A focus on quality
October 04 2010
Perception, they say, is often more powerful than reality. That's especially true when it comes to distance education and e-learning, and these days perceptions aren't that good. Changing those perceptions, which question the quality of online and distance education was the focus of a symposium in Banff in September, sponsored by Athabasca University and the Campus Alberta Quality Council.
Participants, from all over the world came to Banff to begin the long process of developing a set of standards that will enable educators to measure the quality of education not just at distance universities, but for any post-secondary institution that offers distance education programs..
Distance education has been around for more than a century. For most of that time, it has been a well-respected component of the post-secondary sector. That changed in the last decade or so, with the advent of online and e-learning. It's not that the technology itself is suspect, but that some of the players taking advantage of the new opportunities have had motives other than educating students. That has brought the entire sector under the microscope.
"In some peoples minds, open and distance learning is considered a revenue opportunity, it's considered what the private sector does, it's where the cowboys operate, ``said Dr. Frits Pannekoek, president of both Athabasca University and the International Council on Distance Education (ICDE) and one of the organizers of the Banff symposium. ``It's considered the frontier, and the students be damned. It's all about the revenue."
Dr. Mark Bullen, Associate Dean of the Learning & Teaching Centre at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, agrees that the perceptions created by `degree mills` - especially those operating in the United States - is hurting legitimate e-learning and distance education institutions. And he says distance education is being unfairly singled out.
"One of the things that bothers me about the quality issue is that it only seems to reach the top of the agenda when e-learning is involved. The discussion seems to always start from the premise that the quality of e-learning is inherently suspect and we need to ensure it meets the same standard as our face-to-face instruction. In fact, there are no system-wide quality standards for teaching and learning in higher education and most higher education institutions rely almost entirely on student satisfaction and graduation rates as their measures of education quality."
So what would a set of quality standards look like? That's where the real debate begins, judging from the two days of discussion at the Banff symposium, and at similar forums held at the same time in Europe and Asia. A wide set of issues to be resolved, including course development, student and faculty support and evaluation and assessment came under scrutiny at the symposium. But the general consensus seems to be that any set of quality standards must be student-centered and must focus on learning outcomes.
It's a big challenge according to Dr. Carolyn Jarmon, vice-president of the National Center for Academic Transformation in the United States, and one of the participants at Banff.
"The problems with quality standards are partly because people haven't talked about it, they talk about grades. You have to pose the question ‘what are students learning?' I think you have to treat (quality standards) for distance education exactly the same way. ‘How do you know that students who graduate from this program are as ready to serve (in their fields) as students who graduated from a traditional face- to-face institution?'"
That would involve a massive change in traditional thinking about quality in a university setting, where the credentials of the instructor, not the outcomes of their instruction, have been the benchmark for centuries.
"At the very grassroots level, we have to be able to say to an instructor ‘here's a set of tools you can use, and here are a set of outcomes you can demonstrate that the quality of your instruction in this area would be valuable.'" said Dr. Peggy Patterson, a member of the Campus Alberta Quality Council.
So when will we see a set of quality standards that can work across the post-secondary spectrum? Not for a long time yet. But the important first steps are under way - with senior educators talking about quality measurement in a new way. And for distance educators who've borne the brunt of false perception and whispered innuendo, that conversation is a welcome change.