Current Status of Quality Assessment and Assurance in Online Learning

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1 Quality Assessment and Quality Assurance in Online Degree Programs Michael A. Mariasingam Karen Al-Ashkar Current Status of Quality Assessment and Assurance in Online Learning Currently quality assessment and quality assurance are based on quality frameworks that have the following dominant features: Guidelines are based on a quality concept that is limited to the focus on stakeholders. These guidelines focus their objective on meeting the requirements of only three stakeholders - learners, faculty and institution, whereas there are several other stakeholders in education - employers, professional associations, society, and government. These stakeholders are contributors to education and future benefactors of learners. If education is to be of high quality their expectations also must be met. Quality frameworks designed to assess the quality of education must include the requirements of all stakeholders. Guidelines have only the functional perspective learning effectiveness, student support, technology support etc. they are not from the perspectives of other stakeholders. Five pillars of quality - - learning effectiveness, cost effectiveness, access, faculty satisfaction, and student satisfaction [Sloan-C framework for quality] Guidelines, with a few exceptions, are defined to assess quality at program level. Frameworks are two-level frameworks with functional categories, like learning effectiveness, at the first level as quality assessment categories, and the guidelines at the second level as the criteria for assessment under the quality assessment category. Quality assessment category: Course Development Benchmarks Guideline: Courses are designed to require students to engage themselves in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as part of their course and program requirements. [Quality On the Line: Benchmarks for Success in Internet-Based Distance Education, The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP, 2000)]. Quality frameworks, with few exceptions, like Mariasingam (2005) are guidelines, not benchmarks or standards although they are often called benchmarks. 1

2 The course or program provides for appropriate interaction between faculty and students and among students. (IHEP, 2000) - This is just a guideline, not a benchmark or standard. Alternative accreditation model: New Comprehensive Approach to Quality Quality assurance in distance learning should be sensitive to both learning principles common to all forms of higher education, and aspects of learning that are distance specific (Marginson 2002). So, needs an alternative accreditation model that has a comprehensive quality assessment and assurance approach. Alternative Quality Concept Customer Focused Industry Oriented Approach: A changing landscape in education that features globalization of education, increasing costs, stiff competition due to the proliferation of educational institutions etc have made education a global economic commodity which to be sold, must meet the requirements of stakeholders and must have a quality assurance approach that has a business orientation - a customer focused industry oriented approach. Quality also has multiple dimensions: different meanings of quality, different quality perspectives and different levels of the educational process to which quality can apply (Ehlers, 2004). Multiple Perspectives of Quality: Quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder (or the stakeholder). The achievement of quality can be managed and quality itself be credibly measured only when it is clear for what purpose the product or service is to be used and whose quality interests are to be served (Schweiger, 1996). There are multiple stakeholders in education; to be of quality, education should serve the interests of all stakeholders. Unlike the current approach, which meets the requirements of only three stakeholders institution, faculty and students a new approach that meets the requirements from the perspectives of all stakeholders that includes employers, society, government, and others must be adopted in quality assurance. Multiple Levels of Quality: To be precise and meaningful quality assessment and assurance should be conducted at the appropriate level. Quality can be conceptualized and measured at different levels. In the case of education there are three different levels at which quality can be defined and measured - institutional level, program level and course level. Quality performance measures defined for these three levels will be interrelated and will have some overlap but the breadth and depth of these performance measures will vary significantly with levels and the quality frameworks for the three different levels will have quality assessment categories and performance measures that are very different within these categories. Criterion Based Negotiated Approach to Quality Assessment and Assurance A criterion referenced concept excellence can be recognized or defined independently of the performance of others (Baumgart and Kaluge, 1987). Quality is measured by indicators of the performance of individual institutions or of the worth of the products on their own rather than in comparison with others (Baumgart and Kaluge, 1987). 2

3 Also, the quality assessment process should include not only quantifiable measures but also qualitative intrinsic values [negotiated approach]. In an outcomes based approach learning outcomes that are measured should include learning outcomes like learning skills at [Kirkpatrick s] behavior level and lifelong learning skills. Benchmarks and Measurements for Quality Assessment and Assurance As mentioned earlier, most quality frameworks that are often called benchmarks are not truly benchmarks, they are just guidelines. By definition benchmark means a standard to reach, a criterion against which something can be measured, or a reference point against which similar things can be referenced (Jackson, Parks, Harrison, and Stebbings, 2000). Courses are designed to require students to engage themselves in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as part of their course and program requirements (IHEP, 2000). This statement is not a measurable standard against which the performance of students in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation could be referenced. It does not specify the level of performance, or the form of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation students should engage themselves in as part of their course and program requirements. So it is not a benchmark, it is only a guideline. In comparison, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education of the UK defines the transferable skills students should acquire as part of a course as: They [transferable skills] are characteristic of education but need not be unique to it. Courses should be designed so that, by the end of their degree programme, students should be able to demonstrate ability to analyse, synthesise, evaluate, and identify problems and solutions QAA (2000) goes further to specify the levels of attainment [benchmarks] in these skills. For instance, on one of the above transferable skills - Analytical and problem solving skills - QAA defines benchmarks as: Analytical and problem solving skills Threshold Students will have a basic ability to use relevant empirical and theoretical data in addressing tasks and formulating possible actions Modal Students will have the ability to process and synthesise empirical and theoretical data, create new syntheses and to present and justify a chosen position having drawn on relevant theoretical perspectives Best: Students will: have a well-developed ability to process and synthesise empirical and theoretical data, to create new syntheses and to present and justify a chosen position having drawn on relevant theoretical perspectives. 3

4 Quality Assessment Categories for Online Degree Programs I. Performance Measure: Institutional Requirements Requirements for these categories are related to the application and admissions processes; the course approval process; electronic grading; articulation with the Graduate School, Registrar, Bursar, International Student and Scholar Office, and the Office of Student Financial Services. The processes involved in ensuring access to resources, establishing faculty credentials, and the performance of various types of program and course evaluations are also included in these assessment categories. Quality Assessment Category: Mission Quality Assessment Category: Continuous Quality Improvement Measures Quality Assessment Category: Access Quality Assessment Category: Evaluation of Program Effectiveness Quality Assessment Category: Student Satisfaction Quality Assessment Category: Post Graduation Employment Success Assessment II. Performance Measure: Learner Requirements These quality assessment categories include issues regarding enrollment and retention of students; advising for financial aid and tuition; access and use of resources such as the library and writing center; technical support for students and the technical environment for courses. Making sure that students meet graduation requirements, that faculty are qualified to work with the content and student population, and conducting evaluations of student satisfaction are also covered in this measurement requirement. Counseling and advising for students is a part of retention and would be covered under these measures. Quality Assessment Category: Program Suitability Advising on Program Selection Quality Assessment Category: Learning Effectiveness Course Development Academic Integration Learner-Content interaction Learner-Instructor interaction Learner-Learner interaction Social Integration Quality Assessment Category: Cost Effectiveness Quality Assessment Category: Flexibility 4

5 Quality Assessment Category: Cultural Contextualization Quality Assessment Category: Institutional Support for Learners General Institutional Support Student Support Library Support Technology Support III. Performance Measure: Faculty Requirements Assuring faculty credentials and arranging for appropriate reimbursement, as well as providing technological support to faculty are part of this performance measure. Utilizing an instructional design team helps ensure course rigor as well as faculty support and satisfaction. Providing information and support about posting grades to campus databases as well as assisting with course evaluations is a key component in these requirements. Quality Assessment Category: Faculty Incentives Intrinsic Incentives Extrinsic Incentives Quality Assessment Category: Teaching Support Quality Assessment Category: Technology Support IV. Performance Measure: Employer Requirements Conducting needs assessments at the program and course level helps ensure that these are relevant to the needs to industry; conducting and utilizing course and program evaluations ensures that the identified needs are met and that changes in both program and courses are made when needed. Quality Assessment Category: Behavioral Performance Objectives V. Performance Measure: Society Requirements Conducting evaluations of alumni at 1 and 5-year post graduation intervals helps keep the program and its courses relevant to the needs of engineering practitioners. Providing needed education using processes and practices that favor the adult learner at a distance allows these practitioners to engage in lifelong learning opportunities. Quality Assessment Category: Lifelong Learning Quality Assessment Category: Relevance to Society Needs 5

6 Quality Assessment Category: Contribution to Human Resources VI. Performance Measure: Government Requirements Respecting and ensuring the privacy of student records as well as the proprietary nature of course submissions meets or exceeds FERPA and archiving standards. Constructing Web platforms and other course-related materials so that these are accessible provides access to participants who have special needs. Ensuring access to financial aid information and opportunities meets or exceeds student expectations and requirements. Quality Assessment Category: Ethical Requirements Publicity and Marketing Quality Assessment Category: Accreditation Requirements Quality Assessment Category: Legal and Statutory Requirements Accessibility for Learners with Disability Copyright and Intellectual Property Rights Access to Financial Aid Copyright 2005 by Michael Mariasingam All Rights Reserved 6

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