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Evaluating Courses

Not all online courses are created equally. As is true with any other type of product or publication, there are high quality and low quality examples. Different courses serve different purposes and take different instructional approaches. In ways similar to how a school’s curriculum team reviews textbooks, a team should review online course selections to ensure that the course will meet the program’s needs. Both the criteria used and the process employed are important for ensuring that you’ll end up with a quality product that serves your students and teachers well.

Quality Standards for Online Courses

iNACOL has published National Standards of Quality for Online Courses. This document consists of six standards, each with multiple criteria. Although some of the criteria may not apply to all situations, this document provides the best available starting point for your curriculum review. Additional information is available in the Quality section.

Evaluation Process

The process used for evaluating courses is at least as important as the criteria you use. Your strategy and the team you use can impact how successfully the selected courses meet your needs. Most experienced educators have participated in textbook reviews and adoptions. In many ways, the review of online courses is similar, with several important additional considerations.

The Overall Strategy

There are two schools of thought on the overall strategy to use when reviewing courses: by course or by vendor.

Those who favor the course level strategy take the perspective that just like textbooks, online courses should be reviewed one-by-one for alignment to standards, compatibility with the teaching style of the teacher who will be teaching the course, alignment with district goals, and so on. The reasoning goes that just as is true with textbooks, courses vary within any vendor’s catalog. Just because a vendor’s Algebra course fits the school goals, that doesn’t mean that that same vendor’s American History course does so.

Those who favor the vendor-level strategy usually do so because they find it much simpler to work with just one or two vendors to supply all of their courses. The business and technology factors are minimized. It also helps assure that courses have similar look & feel, navigation, and educational approach.

Initially, many programs start with one primary vendor and then a second for additional courses. As programs mature, they are better able to make nuanced decisions that meet their needs.

The Team

As with textbooks, the course review team should include at least a couple teachers in the subject area under review and a program administrator. Online courses are not merely textbooks in the online environment, so in addition to those people, online course review also requires the program technology coordinator and an experienced online instructor, preferably in the subject area under review. An additional educator experienced in instructional design for online learning can also be helpful.

To support that core decision-making team, many programs also have a broader curriculum advisory committee that includes stakeholders such as students, parents, board members and others. Their perspectives can be very helpful in highlighting factors that educators may not recognize as important to students or parents.