A Few Big Changes, Lots of Little Ones: Updates to the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric

by Kristina Wilson


In the summer of 2018, Quality Matters (QM) released the Sixth Edition of the Higher Education Rubric along with a Rubric Update course to help reviewers brush up on the changes.

For the Distance Learning team in the School of Professional Studies, that’s a big deal. We use the QM rubric, a research-based set of standards for quality in online courses, to guide the design of new classes and help revise existing ones. At the end of each development cycle, all courses are reviewed by peer Learning Designers on our team as a way to provide feedback and ensure quality.

This blog post will highlight some of the changes in the Sixth Edition.

A few of them are big, including the merging of a few existing standards and additions relating to digital literacy, permissions, and including a variety of technology.

Many of them are small. Where there were once 99 points, there are now 100. The new point–and most of the redistributed points–have been allotted to accessibility standards. Some standards are now renumbered, or appear in a slightly different order.

But perhaps the biggest change is the length of the rubric, which has increased from 29 to 42 pages. Why is it longer? It’s now packed full of examples of ways that courses might meet the standards, and it’s a great place to go for inspiration if you’re feeling stumped in your current course development.

Merging Standards

In both of these cases, two standards have merged into one related standard. They still have the same high expectations, but are reviewed under one banner.

Technology Requirements and Obtainable Technology

Before: In the Fifth Edition, Standard 1.5 read, “Minimum technology requirements are clearly stated and instructions for use provided,” and Standard 6.3 read, “Technologies required in the course are readily obtainable.”

After: In the Sixth Edition, Standard 1.5 reads, “Minimum technology requirements are clearly stated and information on how to obtain the technologies is provided,” which incorporates both of these standards into one.

The Purpose (Required and Optional) of Instructional Materials

Before: In the Fifth Edition, Standard 4.2 read, “Both the purpose of instructional materials and how the materials are to be used for learning activities are clearly explained,” and Standard 4.6 read, “The distinction between required and optional materials is clearly explained.”

After: In the Sixth Edition, Standard 4.2 reads, “The relationship between the use of instructional materials in the course and completing learning activities is clearly explained,” and the annotation includes a statement about optional materials, stating that if an instructor would like to provide them, they are clearly labeled.

Digital Information Literacy Skills

Before: In the Fifth Edition, Standard 1.7 read “Minimum technical skills expected of the learner are clearly stated.”

After: In the Sixth Edition, it is now Standard 1.6 (reflecting an increase in importance) and reads, “Computer skills and digital information literacy skills expected of the learner are clearly stated.”

That’s a significant addition.

Building onto technical skills such as “using the Canvas LMS,” or “using course technologies such as Panopto,” this standard newly asks for the details. Will students need to create and save files in Word and then upload them to discussion forums in Canvas? Will they need to record, edit, and upload a screencast video using Panopto? By making the required skills more transparent, students who are reviewing the syllabus or a page on course technologies will have a better idea of what is expected of them.

Additionally, digital literacy extends to the skilled use of digital tools, or the “ability to locate, evaluate, apply, create, and communicate knowledge using technology.” This could be difficult for instructors who are technology power users. These skills may come naturally and seem obvious or granular. For example, communicating the digital literacy skills required of students might mean “exploring the internet with the use of Boolean search strategies,” or “conducting research in a library database by using techniques to limit the number of results.”

Permissions and Modeling Academic Integrity

Before: In the Fifth Edition, Standard 4.3 read, “All instructional materials used in the course are appropriately cited.”

After: In the Sixth Edition, Standard 4.3 reads, “The course models the academic integrity expected of learners by providing both source references and permissions for use of instructional materials.”

That’s also a significant change.

Beyond presenting the resources for your class in the citation style common to your field (and that you expect your students to use in their assignments!), the revised standard asks you to adhere to best practices similar to copyright law. Although Fair Use guidelines allow many materials to be used in online courses, that is always with the expectation that permission has been obtained and credit will be given.

The annotation explains that course materials should be cited correctly, and that, if any permissions were acquired to ensure that course materials could be distributed in the class, they are stated. Responsibly sharing instructional materials is already a key part of our development process. For example, we direct students to journal articles through Course Reserves rather than by hosting and distributing PDFs of those articles in the course site.

From Currency to Variety

Before: In the Fifth Edition, Standard 6.4 read, “The course technologies are current.”

After: In the Sixth Edition, it is now Standard 6.3 (reflecting a decrease in importance) and reads, “A variety of technology is used in the course.”

This standard has changed entirely, replacing one priority, currency, with another, variety. If a course technology meets other standards (for example, supporting the learning objectives, promoting active learning, or facilitating ease of use), how recently it was developed is arbitrary.

The new annotation for this standard reveals the motivation behind it: the instructor and learning designer must “ensure the course is not text-based only.” A wholly text-based online course looks back to the days of correspondence courses, where packets of readings, worksheets, and assignments were mailed to students. By including a variety of technology, it ensures that the course is developed with Universal Design for Learning in mind; students have different preferences for textual, audio, and video content, and exercise agency when they have the opportunity to choose the type of media they prefer.

Luckily, the annotation is generous in its definition of “technology tools” as “videos, discussions, social media, mobile technologies, games, simulations, wikis, blogs, podcasts, and virtual worlds,” so it should be easy to find technology that suits the content and structure of your course.

Commitment to Accessibility

Before: In the Fifth Edition, Standard 8.3 read, “The course provides alternative means of access to course materials in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners.”

After: In the Sixth Edition, there are two standards devoted to this. Standard 8.3 reads, “The course provides accessible text and images in files, documents, LMS pages, and web pages to meet the needs of diverse learners,” and Standard 8.4 reads, “The course provides alternative means of access to multimedia content in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners.”

This change, which differentiates between textual alternatives for multimedia and other kinds of media, shows a commitment to accessibility in online courses. It asks reviewers to build their knowledge of accessibility and even to “determine the accessibility of all text and image content in the course,” and “review all multimedia content in the course.” The annotations for these standards have grown significantly, with many new examples.

The 8.3 annotation explains that an accessible course meets the needs of all students without requesting an accommodation. Luckily, we have already made meeting the needs of diverse learners a priority in our department, and coach faculty to provide alt-text for images, organize pages using headings, and caption video content.

Want to Learn More?

If you’re interested in learning about Quality Matters, ask your Learning Designer for more information or e-mail distanceeducation@northwestern.edu. Additionally, you can reach out to Northwestern’s QM Coordinator, Assistant Dean of Distance Learning Reba-Anna Lee, for access to the rubric and the official Overview of Changes document.