Online learning offers students flexibility to access classes where – and often when – they choose. This style of education has become the world’s most prevalent model for postsecondary learning, according to an Inside Higher Ed article. To stay relevant and best serve students, institutions must develop quality and effective online (or “distance learning”) courses.

There are five key elements that make up a quality distance education program. Let’s break them down…

1. Courses are designed to be conducted online.

One of the most important characteristics of a quality online education program is the fact that the courses were designed specifically for online delivery. Their learning modules are built to be effective and engaging online experiences.

When designing an online program, Dave Lungren, vice president of content solution at Collegis, says consistency is key. He believes it’s critical to have a single, fundamental design implemented across all courses in the program.

“Nothing is more difficult for students than needing to figure out what to do or where to go in a particular course,” Lungren explains. He adds that effective online courses are often structured in a weekly cadence, with regular activities and due dates that allow students to establish a weekly rhythm of effort, assignment completion and interaction.

2. Opportunities for student engagement are embedded within the courses.

An obvious drawback of distance learning is the lack of direct interaction between students and their instructors (as well as their peers). While it’s difficult to replicate the face-to-face collaboration that exists in a residential learning environment, a quality online program will have practical alternatives intentionally designed into the courses.

Lungren describes the three levels of interaction that are important in distance learning programs:

  • Student-to-faculty interaction: Creating opportunities for students to have contact with the course instructor. This can be done through discussion boards, email, virtual office hours, phone calls and thoughtful assignment feedback.
  • Student-to-student interaction: Providing ways for students to connect and collaborate with their peers. This can take place via group assignments, synchronous learning sessions, discussions boards and email, and can help build a sense of comradery within the program.
  • Student-to-content interaction: Leveraging dynamic learning materials that require active involvement from the student. This could come in the form of animated or clickable images or through more complex interactive simulations.

3. Instructors are trained to teach in an online environment.

Not all instructors have experience teaching courses online. In fact, according to data from Bay View Analytics, when COVID prompted schools to shift courses online, 97 percent of the institutions surveyed tasked instructors who had no prior online teaching experience with transitioning to distance education courses. And 56 percent of faculty reported using teaching methods they had never used before.

Yet, instructors play a critical role in the success of any distance education program. That’s why the best programs revolve around instructors who receive the specific training, coaching and ongoing support it takes to be effective educators in an online modality.

4. Assessments are structured to be delivered virtually.

One of the most challenging parts of remote learning has been figuring out how to deliver effective, valid – and secure – assessments. This critical component is typically an area of intense focus when designing a quality distance education program.

Lungren describes three important elements that should be incorporated into every online course:

  • Formative assessment: Building in opportunities for monitoring student learning throughout the term, providing ongoing feedback so students can measure their own personal learning progress.
  • Summative assessment: Evaluating student achievement of course-level learning objectives. Authentic, project-based assessment methods tend to be most effective for online delivery.
  • Exam security for objective tests: Ensuring exams are protected in an online environment using lockdown browsers, online proctoring and randomized test question pools in the learning management system (LMS).

5. Support is easily accessible.

Just because students aren’t on campus doesn’t mean they should be on their own. A successful distance education program is backed by 24×7 support for students and faculty alike. This helps ensure technology or accessibility issues won’t disrupt the learning process.

In the asynchronous world of online education, problems can pop up day or night on any given day. Having around-the-clock technology support provides peace of mind for students, allowing them to focus on their learning.

The best distance education programs also offer other types of support catered to online students. This can include access to academic advising, online tutoring options, networking opportunities, career services and more.

Elevate your online education offerings

As you evaluate the future of distance education programs at your institution, keep these factors in mind. If you need assistance in navigating the road ahead, we’re happy to help!

Let us help you develop the enriching online learning experience your students are seeking.

Author: Callie Malvik

Callie Malvik is a Senior Content Manager with Collegis Education. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Mass Communication and Advertising from Winona State University, Minn.