Elevating Course Quality After a Fast Pivot to Online Learning

Last updated on: December 23, 2021

clock icon 9 minute read
clock icon 9 minute read


Situated among the Rocky Mountains, faculty at the University of Wyoming (UW) are familiar with rugged terrain. But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced in-person courses to move online, many instructors felt they had entered uncharted territory.

Navigating this transition required a guide who is highly experienced in evaluating, designing, and teaching online courses. That’s what UW gained by partnering with us.

UW tapped into our market and faculty development expertise to elevate course quality quickly. Thanks to our fee-for-service model, the university received support on a project basis without signing a full online program management (OPM) agreement.

Challenge: Navigate a sudden transition to online instruction

UW aimed to get ahead of the challenges caused by the unexpected migration to remote education. One of the biggest was determining support strategies for faculty with varying knowledge of online pedagogy.

“Conversations at the University of Wyoming focused on how to support our faculty when some had experience teaching online, and others had no experience at all,” said Dr. Benjamin Cook, UW’s Interim Vice Provost of Digital, Distance, and Online Education.

UW strived to do more than provide faculty development. Nearly 12,000 students from around the world call UW home each semester, and the pandemic affected them, too. Dr. Cook knew that “improving the online class experience and the learning experience for students was critical.”

Of course, each learner’s experience is unique. That’s why UW sought to make their online classrooms accessible for everyone’s needs. “It was important for us to understand how accessible our courses were and to provide a great learning experience for all learners everywhere,” Dr. Cook said.

UW had some internal capacity for solving these challenges. The university offers an impressive instructional design resource through the Ellbogen Center for Teaching and Learning (ECTL). However, transitioning all faculty and students so rapidly to online learning was unprecedented. UW needed backup.

Strategy: Work with a partner to boost faculty skills and course quality

As UW began looking for outside guidance, Dr. Cook had an ideal partner in mind. He wanted an education services company that would “deploy more resources to support our faculty and deliver the best experience possible” during a time defined by uncertainty and change.

After weighing their options, UW decided we met that description best. Because UW needed targeted support, they formed a fee-for-service agreement with us to achieve their goals within their budget on a project basis.

A fee-for-service partnership offered tremendous flexibility. That was important because we saw many opportunities for strengthening UW’s online operations on an accelerated schedule. To do so, we divided our support into five work streams that we could complete simultaneously.

Workstream 1. Course design and development

Our learning designers collaborated with UW’s faculty directly to help elevate the quality of coursework. We tailored our support for varying skill levels — and limited impacts to busy schedules — by offering multiple formats for transforming on-ground courses for online learning:

  • Guided course development
    We identified course requirements during weekly meetings with faculty. From there, our learning designers and the faculty followed a collaborative process to complete the content work. This format was ideal for faculty members seeking outside teammates who could lead most of the course development, bringing their vision to life in the LMS.
  • 1:1 course development workshops
    When faculty selected this option, we worked with them in real-time. These workshops let us collaborate closely, developing courses in a compressed timeframe.
  • Course framework development
    UW faculty members teamed up with our learning designers to plan online courses. Then we used those plans to create course templates in the LMS for faculty members to populate with content on their schedules. This format worked well for busy faculty members who could navigate the LMS independently but wanted assistance thinking through the big picture of their design and the alignment of their content.

“It would have been basically impossible to complete this work at that scale without a partnership,” Dr. Cook said. “It’s been absolutely enlightening, as now we know where the issues are and can continue developing our online courses and resources.”

Workstream 2. Faculty development

This workstream prepared UW’s professors to develop and teach online courses independently. We offered a series of faculty development courses to instill an array of essential skills for online instruction:

  • Online course design
    During this introductory course, faculty learned to apply best practices and offer uniform coursework across the university.
  • Planning online programs
    Spanning two courses, we taught UW’s program directors and department chairs to structure student-centric online programs. We also customized asynchronous/synchronous materials to help close their specific knowledge gaps.
  • Instructional design platform
    This course helped professors learn to use tools that integrate with UW’s LMS. With this knowledge, they could design higher quality, more accessible courses in less time.
  • Interactive coursework
    We led training on tools for using interactive elements to create immersive learning experiences — no technical background required.

“We wanted to embrace the interactive nature of deploying a class online,” Dr. Cook said. “Wiley’s learning designers pointed our faculty to tools for creating interactive assignments and a richer, more interactive environment for online learners.”

Workstream 3. Program analyses

UW wanted to get a sense of strengths and weaknesses within their online sociology and criminal justice programs. They also strived to offer a consistent learning experience in these programs. So, we analyzed courses and found opportunities to enhance them by:

  • Using consistent layouts and standard modules to add cohesion across both programs, reducing student’s cognitive load when switching between courses
  • Setting weekly learning objectives to structure the courses further and establish expectations for learners
  • Diversifying assessments and instructional materials to give students a more engaging online education
  • Making accessibility adjustments that removed barriers for students with learning disabilities

“There was a broad recognition that we needed cohesion in these programs,” said Dr. Eric Wodahl, Department Chair for UW’s Department of Criminal Justice and Sociology. “I don’t think we would have gotten to that level without Wiley.”

Workstream 4. ECTL quality audits

ECTL gave prompt support to faculty after the pandemic began. This support included workshops on best practices for online learning and course assessments. But with the overwhelming workload stemming from the pandemic, giving feedback about each faculty member’s course design would require assistance.

As part of the fee-for-service partnership, we performed these assessments for ECTL. Through this work, we created a rubric for gauging what worked well and what could be improved within the online courses that faculty submitted for review, including the following:

  • Instructional materials
  • Learning activities
  • Syllabi and course structures
  • Course accessibility

Dr. Cook said the depth of our expertise enabled us to impact all of UW’s online programs.

“Wiley really understands best practices,” Dr. Cook said. “Not just in designing great individual course experiences, but in designing great online programs that meet the needs of learners.”

Workstream 5. Accessibility review and remediation

This accessibility review went beyond updating online courses to meet WCAG 2.0 compliance. UW set a goal to offer highly inclusive coursework, and our review would help foster success for learners with and without disabilities.

“Partnering with Wiley was a chance for our university to become even more intentional about accessible design,” Dr. Cook said.

We divided this workstream into two channels. UW oversaw the first one, awareness and education, helping faculty understand accessibility principles.

Our learning designers led the second channel, remediation, auditing 75 online courses for accessibility. We updated content directly when we had access to the LMS. For the other items, we created a remediation checklist that recommended additional improvements for UW to make. These updates included:

  • Optimizing documents for screen-readability
  • Providing image captions
  • Adjusting hyperlinks for compliance
  • Creating video transcripts
  • Adding contrast to header colors

“Wiley looked at every single course from a lens of ADA and accessibility compliance,” Dr. Cook said. “They told us what was needed to make those classes truly accessible.”

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Results: Support for 100+ online courses and 90+ faculty members

Dr. Cook said our fee-for-service partnership elevated the learning experience for students across UW. Through the course design and development workstream alone, we could impact more than 113 courses representing thousands of students enrolled online, plus more than 90 faculty members.

“Wiley worked with faculty in a variety of different ways,” Dr. Cook said. “They widely adapted their support based on how we deployed the resources, what the department needs were, and how faculty wanted to work with Wiley.”

When we spoke with those faculty members, they said partnering with us made a meaningful difference. For instance, Dr. Dan McCoy, Degree Coordinator at UW’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, has received positive feedback from students about how UW’s online courses are now structured.

“I don’t think that we could have provided the same level of service to students without the Wiley partnership,” Dr. McCoy said.

And Dr. Leslie Rush, Interim Dean for the College of Education, believes our support took UW’s online courses to the next level. “When the opportunity to work with Wiley came along, we realized it was a way for us to beef up and speed up the rate at which we were building courses,” Dr. Rush said.

Of course, our fee-for-service partnership focused on more than course design. We also delivered these results from the other workstreams:

  • Faculty development: During five custom training sessions, the faculty learned best practices for planning and designing impactful online coursework.
  • Online program analyses: We identified insights for enhancing 22 online criminal justice and sociology courses. These analyses gave ideas for making near-term improvements that could strengthen course quality.
  • Accessibility review and remediation: We remediated 1,161 student-facing files, making them more accessible.
  • ECTL quality audits: We reviewed 200 online courses to measure the impacts of ECTL workshops. This audit also identified additional enhancements for faculty to make.

The pandemic caused sudden impacts, and UW did a great job responding to them through this fee-for-service partnership. According to Todd Zipper, President of Wiley Education Services, UW was one of many universities seeking continued support for their online coursework.

“Much of the fee-for-service capabilities we have been building for schools include heavy faculty support, so they feel comfortable and confident teaching in these new environments,” Zipper said. “We are thrilled to partner with the University of Wyoming not only to enable an online teaching and learning experience that is more effective for their students and faculty, but also help them continue to provide consistency and continuity across their online courses.”

Dr. Cook championed the breadth of support that UW received through our fee-for-service partnership.

“When you partner with Wiley, they’ll bring a more holistic perspective and a variety of expertise to the table,” Dr. Cook said. “You will get an external partner who can touch many different aspects of delivering programs and serving your students.”

Get immediate support for your online programs

Developing high-quality courses is a tall order for newcomers to online learning. With our fee-for-service model, you don’t have to do it alone.

Contact us to discuss your next project. We can assist with student recruitment and retention, marketing, academic services, and more.

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