Yes, intellectual freedom is an issue here. First, in my experience, many online courses (especially intro courses) are taught by adjuncts who don't have intellectual freedom-- the term-to-term "contract," the lack of access to materials and technology, the actual discouragement of learning more or getting another degree or going to conferences (all of which could make this teacher too expensive <G>). Often they are presented with a completely designed course and no alterations are allowed. This is a sad reality. A friend of mine said, "I think my department would like my only interaction with students to be grading their assignments... they want me to be a grading robot."
That's the extreme (but quite common) of "consistency," and probably no professor with tenure and a bit of power would allow that. Power does come into the equation, I think... and in the ever-growing conflict between faculty and administration, "consistency" is a powerful weapon for the administration, as it's so much cheaper and more standardizable and more assessible.
But avoiding that extreme of the "robot could teach this", I can see a list of where consistency would be really useful. Burgess, Barth, & Mercereau (2008) discuss the usefulness of a "template" with consistent design elements: "Student satisfaction results from a logical, consistent course design that allows them to focus on course content and interact with their instructor."
1. Logo or banner that reassures the student that this is indeed the right class/school. That familiarity is important for making the student comfortable, and the "branding" I think can subtly increase the value of this course or material by linking it to the greater collection of good stuff that is the university or department.
2. Consistency of material placement, so that students know where to find the assignments and where to find the grades and where to find the lectures. Why have students without much time waste their classroom time searching for that elusive Lecture 4?
3. Consistency of interaction possibilities. A student who knows there's always a conference set up for questions will be more likely to ask a question.
4. Modes of delivery-- I don't like "multimedia for multimedia's sake," but if the instructor/designer knows there is the opportunity and expectation of something beyond text, he/she is more likely to start looking for ways to incorporate that or aspects of knowledge that would be better conveyed by some multimedia.
5. With text-- still and probably always a primary "delivery mode"-- a consistent standard font will train students to expect something different when a different font or color are used. The consistency can set up the mental equation that "different=important" which can help students focus on new material or better grasp complex material.
I keep seeing in the design lit "consistency of length," but I find that actually can restrict not just the length but the depth. This isn't a bumper sticker or tweet, it's the analysis of a complicated problem, or of a poem, and can serve as a model of how to analyze, read closely, think deeply, determine cause and effect, etc. This is not the place to require consistency, I think, though encouragement can be made to present material more cogently, maybe. But the point is to present complex material more clearly, not simplify the material so it can be presented consistently. So while I can see the advantage of breaking up complicated material into smaller parts, I think it really would interfere on a number of levels to have some requirement that, say, I have three paragraphs and 12 lines to teach thesis statements.
I have found it quite helpful though to require (of myself) a sort of consistent "mood" approach-- that is, affirmative and positive. That has really informed several aspects of creation of course material, from design (starting with easy first and progressing to more difficult, so that the student "succeeds" early on), to language, always positive (not "Avoid these bad things," but rather "try these good things"), and especially to the encouragement of experimentation-- helping the student feel free to try things and not feel like a failure if some attempts don't turn out to be effective. I'd like to work in collaboration to this, like suggesting that other students chip in with suggestions for revision of this or other ways of experimenting. I'm not sure this is "consistency," but I do want that consistent tone of encouragement and experimentation. That feels like a way of empowering the student to try things out.
I guess I like "consistency" when it adds to the student's immediate sense of familiarity and ability-- "I can do this." Inconsistency in all aspects can lead to that "overwhelm," where the student starts out feeling powerless. Consistency in certain aspects in contrast can overcome the overwhelm, and help students start out feeling capable. But I think maybe the deeper they get into the course, the more we should let complexity and individuation be important, as they'll now be feeling more able to understand.
Burgess, V., Barth, K., Mersereau, C. (2008). Quality Online Instruction – A Template for Consistent and Effective Online Course Design. Retrieved from http://sloanconsortium.org/effective_practices/quality-online-instruction-%E2%80%93-template-consistent-and-effective-online-course-des