Quality in open, distance, flexible and online higher education.

What do we mean when we talk about quality in education? How do we ensure that what we do as

practitioners in OFDL is of the highest quality? How can we be certain that our institutions are doing

the best they can for students? What can be done to improve the quality of student experiences?

I certainly don’t have any easy answers to these questions, and after reading through a recent report from the ICDE, I get the feeling that there aren’t any. But don’t give up hope before we’ve even started!

The report “Quality models in online and open education around the globe: State of the art and recommendations” is described in its preface as a “must-read” for people “concerned with quality in online open and flexible higher education”. This report aims “to establish an overview and analysis of the global situation with regard to existing relevant standards and guidelines for open, distance, flexible, and online education, including e-learning, encompassing the fundamental notion of students as active participants in an engaging learning experience” (p.6)

Crucially, this report looks globally at what is happening in the quality field, and what needs to happen over the next decade or so. That is important because we all know that distance and online education has been and continues to be global in reach. Formerly only large well-known institutions had that global reach. These days, however, almost any institution can, and often does offer courses that anyone, anywhere, can enrol in. How does anyone know how good those institutions and their courses are, and whether or not they offer an engaging learning experience?

What the report reveals is that there is a bewildering array of models/frameworks/sets of principles/codes/(whatever) for helping assure quality in OFDL. The report lists 17 of these ‘frameworks’ from around the globe (and fortunately concludes that there is no need to keep on inventing such models). It finds there are characteristics the models should, and mostly do, have in common. However it also acknowledges that there is not one quality model that fits all contexts, citing the need to allow for cultural and contextual variations.

As always in quality discussions there is differentiation of the formal assurance activities at national and institutional level, from what happens, practically, in courses. The report labels the first two levels ‘macro’ and ‘meso’ and the third, course, level as ‘micro. We are told there is little evidence of the existence of quality standards at the micro level. Instead the argument is made that staff development programmes and performance management (macro and meso activities subject to QA practices) will undoubtedly ensure (course level) quality in institutions engaged in quality assurance of OFDL programmes.

What of the role of already existing quality assurance processes. In New Zealand for instance, NZQA and UNZ oversee quality assurance processes which, a distance educator might argue, do not always adequately account for the distance education context. How do OFDL models mesh with the existing processes for quality assurance? The report’s answer is that “As conventional institutions and their accrediting agencies seek to adapt to the challenges of integrating e-learning and online provision within their quality assurance processes, they have much to gain by exchange of experience and approach with the Distance Education sector” (p.10). We would all agree with this, and organisations such as FLANZ have a very important role to play in such dialogue.

This report also tries to look into the future with comments about the impact on quality in OFDL of open-ness (MOOCs are the main element discussed) and unbundling (where the education process is broken into constituent parts with different organisations responsible for different aspects such as instructional design, assessment, student support etc).

There are many more elements of this report that deserve comment. A brief consideration can’t do justice to the very broad nature of the Report, so I certainly recommend that anyone with an interest in quality assurance read it. As you do, remember that it isn’t trying to provide assurances about quality assurance. It is an initial sketch of the global quality assurance landscape, presenting the outline of a picture that is waiting to be filled in. The inevitable current conclusion is that quality in OFDL, globally, is still a very mixed bag indeed. The good news is that there is awareness of that fact and now some indication of how to ensure that answers to those four questions I started with might be obtained.

And a PS… Two DEANZ Presidents contributed to this report. Dr Mark Nichols was a member of the Research Advisory Group and Dr Mark Brown was one of the authors.

Ossiannilsson E, Williams K, Camilleri A & Brown M (2015) Quality models in online and open education around the globe. State of the art and recommendations. Oslo: International Council for Open and Distance Education – ICDE. http://www.icde.org/assets/WHAT_WE_DO/icdequalitymodels22.pdf

By Bill Anderson