Guidelines for Online Learning in Graduate Academic Programs
Updated January 2021
These guidelines serve as a reference for academic administrators and graduate faculty members who plan to create online courses and programs, and for the administrative staff members who provide support for those endeavours. The guidelines address:
- terminology and definitions;
- broad questions of appropriate use;
- quality and technical considerations;
- principles and practice;
- approval paths;
- support and resources.
Clear terminology, effective guidance, and appropriate resources facilitate the development and ensure the quality of online graduate courses and programs. These guidelines refer to the delivery of online and hybrid courses, and online and hybrid programs using audio, video, or computer technologies singly or in combination. The definitions correspond with terminology approved by the Vice-Provost, Academic Programs in common use within academic and administrative units at the University of Toronto. The mode of delivery is recorded by registrars using course delivery mode indicators with the ROSI system. See section 6, Academic Change Proposal and Approval, for definitions for in-person, hybrid, and online courses and programs.
2. Preliminary Considerations
Decisions to use online learning to support course and program delivery must be based on both a clearly developed academic rationale and a robust instructional model. These must align with institutional expectations for engagement of graduate students in scholarly learning and related activities. In cases where online offerings develop within existing programs, the expectations for online courses and programs should align with the existing offerings.
Some educational components in graduate studies may not be suited to online learning, including various types of placements and other experiential education opportunities and some aspects of supervision, for example. Research-stream master’s programs and doctoral programs are not delivered online at this time, but may include individual online courses and/or be delivered as hybrid graduate programs.
Other aspects of graduate education, such as relationship and community building in some programs, must be addressed in novel ways if online learning is utilized. It may be appropriate to include only some online elements in courses and/or other program components in order to facilitate learning and community building. Discussion within the graduate unit and with the Vice‐Dean or Associate Dean, Graduate Studies in the appropriate Faculty is a necessary and important step in developing online courses and/or programs.
Faculty members who are creating online courses and programs require support in terms of training, delivery, and assessment methods. Technical supports must be in place to ensure a smooth and rich teaching and learning environment for both graduate faculty and graduate student.
3. Principles, Process & Practice Considerations
The following table identifies five Principles (adapted from “pillars” defined in the Sloan Consortium model to suit the U of T environment) of program planning and support required for graduate courses and programs. These Principles offer a useful, research-informed model for quality considerations in online courses and/or programs. The Process and Practice Considerations column lists components to be considered when proposing the use of online learning in courses or programs.
|Principle||Process & Practice Considerations|
|1. Learning effectiveness||Online program design, delivery methods, and standards of academic integrity are effective and meet the University of Toronto’s expectations for rigor and depth of scholarly activity at the same or higher level than in-person programs, as evaluated through the University of Toronto Quality Assurance Process (UTQAP). Assessment of student learning is equivalent to traditional methods and is in keeping with the University Assessment and Grading Practices Policy. Delivery mode(s) contribute to and enhance the creation of academic community among students and between students and faculty members. Admission and program requirements for online offerings are not altered compared to the existing courses and/or programs.|
|2. Scale (cost effectiveness and institutional commitment)||The division and graduate unit both demonstrate appropriate continuing budgetary and technical commitment to its online offerings, including plans for increased technology support, as required. Existing resources are leveraged to optimize use of existing support and infrastructure; institutional stakeholders have been consulted. Program personnel and those working in the information technology infrastructure employ strategies to ensure online tools and systems are reliable, secure, supportable, scalable, and accessible while protecting confidentiality and integrity of personal data. Risk assessment planning is conducted and includes a disaster recovery plan, data and technology backup, and documentation, as applicable.|
|3. Access||Online course(s) and/or program(s) is responsive to one or more of the following considerations: facilitates wider access including geographically distant learners, traditionally under-represented groups, and others; addresses demand for new fields of study; and increases enrolment capacity. Admissions, registration, orientation, ongoing learner support, faculty consultation, and other academic services are appropriately available to all students accessing programs and program components through online learning.|
|4. Faculty satisfaction (and engagement)||Appropriate and ongoing faculty development opportunities and support for those teaching and supervising online courses and programs is available (e.g., orientation and training; coaching in online instructional practice and student engagement; copyright and intellectual property issues; course design and assessment methods); there are resources available through the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation (CTSI) and via the Director of Online Learning Strategies in the Office of the Chief Information Officer.|
|5. Student satisfaction (and engagement)||Positive student experience includes active learning; access to online tools; regular interaction with instructors; shared participation in learning activities with peers; learning outcomes that match expectations and align with assessments and instructional activities; and access to academic services and support. Students feel part of a community of scholars when they experience a high-quality learning environment in which students interact with each other and with faculty.|
4. Technology Infrastructure & Support Considerations
The following technical infrastructure and support are highlighted among many important considerations:
- establishment, maintenance, and reliability of technical infrastructure and support, including resources, system stability, recovery, data security, accessibility, scalability, etc. to meet current and projected needs; professional development for faculty in online teaching, learning, and pedagogy;
- ongoing technical training and support for faculty and others;
- ongoing access to online course design support for faculty;
- ongoing student technical orientation and support;
- student access to academic support services (e.g., library, writing centres);
- creation of feedback and assessment processes to monitor and improve the effectiveness of course or program design and support.
5. Resources for Online Course & Program Design
In addition to the resources below, there are many excellent research-informed documents available at U of T and other organizations that provide guidance on key principles in effective online teaching and characteristics of high-quality, effective curriculum component design and student engagement.
- The Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation (CTSI)’s Online Learning Instructor Toolkit provides information specific to the U of T context, including links to local instructional technology resources and policy documents. The guides and documentation provided by CTSI are continuously updated. CTSI also provides information on instructional methods and examples of best practice from across campus. The following resources are examples of those featured on the CTSI website:
- Engaging Students Online: An overview of pedagogical models, online tools, and instructional activities including discussion-based frameworks, group projects, case studies, real-time webinar formats, and authentic learning through use of interactive tools for student engagement.
- Designing Online Learning: Checklist of components that have been demonstrated to increase student success by fully engaging the learner in the course experience and providing appropriate linkages to student services and academic support.
- Alternative Online Environments: Guidelines for those considering moving beyond U of T’s Quercus platform and academic technology toolbox, including implications for divisional support, Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act policy, and accessibility and data security requirements.
- Online Assessment Options: This resource developed by CTSI offers general information and guidance on developing online assessments.
• School of Graduate Studies Graduate Courses & Other Academic Activities provides graduate administrators with the variations to graduate course delivery mode, format, and timing and/or weight.
• The University of Toronto Quality Assurance Process (UTQAP) outlines the protocols for the assessment and approval of new programs, review of existing programs, modifications to existing programs and closures of programs. The Office of the Vice-Provost, Academic Programs (VPAP) oversees quality assurance for all new and existing programs, Faculties, and units.
6. Academic Change Proposal & Approval
Courses and programs delivered through online learning must meet the same quality standards as all University of Toronto graduate courses and programs. Programs wishing to make these changes should contact their Dean’s Office. It is important that all appropriate offices are aware of these changes as they can have significant impact within the division.
No matter whether a course or a program is changing or adding a new mode of delivery, the academic rationale of the proposal is where the strategic considerations and guiding principles outlined above will be addressed.
- The academic rationale is the place to discuss:
- the intentional design of the offering and its relationship with, for example, the program as a whole and program learning outcomes;
- why online makes sense from a pedagogical perspective;
- connection of what is proposed to best practices (either those identified in these Guidelines or others in use in the division);
- consultation undertaken, for example, with faculty members and students.
Admission and program requirements for online or hybrid courses or programs must be consistent with the regular course or program, if one exists. The required learning outcomes should be consistent within the context of program design.
Summary of Course & Program Mode of Delivery Definitions, Characteristics & Governance Pathway
It may be helpful to be aware that:
- Courses in which the only online element is lecture capture (e.g., WebOption) create flexibility for students, but are not considered online or hybrid for governance approval, ROSI coding, or Ministry reporting purposes.
- “Flipped/inverted courses” do not by definition reduce in-person class time and are therefore not considered online or hybrid for governance approval, ROSI coding, or Ministry reporting purposes.
- The level of governance required for a change may not always be clear. For example, a series of minor modifications to change the mode of course delivery can add up to a major modification of the program. If you have questions about whether the proposed change requires governance, or whether it is a minor or major modification, please contact your Dean’s Office, and through that office, VPAP for assistance in assessing the change.
|Offering & |
|An in-person course is one in which both the instructor and the student are in the same physical location at the same time for most or all of the teaching and learning involved in the course components, usually on campus. While online components may be included as part of the course design, they do not constitute the majority of academic activities.||In-person at campus, clinical, or other location. (Could have online components.)||In-person at campus, clinical, or other location. (Could have online components.)||In-person courses require initial approval through a minor modification under the University of Toronto Quality Assurance Process (UTQAP) when first created. Final approval rests with the Faculty/divisional council or delegated governance body.|
|A hybrid course (also known as “blended”) is designed such that in-person teaching time is reduced, but not eliminated. At U of T, a course is considered to be hybrid if at least one-third of scheduled class time is replaced by online activities.||Online instruction may be done via synchronous or asynchronous web‐based learning technologies including, for example, online instruction, webcasts, videos, discussion forums, collaborative tools, self-directed learning modules, etc.||Assessments for hybrid courses may be conducted in-person and/or online. Students must be informed at the outset of the course of components or assessments that will be conducted in-person, if any.||Hybrid courses require initial approval through a minor modification under the UTQAP when first created.|
A change from in-person delivery to hybrid delivery does not require governance approval if it is already being offered as an in-person course. This is because the change is considered a change to the offering and the pedagogical choice of the instructor.
|An online course is designed such that all of the instructional interaction occurs without the student and instructor being in the same physical location.||Instruction may be done via synchronous or asynchronous web‐based learning technologies including, for example, online instruction, webcasts, videos, discussion forums, collaborative tools, self-directed learning modules, etc.||Assessments for online courses are conducted or submitted online, with the possible exception of final or interim assessment requiring attendance on campus no more than once per session.||Online courses require initial approval through a minor modification under the UTQAP when first created.|
If an existing in-person course is converted to an online course, this is done through a minor modification.
If an online section is being added to a regular course, whether offered in a synchronous or asynchronous manner, this is approved through a minor modification. Students are registered in separate sections of one course. Approval is required because the change to online mode of delivery is considered a canonical change to the nature of the course. The proposal will include an academic rationale for the additional mode of delivery and a clear commitment to resourcing the offering.
|An in-person graduate program is one in which both the instructor and the student are in the same physical location at the same time for most or all of the teaching and learning involved in the program requirements, usually on campus.|
While online components may be included as part of the program, they do not constitute the majority of program elements.
|In-person. (Could have online components.)||In-person. (Could have online components.)||New graduate programs undergo an extensive development process in the Faculty/division and are approved through University-level governance and externally. For more information, see Academic Change: Governance Approval Pathways on the VPAP website.|
|Hybrid master’s, doctoral, or diploma programs (also known as “blended”) are designed in such a way that in-person learning activities are reduced, but not eliminated. Students are required to be in attendance on campus for a portion of the program activities over the program length.|
As a rough guideline, at U of T a program is considered to be hybrid if at least one-third of the program is replaced by online activities. The focus is less on a strict percentage and more on the impact on the student learning experience and considerations for delivery, including faculty engagement and resources. Please note that a series of minor modifications to change the mode of course delivery can add up to a major modification of a program. Our offices are always happy to work with you on questions around thresholds.
|Combination of in-person and online.||Assessments may be conducted either online or in-person. Students must be informed at the outset of the course or program of which components will be conducted in-person.||If a new program with hybrid mode of delivery is proposed, the approval process is the same as the in-person graduate program.|
If the proposal is to convert or extend an existing program to a hybrid offering, approval through a major modification is required.
This is because converting a significant number of courses or course components to online within a program intentionally and significantly changes the student experience of, and means of, participating in the program. Such changes will also change the nature of Faculty planning for, and delivery of the program. The major modification proposal will discuss the academic benefits of delivering the program this way, the resources necessary, and will reflect consultation with stakeholders.
|An online professional master’s or diploma program is designed in such a way that the curricular components are delivered online and students are not required to be in attendance on campus. All courses in the program are online courses (not hybrid). Non‐course components are delivered via online learning.||All instruction is online.||Assessments usually are conducted online. Students must be informed at the outset of the course or program, of which components, if any, will be conducted in person. ||If a new program with online mode of delivery is proposed, the approval process is the same as the regular graduate program.|
If the proposal is to convert or extend an existing program to an online offering, approval as a major modification is required. The major modification proposal will discuss the academic benefits of delivering the program this way, the resources necessary, and consultation of stakeholders.
- Online initiatives and capacity development: Laurie Harrison, Director of Online Learning Strategies, Office of the Chief Information Officer
- Educational technology infrastructure: Avi Hyman, Director of Academic and Collaborative Technologies
- Course design: Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation
- Graduate program innovation and best practices: Gretchen Kerr, Vice-Dean, Programs and Innovation, School of Graduate Studies
- Curriculum design: Jessie Richards, Curriculum Development Specialist, Office of the Vice-Provost, Innovations in Undergraduate Education
- New program and major modification proposals: Jennifer Francisco, Coordinator Academic Change, Vice-Provost, Academic Programs
- Minor modifications: Alexandra Varela, Assistant Coordinator, Academic Change, Vice-Provost, Academic Programs