October 25, 2014

In search of quality in e-learning

Listen with webReader

The  Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (JCAL) is seeking for contributions to its forthcoming special issue to one of the guest editors.

The Journal is listed with ISI Journal Citation Reports® Ranking: 2008: 29/112 Education & Educational Research Impact Factor: 1.065

Each volume includes one, sometimes two, Special Issues and these provide readers with an in-depth perspective on a specific topic. It is intended to include a Special Issue on Quality in e-Learning in a forthcoming volume.

The Journal of Computer Assisted Learning invites authors to submit papers for this special issue.

Guest editors:
Ulf-Daniel Ehlers, University of Augsburg (Germany): ulf.ehlers@icb.uni-essen.de
José-Ramón Hilera, University of Alcalá (Spain): jose.hilera@uah.es

Now I have a lot of respect for Ulf-Daniel Ehlers, who is very thoughtful and interesting in his approach to quality in e-learning (he is Vice-President of the European Foundation for Quality in e-Learning: EFQUEL), but I was struck by a comment a faculty member made on one of my many visits to a university:

I have the same feeling about quality assurance processes as Goebbels had for culture: whenever I hear the words I reach for my gun.

This reminded me of another visit to a two year college. They had invited me to talk about e-learning. When I got there, I said to my host: ‘I was surprised to get your invitation, because your institution was a pioneer in  online learning in the mid 1990s. What’s happened?’ ‘Well, we put in place a quality assurance process for online learning that was so hideously bureaucratic, none of the faculty wanted to do it.’ ‘Do you have the same process for your classroom courses?’ ‘Of course not.’

So what’s gone wrong? Surely everyone is in favour of quality? We had some interesting results around this issue in our study of 11 institutions.

Generally, most institutions in the case studies depended heavily on conventional formal degree quality assurance processes (both internally and at a state or provincial level) to ensure that teaching with technology met the necessary standards. Fully online programs often received particular scrutiny.

Quality assurance processes developed specifically for online learning were not used in the case study institutions with the highest degree of technology integration.

One reason for the heavy emphasis on quality assurance is that e-learning is still under a cloud of suspicion in many institutions. Faculty often are suspicious of or hostile to using technology for teaching (although over time the fear factor seems to be diminishing). Thus even more rigorous forms of quality assurance are demanded than for face-to-face teaching. However, many of the quality assurance models focus on the management of e-learning processes, more than on what actually happens within teaching and learning with technology. At its worst, quality management can end up with many boxes on a questionnaire being ticked, in that the management processes are all in place, without in fact investigating whether students are really learning more or better as a result of using technology.

I have another worry about quality assurance processes, in that they can act as a brake on innovation. By definition, they are predicated on past best practices using ‘older’ technology such as learning management systems or asynchronous online learning. However, when a new technology comes along, or when instructors start to think differently about how existing technology can be used, by definition it is unlikely to reflect current ‘best practice’, especially if the quality assurance process does not look at the relationship between processes and learning outcomes.

At the end of the day, the best guarantees of quality in e-learning are:

  • well-qualified subject experts also well trained in both teaching methods and the use of technology for teaching,
  • highly qualified and professional learning technology support staff,
  • adequate resources, including appropriate instructor/student ratios
  • appropriate methods of working (teamwork, project management)
  • systematic evaluation leading to continuous improvement.

Nevertheless, quality assurance methods are valuable for agencies concerned about rogue, private providers, or institutions using e-learning to cut corners or reduce costs without maintaining standards (for instance, by hiring untrained adjuncts, and giving them an unacceptably high student-teacher ratio to manage). They can be useful for providing instructors new to teaching with technology, or struggling with its use, with models of best practice to follow. But for any reputable state university or college, the same quality assurance methods used for face-to-face teaching should also apply to online programs, slightly adjusted for the difference in delivery method.

Comments

  1. Mark Bullen says:

    Tony:

    I find your final comment about quality assurance and private providers interesting. There seems to be an assumption that quality assurance is primarily an issue for private providers because they may hire untrained adjuncts have unacceptably high student-teacher rations. I don’t know if this is true, but even if it is, what about student-teacher ratios in our prestigious public universties, and what kind of training do they provide to their adjuncts (or to any faculty, for that matter)? I would argue that private providers are actually in a better position to ensure the quality of their courses because they dont’ have the institutional barriers to prevent it and they have to be responsive to their customers to stay in business.

    Mark.

  2. Burkhard Lehmann says:

    Dear Tony.
    Quality is a strong issue. Nobody can deny that quality is necessary.
    But on the other hand we face a situation in which quality becomes a new regime. Sometimes I believe that there is no place in our society which is not under the control of quality.
    But what does it mean? Quality is often the administration of quality. We deal with a lot of paper, checklists and different approaches. Therefore I understand that for some people quality is not very popular and they try to avoid it.
    Burkhard

  3. Tony, I think the weak link in assuring quality in PSE institutions is your last point… systematic evaluation. I wonder how often and how well this is done.

    And what criteria are they looking at? Are they using old school or classroom-based criteria as in number of seats filled and tuition earned versus student feedback and needs met?

  4. Picking up on Burkhard’s comment, it’s not that people think quality is not necessary. The problem is that, at least in my experience, that “quality” is implemented really badly.

    So bad, that instead of assuring quality, it’s reducing quality.

    I’ve seen many reasons for this

    the folk leading quality having a a Theory X view of academics,
    L&T quality being implemented in a way that requires extra work from academics within an environment that doesn’t value or reward L&T
    a focus on retrospective QA, rather than prospective QA (Biggs, 2001)

    Biggs, J. (2001). “The Reflective Institution: Assuring and Enhancing the Quality of Teaching and Learning.” Higher Education 41(3): 221-238.

  5. Burkhard Lehmann says:

    David.
    I agree. The implementation fails in many cases. But nevertheless I feel that quality which comes from the industrial sector is now a demand in all fields of life: Service industry, administration, education and so on. We eat quality proven foot, we buy quality proven cars, drink quality proven drinks and send our children to the Kindergarten where they play with quality proven toys and teachers. Later these kids take quality proven e-courses. That’s what I mean. In one word: Quality is a new and additional regulation or norm we have to follow to. Sometimes it is implemented but nothing becomes better. That does not mean that you can drop it. But it makes you wonder…

  6. I share with you all hurries about a quality system for elearning. Moreover if you already noticed that informal learning brings up better results and productivity. For now I stacke with the primado of focusing on outcomes and outputs. If we get better processes and metrics on that, we shall overcome this situation.

  7. Tony’s insights are something that I encounter in my consulting assignments often. At an Institutional Level its challenging because Quality as a function needs to be adapted from organizational to the Institutional setting. In my experience a generic quality system can be evolved, but it cannot be global presently. Education policies if unified at a global level can make this transformation easier.

    The corporate sector is however, a different story. Its more adopting and functionally adept at implementing a thorough quality system.

  8. Yusup Hashim says:

    Tony Bates,
    Yes, it is not easy to set quality in online learning. I wonder when a university develops its online learning policies, do they think about quality first, then think of the policies to achieve quality or vice versa. Do all countries have similar online learning policies or are there benchmarks for best practices in online learning? What are the main components that form the online learning policy that can contribute successful or quality online learning in institutions of higher learning. Are online learning policies different from one country to another Or is ther a study done to compare online learning policy in America, Asia, Europe, Australia/New Zealand?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] found answers to my wishes. My third wish list is slightly different but I take heart from the site e-learning and distance education managed by Tony Bates. As practitioners we need to be looking at the quality of e-learning [...]

Speak Your Mind

*