Chapter 11: Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age

11.1 What do we mean by quality when teaching in a digital age?

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Figure 11.1 What do we mean by quality? Image: © Wikipedia Commons

Figure 11.1 What do we mean by quality?
Image: © Wikipedia Commons

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If you have followed the journey through all the previous chapters of this book, you will have been subject to a great deal of information: philosophical, empirical, technological, and administrative, set within a framework of issues related to the needs of learners in a digital age. It is now time to pull all this together into a pragmatic set of action steps that will enable you to apply these ideas and concepts within the everyday circumstances of teaching.

Thus the aim of this chapter is to provide some practical guidelines for teachers and instructors to ensure quality teaching in a digital age. This will mean drawing on all the previous chapters in this book. Before I do this, however, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by ‘quality’ in teaching and learning, because I am using ‘quality’ here in a very specific way.

11.1.1 Definitions

Probably there is no other topic in education which generates so much discussion and controversy as ‘quality’. Many books have been written on the topic, but I will cut to the chase and give my definition of quality up-front. For the purposes of this book, quality is defined as:

teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

This of course is my short answer to the question of what is quality. A longer answer means looking, at least briefly, at:

  • institutional and degree accreditation;
  • internal (academic) quality assurance processes;
  • differences in quality assurance between traditional classroom teaching and online and distance education;
  • the relationship between quality assurance processes and learning outcomes;
  • ‘quality assurance fit for purpose’: meeting the goals of education in a digital age.

This will then provide the foundations for my recommendations for quality teaching that will follow in this chapter.

11.1.2 Institutional and degree accreditation

Most governments act to protect consumers in the education market by ensuring that institutions are properly accredited and the qualifications they award are valid and are recognised as of being of ‘quality.’ However, the manner in which institutions and degrees are accredited varies a great deal. The main difference is between the USA and virtually any other country.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Network for Education Information states in its description of accreditation and quality assurance in the USA:

Accreditation is the process used in U.S. education to ensure that schools, postsecondary institutions, and other education providers meet, and maintain, minimum standards of quality and integrity regarding academics, administration, and related services. It is a voluntary process based on the principle of academic self-governance. Schools, postsecondary institutions and programs (faculties) within institutions participate in accreditation. The entities which conduct accreditation are associations comprised of institutions and academic specialists in specific subjects, who establish and enforce standards of membership and procedures for conducting the accreditation process.

Both the federal and state governments recognize accreditation as the mechanism by which institutional and programmatic legitimacy are ensured. In international terms, accreditation by a recognized accrediting authority is accepted as the U.S. equivalent of other countries’ ministerial recognition of institutions belonging to national education systems.

In other words, in the USA, accreditation and quality assurance is effectively self-regulated by the educational institutions through their control of accreditation agencies, although the government does have some ‘weapons of enforcement’, mainly through the withdrawal of student financial aid for students at any institution that the U.S. Department of Education deems to be failing to meet standards.

In many other countries, government has the ultimate authority to accredit institutions and approve degrees, although in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, this too is often exercised by arm’s length agencies appointed by government, but consisting mainly of representatives from the various institutions within the system. These bodies have a variety of names, but Degree Quality Assurance Board is a typical title.

However, in recent years, some regulatory agencies such as the United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education have adopted formal quality assurance processes based on practices that originated in industry. The U.K. QAA’s Quality Code for Higher Education which aims to guide universities on what the QAA is looking for runs to several hundred pages. Chapter B3 on Learning and Teaching is 25 pages long and has seven indicators of quality. Indicator 4 is typical:

Higher education providers assure themselves that everyone involved in teaching or supporting student learning is appropriately qualified, supported and developed.

Many institutions as a result of pressure from external agencies have therefore put in place formal quality assurance processes over and beyond the normal academic approval processes (see Clarke-Okah et al., 2014, for a typical, low-cost example).

11.1.3 Internal quality assurance

It can be seen then that the internal processes for ensuring quality programs within an institution are particularly important. Although again the process can vary considerably between institutions, at least in universities the process is fairly standard. A proposal for a new degree will usually originate from a group of faculty/instructors within a department. The proposal will be discussed and amended at departmental and/or Faculty meetings, then once approved will go to the university senate for final approval. The administration in the form of the Provost’s Office will usually be involved, particularly where resources, such as new appointments, are required.

Although this is probably an over-generalisation, significantly the proposal will contain information about who will teach the course and their qualifications to teach it, the content to be covered within the program (often as a list of courses with short descriptions), a set of required readings, and usually something about how students will be assessed. Increasingly, such proposals may also include broad learning outcomes for the program.

If there is a proposal for courses within a program or the whole program to be delivered fully online, it is likely that the proposal will come under intense internal scrutiny. What is unlikely to be included in a proposal though is what methods of teaching will be used. This is usually considered the responsibility of individual faculty members. It is this aspect of quality – the effectiveness of the teaching method or learning environment for developing the knowledge and skills in a digital age – with which this chapter is concerned.

There are many guidelines for quality traditional classroom teaching. Perhaps the most well known are those of Chickering and Gamson (1987), based on an analysis of 50 years of research into best practices in teaching. They argue that good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty.
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

11.1.4 Quality in online courses and programs

Because online learning was new and hence open to concern about its quality, there have also been many guidelines, best practices and quality assurance criteria created and applied to online programming. All these guidelines and procedures have been derived from the experience of previously successful online programs, best practices in teaching and learning, and research and evaluation of online teaching and learning. A comprehensive list of online quality assurance standards, organizations and research on online learning can be found in Appendix 3

Jung and Latchem (2102), in a review of quality assessment processes in a large number of online and distance education institutions around the world, make the following important points about quality assurance processes for online and distance education within institutions:

  • 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.

Ensuring quality in online learning is not rocket science. There is no need to build a bureaucracy around this, but there does need to be some mechanism, some way of monitoring instructors or institutions when they fail to meet these standards. However, we should also do the same for campus-based teaching. As more and more already accredited (and ‘high quality’) campus-based institutions start moving into hybrid learning, the establishment of quality in the online learning elements of programs will become even more important.

There are plenty of evidence-based guidelines for ensuring quality in teaching, both face-to-face and online. The main challenge then is to ensure that teachers and instructors are aware of these best practices and that institutions have processes in place to ensure that guidelines for quality teaching are implemented and followed.

Quality assurance methods are valuable for agencies concerned about rogue private providers, or institutions using online learning to cut corners or reduce costs without maintaining standards (for instance, by hiring untrained adjuncts, and giving them an unacceptably high teacher-student ratio to manage). QA methods 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.

11.1.5 Quality assurance, innovation and learning outcomes

Most QA processes are front-loaded, in that they focus on inputs – such as the academic qualifications of faculty, or the processes to be adopted for effective teaching, such as clear learning objectives, or systems-based course design methods, such as ADDIE – rather than outputs, such as what students have actually learned. QA processes also tend to be backward-looking, that is, they focus on past best practices.

This is particularly important for evaluating new teaching approaches. Butcher and Hoosen (2014) state:

The quality assurance of post-traditional higher education is not straightforward, because openness and flexibility are primary characteristics of these new approaches, whereas traditional approaches to quality assurance were designed for teaching and learning within more tightly structured frameworks.

 However, Butcher and Hoosen (2014) go on to say that:

fundamental judgements about quality should not depend on whether education is provided in a traditional or post-traditional manner …the growth of openness is unlikely to demand major changes to quality assurance practices in institutions. The principles of good quality higher education have not changed…. Quality distance education is a sub-set of quality education…Distance education should be subject to the same quality assurance mechanisms as education generally.’

Such arguments though offer a particular challenge for teaching in a digital age, where learning outcomes need to include the development of skills such as independent learning, facility in using social media for communication, and knowledge management, skills that have often not been explicitly identified in the past. Quality assurance processes are not usually tied to specific types of learning outcomes, but are more closely linked to general performance measures such as course completion rates, time to degree completion, or grades based on past learning goals.

Furthermore, we have already seen in Chapters 8, 9 and 10 that new media and new methods of teaching are emerging that have not been around long enough to be subject to analysis of best practices. A too rigid view of quality assessment based on past practices could have serious negative implications for innovation in teaching and for meeting newly emerging learning needs. ‘Best practice’ may need occasionally to be challenged, so new approaches can be experimented with and evaluated.

11.1.6 Getting to the essence of quality

Institutional accreditation, internal procedures for program approval and review, and formal quality assurance processes, while important, particularly for external accountability, do not really get to the heart of what quality is in teaching and learning. They are rather like the pomp and circumstance of state occasions. The changing of the guard in front of the palace is ceremonial, rather than a practical defence against revolution, invasion or a terrorist attack on the President or the monarchy. As important as ceremonies and rituals are to national identity, a strong state is bound by deeper ties. Similarly, an effective school, college or university is much more than the administrative processes that regulate teaching and learning.

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. In essence, teaching and learning are very human activities, often requiring for success a strong bond between teacher and learner. There is a powerful affective or motivational aspect of learning, which a ‘good’ teacher can tap into and steer.

One reason for the concern of many teachers and instructors about using technology for teaching is that it will be difficult or even impossible to develop that emotional bond that helps see a learner through difficulties or inspires someone to greater heights of understanding or passion for the subject. However, technology is now flexible and powerful enough, when properly managed, to enable such bonds to be developed, not only between teacher and learner, but also between learners themselves, even though they may never meet in person.

Thus any discussion of quality in education needs to recognise and accommodate these affective or emotional aspects of learning. This is a factor that is too often ignored in behaviourist approaches to the use of technology or to quality assurance. Consequently, in what follows in this chapter, as well as incorporating best practices in technical terms, the more human aspects of teaching and learning are considered, even or especially within technology-based learning environments.

11.1.7 Quality assurance: fit for purpose in a digital age

At the end of the day, the best guarantees of quality in teaching and learning fit for a digital age 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 teacher/student ratios;
  • appropriate methods of working (teamwork, project management);
  • systematic evaluation leading to continuous improvement.

Much more attention needs to be directed at what campus-based institutions are doing when they move to hybrid or online learning. Are they following best practices, or even better, developing innovative, better teaching methods that exploit the strengths of both classroom and online learning? The design of xMOOCs and the high drop-out rates in the USA of many two year colleges new to online learning suggest they are not.

If the goal or purpose is to develop the knowledge and skills that learners will need in a digital age, then this is the ‘standard’ by which quality should be assessed, while at the same time taking into account what we already know about general best practices in teaching. The recommendations for quality teaching in a digital age that follow in this chapter are based on this key principle of ‘fit for purpose’.

Activity 11.1 Defining quality in teaching and learning

1. What do you think of the current system of

  • institutional accreditation and
  • internal quality assurance processes?

Do these current processes guarantee quality in teaching and learning? If not, why not?

References and further reading

Butcher, N. and Wilson-Strydom, M. (2013) A Guide to Quality in Online Learning Dallas TX: Academic Partnerships

Butcher, N. and Hoosen, S. (2014) A Guide to Quality in Post-traditional Online Higher Education Dallas TX: Academic Partnerships

Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. (1987) ‘Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education’ AAHE Bulletin, March 1987.

Clarke-Okah, W. et al. (2014) The Commonwealth of Learning Review and Improvement Model for Higher Education Institutions Vancouver BC: Commonwealth of Learning

Graham, C. et al. (2001) Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses The Technology Source, March/April

Jung, I. and Latchem, C. (2012) Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Distance Education and e-Learning New York/London: Routledge