What Is “Exemplary Practice” In Online Education? Sam Houston & Blackboard Explain

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For a workshop on last month’s BbWorld19 conference in Austin, Sam Houston State University’s Jacob Spradlin introduced to the audience “SHSU Online’s Rubric for Online Course Design.” It is both a source of collected evidence, and a comprehensive account of what constitutes “Exemplary Practice” across the dimensions of online learning.

The guide is written in a LMS-agnostic tone even though it is part of the work started by Blackboard since 2010 through its “Blackboard Exemplary Course Program Rubric.” While a more extensive source would be the company’s own rubric, SHSU’s version builds upon it, as it updates the guide and synthesises it to encourage its practical application.

Before jumping into what the instructional design team at SHSU considers “Exemplary Practice,” we must concede that some of the definitions are too vague to be directly enforceable. This might have been intentional. Turning certain qualifiers into specific metrics depends on the organizational context, elements of its Vision and Mission Statements, its level of internal know-how, talent or even digital maturity. This also means the first step to take advantage of SHSU Online’s Rubric should be turning the qualifiers into metrics that are relevant for your business case, answering questions such as:

  • What does excellence mean for you on a day-to-day basis?
  • What are common tools and practices across your organizations? Ideally these should coincide with those who have a proven track record of positive impact.


The most frequent word across the Rubric, taken into multiple, but convergent meanings. From ensuring that there is a vision that validates and articulates all learning inititatives and activities, down to the unified forms to name and label course items. It seems a mostly bureaucratic burden. But as the guide argues, consistency across levels of detail actually makes for a leaner, more efficient and responsive organization; plus, it will contribute to an image of professionalism.


Reflected in expressions such as “expansive descriptions” or “outlines” that are available in a consistent and “symmerical” manner, it refers to the affordance from the LMS and its courses to give students an idea of the experience and outcomes of modules and activities before they start.


Better off seen as a counterweight to comprehensiveness. In short, both a course and an online experience must relentessly search for the sweet spot between focus or “flow” and “richness” or features on display at a given moment.

Excellent flow

We arrive at one of the most ethereal elements, one prone to confusion and divergence. Applying a quantitative layer to visualize the “learner journey” across an application or course section can help, but it’s not without its perils. It is too common to assume that only because a student clicked through a “desirable way” they are engaged or their learning has increased; when it might just mean the user is behaving according to an implicit consumer model. In any case, the sentiment stands: Make the learner click and scroll before arriving at their destination as little as possible.

Masterful, informed design

There are several other recommendations that might speak to you or not. The guide goes between high concepts and tips with little discrimination. Should every user have access to a “Quick links” block stickied on every page of the LMS? Is it just me, or “Universal Design” feels a bit oxymoronic? The point is, both online learning and design have a lot of grey areas. At the end of the day, within certain level of tolerance, the creative autonomy of the instructional designer deserves respect.

By no means a carte blanche. Art and creativity (and dare I say, Beauty) are the soul of human creation, and an attribute no online learning experience should refrain from having. Arguably, mastery could be seen as the way in which the designer sorts their sensibilities with state-of-the-art understanding about what works in the UX and UI disciplines; all towards a valuable and memorable learning experience.

References, Resources and ‘Ripples’

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