A Fresh Start to Online Learning: Bridging Equity Gaps through Quality Course Design

Aug. 10, 2023

Remember the chaos of your first online class? As semesters begin afresh, the quality of online course design is crucial. Dive into this exploration of how thoughtful and well-structured online courses can enhance the student experience.

Illustration of UArizona online course design

I’ll never forget the only online class I took as an undergraduate student. It was a required Research Methods course necessary for my Psychology degree. I logged in on my first day, nervous about learning from an online platform, an idea that was still totally foreign to most back in 2003.

To my surprise, the class site was a mess to navigate. Everything seemed to be from a previous semester except for the syllabus. Materials on the site (readings, slides, assignments, etc.) didn’t correspond with the schedule and grading breakdown provided on the syllabus. 

I waited a couple of days, but nothing ever got updated.

Eventually, I reached out to my instructor. I received a short reply that they would update and post more soon. I poked around the site, but what to do as a student was unclear. The syllabus indicated that most of our class grades came from a single essay assignment due at the end of the semester, but no instructions were posted. 

The months passed, and suddenly, we were approaching the end of the course. We had only one exam and were still awaiting instructions for our big essay assignment. But no information was ever provided. The week before finals, the instructor sent a class-wide email. The essay assignment was canceled. We were all going to be given A’s.

The professor was overloaded with other duties and neglected our class. I didn’t complain. I’d “earned” an A after all – and with almost nothing expected of me! The joke was on me, though, as I went on to pursue advanced education in Psychology, and the content in that required course, as it turns out, was necessary.

Quality Online Education

I don’t know how typical my experience is for others. But as a professor now, I am determined to ensure a positive experience for students in my online classes. 

When I first started to learn about online teaching best practices, I quickly realized a vital truism: effective course design isn’t just something nice we can do for our students. It’s an equity issue.

Online course sites that are messy, disorganized, or difficult to navigate hurt all students, but disproportionately so for students. In one study assessing student outcomes in high versus low-structure courses, researchers found that the high-structure approach eliminated performance gaps for first-generation students and halved the gap for Black versus White students (Eddy & Hogan, 2014). 

We are ALL Wildcats

At the University of Arizona, we have an incredibly diverse student body. We are a Hispanic-Serving Institution and a Land Grant institution with a high rate of Pell-eligible and first-generation students who may be unfamiliar with navigating the college environment. Additionally, our online students may be juggling caregiving and career-related demands on their time along with their coursework.

I believe we, as educators, must serve our students. We need to provide equitable access to quality education for everyone.

Leveling the Playing Field

Quality Matters (QM) is an internationally recognized program that provides quality assurance for online and hybrid courses. They provide eight general standards considered best practices for online course design and delivery.

  1. Overall design of the course is clear.
  2. Learning outcomes are clearly stated in measurable terms and are aligned with course activities.
  3. Assessment strategies are measurable and well-integrated into the course.
  4. Instructional materials and resources are sufficiently comprehensive.
  5. Meaningful interaction exists in the course.
  6. Navigation and technology are intuitive and meaningful.
  7. Support is provided for student success.
  8. The course is accessible and meets the needs of diverse learners.

Had my Research Methods professor, way back when, followed these standards, I would have had a very different learning experience. One that was more positive and promoted authentic learning – not just an “easy A.” 

Inclusive Teaching

These practices were designed with online courses in mind but didn’t apply only to the online realm. At a broader level, these practices help promote inclusive teaching, regardless of the course modality.

According to Hogan and Sathy’s (2022) book, Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom, “inclusion describes a culture in which all learners feel welcomed, valued, and safe.” (p. 5).  

As the landscape of Higher Education continues to change, it is more important than ever that our classroom practices reflect inclusive teaching and culturally relevant pedagogy. If you’re looking for an excellent place to start….look no further than your course site. Maybe your course already contains structure and clarity, or you’re starting from scratch. Either way, teaching is not about perfection; it’s about progress—incremental improvements across time.

As educators, we can create inclusive and equitable online learning environments. By implementing QM standards, we can work toward leveling the playing field and fostering an environment where every student can succeed and thrive.


Eddy, S. L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE – Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 453-68. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-03-0050

Hogan, K. A., & Sathy, V. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom.


Authored By

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Ashley Jordan (Guest Author)
Associate Professor of Practice, Psychology