Jung, I. and Latchem, C. (2012) Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Distance Education and e-Learning New York/London: Routledge
What the book is about
‘There is relatively little in the literature about QA and accreditation in distance education and online schooling, college or university education, non-formal adult and community education or workplace training. Drawing on international theory, research and the experience and expertise of the contributors, this book shows why and how these are applied across the globe, considers the lessons learned, and suggests frameworks and guidelines for their implementation.’
What’s in it
The book is essentially a collection of 23 chapters by invited contributors, with a foreword from Sir John Daniel, President of the Commonwealth of Learning. The chapters fall into roughly three groups:
- three chapters that provide an overview of the main concepts and premises behind quality assurance and accreditation
- seventeen chapters on quality assurance in distance education and e-learning in different regions or countries around the world, or in specific sectors, as follows:
- sub-Saharan Africa
- USA and Canada
- United Kingdom
- Australia and New Zealand (including a separate chapter on Open Universities Australia)
- open universities
- Indonesian Open University (Universitas Terbuka)
- University of the South Pacific and the University of the West Indies
- Palestinian Al-Quds University
- Commonwealth of Learning
- open and online schooling
- workplace training
- three concluding chapters, one on competencies and quality assurance, one on learners’ perceptions, and a concluding chapter.
This book provides comprehensive coverage of the practice and applications of quality assurance in distance education and some elements of e-learning around the world. The articles are in general well written and authoritative. The book is comprehensive in the sense that it covers the main issues and ways in which quality assurance has been applied, particularly in distance education. It will be of particular value to those working in particular areas of the world where distance education is still not accepted, and there are still many countries where this is the case.
What I liked
I very much liked the foreword by John Daniel, who provides an extremely succinct overview of the book and the issues arising.
This book really brings home the struggle that distance education and online learning still have to prove their legitimacy, despite the sometimes extraordinary lengths that they have gone to demonstrate their quality. Frequently, the issue of double standards arise, whereby distance and online programs have to meet standards or criteria that are never applied to campus-based programs.
The book also brings home how widespread the QA movement is in distance education, and how many countries and regions are struggling with similar issues.
I also enjoyed reading many of the individual chapters on what’s happening in countries and regions as diverse as Indonesia, Korea, the European Union, Australia, Asia and North America. It reinforced particularly the peculiar mess that the USA has got itself into with regard to accreditation and quality assurance. Although a better system of accreditation would surely help, I doubt that greater attention to QA processes is the answer to their growing problems in post-secondary education.
Lastly, I particularly liked Insung Jung and Colin Latchem’s concluding chapter, which pulled together a number of important QA issues which are worth summarizing:
- focus on outcomes as the leading measure of quality
- take a systemic approach to quality assurance
- see QA as a process of continuous improvement
- move the institution from external controls to an internal culture of quality
- poor quality has very high costs so investment in quality is worthwhile.
What I didn’t like
I said earlier that the book covers ‘some elements of e-learning’ because the book does not touch on the greatest area of application of e-learning, which is in the traditional campus-based universities and two year colleges. It is a pity that this issue has not been addressed. First, besides being a huge area, the issues around quality assurance are somewhat different from those of open and distance learning institutions, or even the dual-mode institutions, because most of the campus-based institutions moving for the first time into e-learning are already accredited as campus-based institutions. Some traditional institutions develop very high quality e-learning, while others (particularly for example in the US college system) fail to follow best practices and as a result often deliver very poor quality e-learning. More than any other, it is the traditional campus-based institutions that have moved into e-learning that need to put in place policies and procedures that assure quality in online learning, yet there are no examples of what is being done is in this sector in this book. However, Insung Jung and Colin Latchem’s chapter on competencies and quality assurance should be required reading in such institutions.
It could of course be argued that these institutions anyway follow standard QA processes for all their programs, but the standard degree quality assurance process does not adequately cover the specifics of e-learning or online learning on campus-based institutions, although some quality assurance boards (such as the QAA in the UK and PEQAB in Ontario) have put in place specific ‘benchmarks’ for online courses being offered in certain sectors (but not all). As more and more already accredited (and ‘high quality’) campus-based institutions start moving into hybrid learning, the establishment of quality in the e-learning elements of programs will become even more important. However, this is probably another book, and should not diminish the value of this book.
Some general points
Despite this book, I still have very mixed feelings about the quality assurance movement in post-secondary education. Yes, there are enormous differences in the quality of online and distance learning providers, and some of the more elite institutions are the worst culprits in terms of a quality online or digital learning experience. But ensuring quality in online learning is not rocket science. There is plenty of evidence of what works and what doesn’t, such as regular and challenging interaction between instructor and students, efficient student administration, interactive and well structured materials, etc. We don’t need to build a bureaucracy around this, but there does need to be some mechanism, some way of calling institutions when they fail to meet these standards. However, we should also do the same for campus-based teaching.
Also, QA when applied rigidly can stifle innovation in online teaching and learning. ‘Best practice’ may need occasionally to be challenged, so we can experiment with and evaluate new approaches.
But my main reason for harbouring doubts about the QA movement is that QA doesn’t really address the need for more differentiation in our educational system. Distance education organizations are not the same as elite traditional universities and shouldn’t try to be. This means that different types of institution will and should evaluate quality differently. Of course, this also requires greater sophistication amongst potential learners and even more so, governments.
There is a famous put-down in an Oscar Wilde play when an aristocratic lady comments on a bourgeois woman’s attempt at ‘class’: ‘She tries so hard, doesn’t she?’ QA doesn’t really deal with the issues of elitism. Yes, Oxford University has QA procedures that meet the external QAA requirements, but does anyone believe that this is the reason why it has its cachet of ‘quality’? Sometimes I think that distance education institutions in particular try too hard to establish their quality credentials, when what they should be emphasising is their differences, and especially the different purposes they exist to meet. I really would look for different measures of quality in the Open University, for instance, than in Cambridge University. Neither one is necessarily better (depending on what you are looking for), but the learning experience will be different. In the meantime, let’s pay much more attention to what campus-based institutions are doing when they move to online learning. Are they following best practices, or even better, innovating and evaluating?
Having got that off my chest, let’s come back to the book. This is an important book, especially for distance educators, but will also be useful for administrators from conventional institutions that are moving into hybrid and fully online learning. It provides the current state of the art on quality assurance in this field and as such I highly recommend it.