The School of Health Related Professions at the University of Mississippi Medical Center is leading the way in demonstrating that, when it comes to online education, quality does matter.
The school has become the first institution of higher learning in the state to have its distance learning implementation plan accepted by Quality Matters, a nationally recognized, faculty-centered peer-review body that certifies the quality of online courses. Quality Matters uses a rigorous assessment of course learning objectives, assessments, instructional materials, learner activities, student support and accessibility.
According to Terry Pollard, assistant professor and director of instructional development and distance learning in SHRP, Quality Matters is the "national benchmark" for online education certification.
"We are instilling a culture of high-quality online education at the Medical Center," said Pollard.
Six of nine departments in SHRP offer a fully online program, encompassing a total of 130 courses that range from the undergraduate to the doctoral levels. The school's Quality Matters implementation plan is expected to encourage 19 SHRP faculty from each of the six departments to achieve QM certification within three years for an online course they teach.
"The landscape of online education is changing," said Rebecca Butler, assistant professor and coordinator of instructional development and distance learning in SHRP. She and Pollard developed the school's Quality Matters implementation plan.
"When online education gained traction in the late 1990s, there were no guidelines on what constituted a good course," Butler said. "Today, research is showing that aligned course objectives, learner-centered assessments and varied presentation of instructional content produces a more successful student.
"Quality Matters is leading the way on this research and the certification program identifies faculty that apply these best practices in their course design."
The Quality Matters seal of approval is so coveted that Dr. Jessica Bailey, dean of SHRP, is preparing the institution's first QM-certified course this fall in the Doctor of Heath Administration Program: "Current Trends in Accreditation and Licensure."
"About 40 percent of our student enrollment is for online programs and course offerings," Bailey said. "We, as educators, have a duty to provide the highest quality education to our students, whether it be in the traditional face-to-face setting or online instruction.
"It is important for me to be willing to step out and offer my course as the first one to be evaluated because I need to be aware of setting an example. Preparing your course for this level of examination by online education experts is a lot of work; if I am not willing to put forth the time and effort to prepare my course for this type of evaluation, how could I expect the rest of my faculty to do it?"
At the core of the school's Quality Matters implementation plan is its association with the Medical Center's UMMC/2020 Strategic Plan.
"Our ability to educate allied health professionals via distance education directly supports our mission to make Mississippians healthier," Bailey said. "It also closely aligns with the strategic plan for academic programs in terms of exposing our students to new technologies, supporting the work force and applying alternative education methods to serve the needs across the state."
The decision to obtain certification of its online educational programs comes at an opportune time for the school, which was transitioning its learning management system from Blackboard to Canvas. The training course, developed in collaboration with the School of Nursing, has provided Pollard and Butler the opportunity to integrate QM principles into the school's Canvas 101 faculty training.
Upon completion of the training, SHRP faculty in all six online academic programs now meet 26 of Quality Matters' 43 stringent standards, Pollard said.
SHRP isn't the only school at UMMC seeking Quality Matters certification. Christian Pruett, assistant professor of nursing, is introducing QM standards in the School of Nursing as well.
"Programmatically, we are trying to identify some courses in the school to go through the Quality Matters process, then establish some benchmarks for our faculty to help them align with Quality Matters," Pruett said. "It's a very big initiative for us. We want our courses to meet the benchmark, but for us, it's more about incorporating quality into our professional development.
"We want to give our faculty the tools and resources to help them in the course-creation process. In time, we will take the courses through the Quality Matters authentication process."
Although SHRP may have a bit of a head start in chasing Quality Matters certification for its courses and faculty, Pruett said both schools have embraced the spirit of collegiality that is fundamental to the success of the institution's educational offerings.
"Since both schools have such a strong distance-learning presence, we've decided to collaborate so we could have faculty in both schools who are Quality Matters-certified," he said. "We are excited to be involved in Quality Matters and to try to align our courses to that standard moving forward."
"In the future, we hope to collaborate by assisting in a course review offered by either school," he said. "We already collaborate in other areas pertaining to online education and technology. The School of Nursing is a valuable ally and we cherish our relationship."
Although "quality" is a subjective concept that academic institutions always seek but can never completely obtain, Pollard said Quality Matters certification insures an ongoing process that will keep the school focused on improving its online offerings daily.
"It's fantastic to see faculty's eyes light up at this opportunity for recognition," he said. "Chasing quality in the field of online education is challenging but rewarding, and we're making great strides throughout the institution."