Towards a New Understanding of Quality in Post-Secondary Education
Post-secondary institutions, in response to changing pressures from students, communities, employers, and governments, as well as economic realities, have implemented changes intended to strengthen quality, such as increasing flexibility for learners, quality assurance regimes, and student engagement and satisfaction. Other changes have been seen to have a negative impact on quality, such as increased student: faculty ratios and the hiring of more part-time faculty. Taken together, these measures and others have contributed to keeping the quality debate alive, while encouraging the evolution of a new quality assessment approach.
The Current Paradigm – Quality Assurance Based on Standards
The dominant paradigm of quality assurance in higher education in Canada is built on an understanding of standards as the basis for quality. This standards-based quality approach permits jurisdictions to assess and affirm programs and institutions as quality assured. In Canada, jurisdictional and regional quality assurance agencies have oversight of quality for aspects of post-secondary education, such as the Postsecondary Education Quality Assessment Board in Ontario and the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission.
In the US, accreditation processes developed by regional accrediting bodies or by bodies dedicated to particular disciplines, such as business school programs, have published procedural standards and process standards with the goal of assuring that quality processes are practiced in a particular institution.
The core of this standards-based approach is to require the following features within a college or university, at the level of the institution, the level of a faculty or department, and at the level of a program:
- Thorough process specification, including the publication of standards and outcome expectations, both at the level of programs and at the level of the institution;
- Audit and review of whether or not the standards and processes are being followed – e.g. a review of faculty qualifications, marking of assignments, admissions processes;
- Systematic measurement of outcomes and student satisfaction and formal processes for appeal;
- Exceptions management, defining what happens when problems arise;
- Periodic independent review by peers of programs, courses, and student services; and
- Benchmarking of standards and processes against the work of similar institutions and/or programs – comparing the offerings of one MBA with other MBA programs.
The approach is based on a conception of quality that is administrative, procedural, and input- based, borrowed from the industrial model. The effectiveness of this model is being challenged by changes in learner expectations and in ways of teaching and learning, leading to a broader understanding of quality.
The Influence of Changing Student Expectations
Students are more concerned with their experience of learning, the quality of the instruction they receive, the volume and pertinence of the work, turnaround time for feedback on assignments, the quality of feedback, the social networks they create, and how their programs are viewed by employers in order to help them in getting a related job. As students are asked to pay more for their education, their conception of quality now resembles a consumer model: am I getting value for my investment?
The Impact of New Practices in Teaching and Learning
The standards-based approach does not consider many of the changes in pedagogy, particularly assessment practices. Six developments in particular are having a broad influence:
- Growth of flexible approaches to learning;
- A strong focus on student engagement;
- A strong focus on learning outcomes and the systematic assessment of these outcomes;
- The growth of learning analytics as a basis for evaluating individual progress with respect to learning outcomes and competencies;
- Changing methods of assessment for learning and assessment of learning; and
- A growing demand for course transfer and work-based learning recognition.
The Significance of the Shifting Understanding of Quality
The understanding of quality is also changing, in line with these developments. In recent meetings with global leaders in quality assurance for universities and colleges, three significant developments in the understanding of quality within universities and colleges were identified. These developments include:
- Recognition that quality is as much about process (how learning happens, how content is delivered, student interaction and engagement) as it is about inputs (quality of students admitted, qualifications of faculty, course outlines and access to learning resources) and outputs (assessment and competencies). This requires a shift from a standards-based conception of quality to one which combines standards with experience and relevance. The new focus in the developed world is the relevance to the demands of the labour market, while in most of the developing world quality of learning is linked to the development agenda of the nation.
- Recognition that quality assurance and related processes should enable rather than inhibit innovation.
- Recognition that quality is more than peer review – it is also about meeting international expectations and standards, given the strong focus globally on student mobility and worker mobility.
All of these influences can be seen in the evolving conception of quality.
The Emerging Paradigm – Quality as Experienced by Stakeholders
This alternative conception of quality is one that gives emphasis to:
- Student engagement and the extent and value of their interaction with faculty and peers;
- Faculty satisfaction with their conditions of practice and their ability to convey the power and beauty of learning and understanding;
- Employee satisfaction with the quality of students emerging from programs in terms of job skills, as well as soft skills, such as critical thinking, teamwork, emotional intelligence, learning continuously, patience, compassion, and commitment;
- The engagement of students in their community - responsible citizenship;
- The impact of a learning experience on students and their understanding and competence – sometimes known as the “value added” from a learning experience; and
- The outcomes of learning in terms of relevant and valued knowledge, competencies and skills, knowledge and understanding.
While those promoting the standards-based view of quality suggest these are implicit in their approach, this is the problem. They are implicit. These features, it is now suggested, should be the explicit focus for quality.
The implementation of this expanded understanding of quality requires definitions and criteria be developed for assessment of these factors. Learning analytics are a useful tool in providing information on student engagement, interaction, learning processes, support, and success particularly when they are engaged in blended and online learning. Tools to assess soft skills, faculty and employer satisfaction are available and implemented in many jurisdictions. The drawing together of all this information as part of a quality assurance process is underwa