Category Archives: Quality Assurance

A consistent high-quality learning experience is critical to the success of the distance learner as well as the online program. Evidence-based quality design standards help guide the design of online courses and programs in support of student satisfaction and success.

Improving outcomes with Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Over the past few years colleges have faced an increasing number of complaints from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) requiring their web content be made accessible to people with disabilities. Although the OCR complaints typically focus on publicly available web content, the American Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all online instructional content meet accessibility guidelines. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) provides guidance on making web content accessible to people with a broad range of disabilities.

Usability + Accessibility = Successful Experience for All

Usability + Accessibility CC-BY J. Albert Bowden II on Flickr

Making course content accessible may at first seem a daunting task when faced with a lengthy list of rules or standards.  A recent article in the EDUCAUSE Review describes how University of Memphis integrated Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles into their online course development process. The instructional design team at Memphis developed a three phase professional development plan that helps faculty look beyond compliance and focus on the “what, how, and why” of learning online.

“…we conducted a needs assessment and determined that requiring faculty to address accessibility in their online courses was easier for them if they focused on the pedagogical concepts of the UDL Representation principle and its guidelines rather than the technical concepts of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0).”

At the heart of Universal Design for Learning is the idea that people learn in diverse ways and therefore benefit from multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

By providing multiple means of representation – diverse forms of media – learners are able to understand the material or concepts in ways that make the most sense to them individually. Material may be presented visually (text / images), or through auditory (voice messages / podcasts) means, or both (captioned video).

By providing multiple means of action or expression, learners can represent their understanding in different formats (e.g. writing, video / audio recordings, presentations, etc.) – providing them with personally meaningful ways to demonstrate acquired competencies.

By providing multiple means of engagement, learners can master the material according to their individual strengths and preferences. Some students work well in groups; others may prefer to work alone. Assignments that encourage students to apply their individual talents and abilities are more likely to engage students in active, authentic, and relevant learning.

Integrating UDL principles into both online faculty training and the course development process helps to equip online faculty with a proactive rather than reactive approach to supporting student accessibility and learning.


V. Cullifer (2017).  OCR Website Accessibility Complaints Hit Schools and Universities Digital Accessibility Digest,  Microassist

R. Bowery & L. Houston (2017).  Reaching All Learners by Leveraging Universal Design for Learning in Online Courses  EDUCAUSE Review

WC3 Recommendation (2008).  Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0


S. Burgstahler (2017).  ADA Compliance for Online Course Design EDUCAUSE Review

Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O'Brien CC-BY on Flickr

Navigating the online course

After several trips to Pittsburgh in the past few years, I have learned to turn off my GPS navigation system while driving through the downtown area. With its tall buildings, numerous highway exits, over-passes and bridges, my GPS loses the signal and begins offering less than helpful suggestions at a time when the importance of a clear useable navigation system is most critical.

Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O'Brien CC-BY on Flickr

With its tall buildings, numerous highway exits, over-passes and bridges, my GPS loses the signal and begins offering less than helpful suggestions at a time when the importance of a clear useable navigation system is most critical. Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O’Brien CC-BY on Flickr –

A colleague shared with me an incident with a student requesting a refund when, after week four of an eight week math course, they had yet to log into the publisher’s course site. According to the student they had logged into their Blackboard course and perused the course space but were unaware of the need to log into the supplemental publisher’s site, where the quizzes were to be completed. Of course, by week four, they were already halfway though the course and had missed several quizzes. When the instructor suggested they drop the course, the student stated they were not made aware of the second site and therefore should not have to pay for the course.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard these kinds of concerns and it seems to me that this is yet another example of how important it is to make clear the expectations early on in the semester or term. One way to help avoid these problems is to consider the course interface from the student’s perspective.

In a Quality Matters research project, Does Findability Matter? – Findability, Student Motivation and Self-efficacy in Online Courses (2012), researchers found that time-on-task, student self-reported difficulty and frustration levels were significantly higher for students enrolled in control group (non-QM-recognized) courses. On the other hand, students enrolled in the experimental group (QM recognized courses) reported a significantly better experience in regards to ease of finding course materials and assignments. The were more likely to enjoy their course experience and to recommend the course to friends. Instructor ratings were higher and frustration levels, lower than for the control group.

“Findability” was rated using QM Standard 6.3 – Navigation throughout the online components of the course is logical, consistent, and efficient.

When preparing the course ask a colleague and / or student(s) who are unfamiliar with the course, to look over the homepage and provide helpful suggestions. Here are some questions for which they might provide feedback…

  • Is it obvious where to begin?
  • Can you easily find the course syllabus?
  • Is it clear how to contact the instructor, when they are available and when students can expect a response?
  • Are the course goals and objectives clearly stated?
  • Is the schedule of assignments and course activities easy to find and understand?
  • Can students easily navigate to ancillary materials (e.g. publishers quizzes)?
  • Can you see at first glance how to find both technical and course-related assistance?

Keep in mind that people are different and will intuit where to find things by their own experience with similar interfaces. Although you may feel that putting all of the important information in one place (such as the syllabus) should suffice, your students may benefit by finding the same information in multiple locations – or rather – multiple paths to the same information.

These considerations may seem obvious but getting a second or even third perspective can help to ensure students can easily navigate the course and focus on the learning, as opposed to getting lost along the way.


Simunich, B., Robins, D., Kelly, V. (2012) Does findability matter?. Quality