September 23, 2017

Another perspective on quality

I have referred in another post to a paper by Maxim Jean-Louis, the President of Contact North, who was one of the participants in the recent HEQCO meeting to discuss possible areas of research that would inform the development of a new Ontario Online Institute. Within that paper, he made some interesting comments on quality in e-learning, which he has kindly agreed to share here.

The Construction of “Quality”

Our understanding of “quality” is changing. It is shifting from “meets an agreed standard” to “fitness for purpose”. Here are some of the reasons for this shift:

  • Traditional academic controls (e.g. process of ‘peer-review’) appear increasingly inadequate for today’s challenges and there is a need for more explicit assurances about quality. This is why some jurisdictions have moved to require inspection (Australia) and others to period independent review by a skilled and trained of peers (Maritimes Higher Education Commission).
  • There is also a growing use of output monitoring and measurements, and systems of accountability and auditing for quality assurance – using a variety of forms from a modification of the Baldridge Award criteria to outcome focused rubrics by program, discipline and at the level of the organization (e.g. the UK’s system for evaluating research intensity).
  • At the same time, discussions around “quality” have changed from a management device to a marketing device for institutions and jurisdictions alike (think of the development of BC’s quality mark in response to China blacklisting certain institutions in BC). Quality marks are appearing for post-secondary institutions in just the same way as they do for wines which carry the VQA designation.

We can imagine quality as a compilation of concepts, however, there are three that appear as quite different from each other:

  • Quality as ‘Excellence’– a definition that sets abstract goals for institutions and academic communities to always striving to be the best, mainly taken as having elitist undertones. In post-secondary education this could mean winning Nobel prizes, attraction of research $$ or the “best” faculty as measured by research output and teaching evaluations. The drawback here is that this tends to also exclude the work of the ‘further education’ sectors, is not applied equally between disciplines (citation counts do not exist for historians and many other subjects).
  • Quality as ‘Meeting a pre-determined standard’– a definition that requires only a given standard to be met, e.g. a minimum grade, basic competency, the ability to read, write, use a computer, etc. The drawback of this is that setting and measuring this ‘standard’ is difficult at best and idealistic at worst.
  • Quality as ‘fitness for purpose’ – in this construction of quality, we have to decide the extent to which the service or product meets the goals set – does this course or program do what it says it was going to do? Such a construction of quality allows institutions/sectors to define goals themselves according to their mandate and concentrates on meeting the needs of their customers (whether this be upgrading learners, graduate researchers, industry, etc.).

These conceptions of quality and the shift towards fitness for purpose reflect a shift in the nature of public policy with respect to the management of education in the developed world – a shift from “the Third Way” to “the Fourth Way”.

Andy Hargreaves (formerly at OISE and now at Boston College) and Dennis Shirley have spent a considerable amount of time seeking to understand the meta-patterns of educational policy adopted by governments around the world. Their book, The Fourth Way – The Inspiring Future for Educational Change[1], outlines distinctive phases in which governments in the developed world have sought to tackle the question of how best to “manage” public education, most especially schools. Hargreaves and Shirley suggest that there have been three distinct phases in the past and that a new, fourth way, is emerging in the present. (While their analysis focuses on K-12 schools, it applies just as well to post-secondary education).

The idea behind these four different approaches to government thinking is that as conditions change, so must policy. They see these basic streams of policy prior to the present period: (a) innovation and inconsistency (1945-1975 circa); (b) complexity and contradiction (1975 – late 1980s) – this, they see as an interregnum rather than as a decisive and clear shift in policy; (c) the way of the markets and standardisation (to 1995, neo-liberalism); and then (d) performance through accountability and partnership (1995- present, modified form of New Public Management). More specifically, these phases (or “ways”) look like this:

The First Way Teachers developed their own courses and programs, often collaborating with each other. They were engaged, professional and respected. Some performed well with that freedom, but others did not. Educational outcomes varied significantly within and between schools and there were incidents of teachers using their classroom as platforms for their own unique views.
The Second Way The way of the markets and standardization – This is when, in the US, the Reagan administration released A Nation at Risk, and when the idea of school choice, a market for education and Provincial and State curriculums and teaching standards were established. The Superintendents (In Canada and the US) and OFSTED in the UK became critical vehicles for monitoring standards. This is also when teachers started to not be trusted to take responsibility for their own without guidance and evaluation.
The Third Way Inspired by a variety of sources, but notably Anthony Giddens[2], governments began to see the market and centralized curriculum coupled with high stakes testing as a way to hold teachers, schools and school districts accountable for outcomes and expenditures. Ranking of schools and the identification of failing schools subject to special measures so that they can be subject to “turn-around” measures and the special recognition of high performing schools were all part of this mix. Compliance rather than innovation and servant artisan teachers rather than mindful professional teachers[3] characterised the third way.
The Fourth Way As schools become recognized for their unique circumstances – each school is seen to have a degree of autonomy within which they can design curriculum and assessment. Balancing the needs of a system wide curriculum with local learning requires assessment which is professional, rather than bureaucratic, and schools which are accountable for their own action plans and performance commitments. A renewal of teacher professionalism is required to achieve the promise of the Fourth Way.

Ontario’s commitment to Open Ontario and the focus on online learning as an innovative and transformative tool in the post-secondary sector may be regarded as an attempt (subtle though it may be), to move Ontario from the Third to the Fourth Way.


I asked Maxim if I could put this in my web site, because it encapsulates very nicely my views about the role of government in higher education policy. Although Maxim has applied this to views about quality, I think it works equally well with regard to my views about faculty development and training. Most universities are still in The First Way with respect to faculty development. I would like to see it moved to the Fourth Way, where government sets minimum standards or criteria, but where the institutions themselves are responsible for developing appropriate methods and programs. The bottom line though would be that any institution that does not provide the minimum standards (which would include compulsory training in teaching for all new tenured faculty) for professional development and training would receive no government funding until these standards are met.

[1] Hargreaves, A and Shirley, D (2009) The Fourth Way – The Inspiring Future for Educational Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

[2] Giddens, A (1999) The Third Way – The Renewal of Social Democracy. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

[3] See MacDonald, E. and Shirley, D. (2009) The Mindful Teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.

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