A Leap of Quality: How One University Went From QM Novice to QM Champion

“We care about our students and our learner support certification conveys the significance of that attention and importance.”

The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) joined Quality Matters (QM) in 2015, taking another step forward in their quality assurance journey — a small step that turned into a giant leap and moved them from QM novice to QM champion. We recently spoke with several members of the UAF team to learn more about their work with QM including what they find most useful, how it benefits faculty and students and what helps them be so successful.

QM: Why did UAF seek an external voice on quality assurance?

Owen Guthrie, UAF eCampus Acting Director: UAF eCampus has always focused on the importance of quality online courses. For years, we used a variety of tools and publications to communicate with faculty on this important subject, developing our own checklist for course quality and readiness. In 2015, we decided to adopt Quality Matters as an additional program to help us work with faculty toward continual improvement of our course offerings and development strategies. Quality Matters was a good fit because it provides an important external voice on the subject of online course quality and its products and services help us manage and expand a system of quality assurance that was homegrown and built up over time.

QM: What QM tools and resources have you found most helpful?

Janene McMahan, M.Ed., UAF eCampus Instructional Designer: We found the Quality Matters Rubric and associated professional development opportunities such as the Improving Your Online Course (IYOC) workshop helpful tools for working with faculty. Additionally, each member of our instructional design team took the Applying the Quality Matters Rubric workshop and several members became QM-Certified Peer Reviewers. The QM Course Review process is a very helpful tool. Supporting materials and the external review process greatly aid our ability to work with faculty toward continuing course and program quality improvement. Since inception, 24 courses have “Met” Standards in QM-Managed Official Course Reviews and 26 courses have “Met” Standards in Internal Reviews.

QM: How have learners at UAF benefited from courses being reviewed?

Joanne Healy, UAF Assistant Professor: Every time one of my courses goes through either an internal or an external review it gets better. I think the students like that the course is clear and easy to navigate. My education students are also modeling the best practices they see in the courses. For example, there are different ways to embed technology assignments and I use a new one every time I update a course. My students then use that technology in their K-12 classrooms and report that their students really enjoy it.

QM: UAF recently moved from course reviews to program certification, including Program Certification for Online Learner Support, which covers all online programs at UAF. What precipitated this move and how does it benefit the University and its stakeholders?

Owen: The process of going through a QM Program review and eventual certification is a valuable one that affords us several positive opportunities. For example, the online learner support certification process allowed us to initiate conversations across the campus with various stakeholders around the topic of learner support for our programs. This helped us improve services within our own administrative unit and to communicate with units outside of our own that are also responsible for supporting our online learners — creating a common language around a common goal.

Further, the Program Certification for Online Learner Support helped us communicate to students about our learner-focused approach to support services. We care about our students and our learner support certification conveys the significance of that attention and importance.

Lastly, we sought program certification to help differentiate our programs in an increasingly competitive online learning landscape. The attainment of the certification conveys that differentiation and the process of obtaining the certification led to higher quality programs, which not only help differentiate us but also help us meet our primary goal of providing students with the highest quality learning environments.

Joanne: One of the biggest benefits of going through QM Program Review was the thoughtful feedback from faculty around the country. That feedback helped make our program even stronger. Ultimately, that benefits everyone, especially the students.  

QM: UAF’s Masters of Education in Special Education received QM Program Certification for Program Design and is also covered by the Program Certification for Online Learner Support. Why was this program chosen for the program certification process?

Joanne: I felt QM was a really good fit for the special education program. It aligns well with special education practices especially the accessibility Standards. It’s so important to make learning accessible to everyone. But it is just as important to make sure the learning is of the highest quality. QM helps ensure both.

Janene: Joanne was an early-adopter or champion. She was really excited upon completing her first course review and realized that what she learned from that one review could be applied to all of her courses. It was a natural progression for her, and a true desire, to move her entire program — which became fully online in Fall 2017 — to fully certified.  

QM: What changes have you seen since obtaining program certification?

Janene: We’ve seen a consistent interest in faculty choosing to have their course reviewed. Since the program design certification for special education, we’ve also seen interest in Quality Matters professional development increase. When you look at the number of QM professional development opportunities attended, you can see healthy progress from 11 in 2015, 28 in 2016, 44 in 2017, and 88 in 2018. For us, that’s a win-win. We want the faculty to be excited about and in charge of driving quality assurance in their courses while we support them.

QM: Given the benefits, how are you communicating your program certifications to stakeholders?

Janene: We put the Program Certification Marks on the School of Education website and all School of Education special education courses. Other courses that met Standards through an Official QM-Managed Review have the QM Certification Mark as well. UAF eCampus also held a reception open to everyone on campus to celebrate the accomplishment and press releases were distributed.

Marissa Carl-Acosta, UAF Communications Manager: We created fliers, on-campus bus ads and posters highlighting the program certification for special education, and are working on a video featuring a current student. Faculty and recruiters traveling to conferences and student events now have easy-to-distribute materials highlighting the outstanding quality of the online program.  

Despite its huge leap forward, UAF is far from done with its quality assurance journey. The University plans to complete two additional QM program certifications for its Masters of Education in Special Education in order to achieve Exemplary Program status. It will also continue reviewing other online courses and providing professional development opportunities for faculty and staff.  

Whether you are taking small steps or giant leaps, QM has tools and resources that can help you meet your quality assurance goals. Explore all of our professional development, course design review and program review options to find the one that is right for you.