Keeping Academic Quality First in an Online COVID-19 World

On December 31, 2019, China reported to the World Health Organization a cluster of cases of pneumonia in people associated with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, Hubei Province (World Health Organization. Pneumonia of unknown cause — China. 2020). On January 7, 2020, Chinese health authorities confirmed that this cluster was associated with a novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV (Novel Coronavirus – China 2020).

Then, on January 19, 2020, a 35-year-old man went to an urgent care clinic in Snohomish County, Washington with a persistent cough and other symptoms. This person became the first confirmed case of the novel corona virus in the United States (Holshue et al., 2020). On February 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced “COVID-19” as the name of disease caused by the novel corona virus (Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it). Then on March 11, 2020, the Novel Coronavirus Disease, COVID-19, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. 

On March 13, 2020, a national emergency was declared in the United States concerning the COVID-19 Outbreak (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). However, days earlier, on the sixth of March 2020, corresponding with the beginning of spring breaks, many American universities were beginning to move to remote classes in response to the outbreak (Baker, Hartocollis, & Weise, 2020). Even in a pandemic, the importance of quality teaching does not change. In this essay as many universities and colleges turn to online learning due to COVID-19, faculty and administrators frequently pose the question: “How do we teach this course online and maintain academic quality?” We proffer three essential activities that respond to this question.

All institutions of higher education, and colleges, schools, or departments of business, must have three organizational elements: leadership/administration, student support (financial aid, advising, tutoring), and of course, academic. In every case, the quality of online curriculum depends on the following (in no particular order): technology, instruction and curriculum mapping. We look at these one at a time. So, the question is, what practices can be modified or created to ensure academic quality in this forced online learning environment?

First, technology and access to technology are essential to online learning. From the student perspective, access to technology – including internet access and access to appropriate devices – is an issue experienced with the move online due to COVID-19. Ashley Clark, a researcher affiliated with Higher Learning Advocates reports that, “Twelve percent of respondents aged 24 and younger reported that they did not have internet at home, and 41 percent of respondents in this age group reported at least one problem accessing course content” (Clark, 2020). This same study reveals that 37.50 percent of students do at least some of their online course work using a smartphone and 15.41 percent using a tablet (Clark, 2020).

Access to technology is not limited to students. Technology issues for the institution include review and selection of a learning platform, its maintenance, and support to users. In order to foster a successful learning environment, it is important to create a consistent technology experience between courses and within the courses. This serves to decrease the orientation time required at the start of each new class and reduce ambiguity that students are already facing in a new environment.

Online education faces several technology-related issues not associated with face-to-face instruction. These include ensuring student identity (student verification protocols) and refining policies and protocols for plagiarism and academic honesty. Options include issuing camera-verifiable IDs, implementing stringent login practices, and building verification services (e.g., Turn-It-In or SafeAssign) into the classrooms.

Second, instruction is faculty presence in the online classroom where they engage with students and content. Engaging, effective faculty provide timely and personalized feedback to students. Key to this is the realization that, much like face-to-face classes, student engagement depends on faculty engagement – not the inverse. Faculty who wait for students to engage will not be successful in this environment. Further, faculty infuse the classroom with their professional or academic expertise promoting understanding and integration of course topics beyond the classroom. It is noted that institutions with an online presence frequently tap well-credentialed faculty from all over the world in that a large percentage of their faculty are part-time, adjunct faculty.

Finally, curriculum mapping ensures the foundation of online instruction is sound, teaches to the course outcomes, and supports the program learning outcomes bringing the process into the full scope of the degree program. Curriculum mapping is the process of laying out how all academic activities and assignments correspond to course outcomes. These are then plotted to program learning outcomes. Academic activities within courses must be designed to provide opportunities for engaging in critical thinking, acquiring and displaying topical knowledge, and communication with peers and faculty. These activities are then the basis for the artifacts used in assessing programmatic outcomes. 

Curriculum mapping includes linking direct and indirect assessment measures to particular course academic activities. Direct and indirect assessments include normed, summative assessment exams, simulations, capstone papers, alumni surveys, and/or student end of course surveys. Subject matter experts, usually faculty members, develop curriculum and courses are built with the assistance of instructional designers. Focus on curriculum design contributes to the consistency of course content across all course sections.

In online settings, several systems are used to ensure quality. Data are readily available providing timely insight into quality of instruction and curriculum. Data are easy to access throughout online course offerings to enhance student experience and learning – even while classes are “live.” Another advantage exists in the areas of course and programmatic assessment and faculty/student engagement. These can be measured using artifacts found in courses that are uploaded to the online platform.

Quality in higher education has evolved from reviewing course content and learning outcomes to assessing student needs. The use of data and information for decision-making enhances our ability to access real-time data collection reporting course completion rates, student persistence, retention, graduation, and other standard measures.

The online platform does not eliminate a faculty member’s ability to engage with students and respond to their call to teach. Moore (1989) outlined three types of interaction for online courses: 1) student-to-student interaction, 2) student-to-content interaction, and 3) student-to-faculty interaction. We argue that the most important of these three is student-to-faculty interaction. Studies conducted by Durrington et al., (2006) and Bernard et al., (2009) found that faculty engagement has been shown to have a direct impact on student satisfaction, student achievement, and learning outcomes. Faculty are able to (and expected to) bring relevant content and their own experience into the online classroom. Faculty engagement standards may include real-time observations, data gathering including course completion rates, grade distributions, classroom activity, and end-of-course surveys. Even the U.S. Department of Education in 2006 stated that there is no assumption of student learning in the absence of an effective facilitator.

At this time, in the midst of global pandemic, there is great uncertainty including uncertainty about when or if our daily lives will return to pre-pandemic normalcy. This uncertainty affects all facets of life including our academic lives. In this essay, we have proposed that adapting to the online classroom environment requires addressing three major areas: technology, instruction and curriculum mapping. It is our proposition that by addressing these three areas, universities will be in position to deliver high-level academic programs in an online setting. The capacity to do so will greatly enhance an academic institution’s ability to adapt to new and emerging exigencies.


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