different set of questions each time an exam is taken. This makes printing exams impractical in many cases and not necessarily beneficial. If at times you are looking for more feedback on exams or would like to determine if an exam can be printed it is always best to discuss this with your instructor.

    I hope the above is helpful and in some ways addresses your concerns. As always we appreciate the feedback.


    Rick Shearer
    Director World Campus Learning Design

  4. Hey, Valerie and Jennifer!

    Thanks for your feedback! I’ve passed this along to our Learning Design team, who will respond to each of your concerns outside of this blog. Please check your Penn State email for a communication in the near future.

    Liam, student communications

  5. I agree with Valerie 100%! As far as printing the quizzes, I like to print my tests/quizzes afterwards to study from (some instructors even suggest you do so), but almost every time it is a PITA. In my current class, Part II of the weekly quizzes are short answer and/or create a graph in Google Documents, but trying to get the questions from Angel to Google is a three-step process (and it is a timed quiz). In regards to the charts, tables and images not copying over from the lessons, I would have assumed that if Penn State is using online materials (rather than requiring a purchased textbook), they would have gotten all the copyright clearances they need for student materials (for use online or in printed materials). I know folks who attend other online colleges and all of their materials are formatted for online use and user-friendly for printing. With Angel, it’s always guess work as to what is going to print well and what isn’t. It’s a constant aggravation for me.

  6. I replied on the FB post, but I just took a quiz that should have been proofread. I’ve taken many quizes where I’ve been asked the exact same question two or three times-which is a bit disconcerting when the clock is ticking. This quiz took that a step farther.

    The set up:

    The question appeared here.

    a) B is correct.
    b) A is correct.
    c) a statement related to the question.
    d) both A and B are correct.

    Not only were A and B transposed, but you didn’t know what A and B were even supposed to say, so if you knew that C was inaccurate, there was really no way to narrow down your answer.

    To add insult to this, the question appeared twice.

    In the middle of a test, there is no way to rectify this problem.

    Also, it would be great is Angel could keep up with software updates. I resisted updating firefox because the update isn’t supported by Angel. This update has been out for several months now. (I’ve finally had to do the browser update becuase of other software issues/support.) Since Angel might not work with the update, my choices are to go back to the old system and have my other programs run unsupported. Or use explorer, even though there are security issues that occur with that. It’s frustrating to feel boxed in when you’ve paid a technology fee for the courses.

  7. Hello Jennifer.

    Thank you for your comments on the ability to print lessons from online courses. This is a practice we have integrated into many of our programs and courses where you can print out a full lesson easily without the need to do screen shots. However, this is not yet implemented in all World Campus courses and one must remember that printing lessons will not always capture interactive media or certain copyrighted materials (charts, tables, images).

    Also, in general quizzes are not designed to be printed as they are often pulled from a random pool of questions and each time the quiz is displayed it will show a different set of questions. Thus, quizzes are truly meant to be completed online and in newer systems the option to print a quiz may not exist.

    If you’d like to discuss the printing option further I’d be happy to put you in touch with one of our designers who is doing work related to usability.


    Rick Shearer
    Director World Campus Learning Design

  8. One of the most aggravating things for me is not the amount of time I have to spend studying, but the amount of time that it takes to print content, quizzes, tests, etc. Can there be a set standard for online design so that they are easily printable? I’ve had classes where I’ve had to do screen shots of the quizzes. Other classes when you go to print, it doesn’t print the charts or graphics, so I have to do screen shots of those and insert them. It’s very frustrating!

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