The Science and Art of Creating High Quality Online Courses: Part 1: The Science.

By Julie “Jules” Troyer Ph.D.

The demand for online courses increases every year as universities seek to increase distance education and meet the needs of students to have easily accessible classes. Online classes are convenient and easy for students to fit into busy schedules; however, it is important to focus on excellence in online course development. The development and creation of a high quality online course is both an art and a science, thus this article series will be a two part blog series. This blog will focus on the scientific aspects of developing, creating, and implementing an excellent online course.

The six steps in the scientific method are:

The 6 Steps of the Scientific Method as it applies to Online Course Construction

Ask a Question

Quality online course development begins with asking the right questions. What questions are asked is dictated by what design model is being implemented. Although there are many quality design models in existence and picking the right one for the right institutions and the right subject and set of students is important; all courses are driven by supply, demand, and distribution. The business model is an effective and popular model to fuel the question generation at the beginning of the course development process. Practically, the course must be in demand by students, there must be a need in the curriculum for the supply of courses to be increased or improved, and there needs to be a quality system in place to distribute the course effectively. Questions that should be asked at the beginning of the course development process, based on the business model are detailed in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Questions Based on The Business Model That Inform Online Course Construction

Do Background Research

Traditionally in education there are Seven Principles of Good Practice that guide effective teaching and learning situations. These tried and true practices should be adapted to technology and online education to ensure the highest quality education. These seven principles are:

1. Good Practice Encourages Contact Between Students and Faculty
2. Good Practice Develops Dialogue and Interaction Among Students
3. Good Practice Uses Active Learning Techniques
4. Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback
5. Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task
6. Good Practice Communicates High Expectations
7. Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

In preparing the course outline and developing activities and materials for the course itself, these seven principles should be taken into consideration. Also, plan on thinking ahead to the assessment stage of the process and think about how the course will be evaluated on quality through each of these seven principles.

Construct a Hypothesis

The best online courses are organized, inviting, and easy for the student to understand what is expected of them. Courses should be organized into learning units/modules with clear learning goals and objectives and have logical activities and materials to support these goals. Activities should encourage student engagement with the instructor and other students and support critical thinking and deeper level understanding of the material. Also, courses should be set up to maintain distributed practice by having weekly assessments over the material, activities that assist students in elaborating the meaningfulness and application of the material as they are learning it, and there should be rapid feedback to students on these activities.

Quality online courses assist students in developing and actualizing mastery goals not just learning goals. Students, who focus on mastery goals are intrinsically motivated, learn because they are motivated to better themselves, retain information better, and are more capable of transferring what they learn to other domains. Individuals with learning goals consistently must be extrinsically motivated by grades, praise, etc. and are worse at retaining information and being able to apply it than mastery goal oriented students. Online courses rely tremendously on students being able to be organized and self-motivated and success in this environment is astronomically increased by focusing students on mastery goals. Thus, activities such as active application, problem-based activities, meaningful discussions, guided writing assignments such as papers or PowerPoint presentations, and group projects are all excellent additions to encourage mastery learning.

Test Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment

It is simply not good enough to say a course is well developed; it must be tested to legitimately know if a course is constructed well. The Quality Matters Rubric is a widely used assessment tool made up of  8 general standards and 41 specific standards used to evaluate the design of online and hybrid courses.  The rubric is used as a tool in the scoring system that assists a team of reviewers to effectively determine the excellence of a online or hybrid course.

Alignment or the process of critical course components working together to maximize student outcomes, is one of the key components of this rubric and an effective method of assessment of the quality of a technology-based course.  Critical course components such as the learning objectives, assessment and measurement materials, instructional materials, learner interaction and engagement, and the course technology all must integrate seamlessly to consider a course of high quality.

Analyze the Data and Draw a Conclusion

Gathering data from rubrics such as the Quality Matters Rubric, Student Opinion of Instruction surveys, statistics of course enrollment and grade distribution, and course and program completion rates all assist in determining the overall quality of the course. It is important to critically analyze this data and take into consideration various perspectives of how “excellent” this course is. This is the juncture where data can be used to improve the course, make revisions or deletions, or tailor the objectives to better suit the needs of the institution and the students.

Report Results
Finally, at the end of this scientific process it is important to report a summary of the course construction and revisions to inform any future maintenance of the course. This allows the establishment of processes and policies to keep the course fresh and relevant but still reliable and valid to course objectives and learning goals.


The demands of modern students are being heard by the higher education institutions that serve them and the demand is not only for convenience but quality as well. This first installment in the two-part series on  The Science and Art of Creating High Quality Online Courses, overviews the six steps in the scientific method, as they relate to online course construction. The systematic scientific approach allows for a structured, innovated, and applicable curriculum that is useful for a wide variety of different institutions and types of students. The next installment in this series covers the intuitive, improvisational, and artistic elements necessary to fully engage students in an online class and flesh out the definition of “quality” or “excellence” beyond the quantitative above.


Chickering, A.W. & S. C. Ehrman (1999).. Implementing the seven principles: Technology as a lever.
American Association for Higher Education Bulletin, 10, 3-6.

Puzziferro, M &  Shelton, K. (2008). A model for developing high-quality online courses: Integrating a
Systems approach with learning theory. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 12), 119-136.

The Quality Matters Program is sponsored by MarylandOnline, and was supported in part by the
Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education.

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One Commment

  1. Rebeca Bonilla says:

    I agree that learning how to study effectively is one of the most important things for college students to learn.

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