What Students (The Customers!) Really Demand
All agree that quality in post-secondary education is critical in determining not only the value of a degree, diploma or certificate, but in determining the long-term viability of a program, course or institution.
For students, the key factor is the viability and value of both the education and the credential they receive.
Quality matters. But how quality is determined can be an inhibitor for innovation and change.
Unpacking this idea involves this thinking:
- The notions of quality are very much focused on inputs and a limited range of outputs:
We are concerned about the design of the program and its equivalence to other similar programs.
- We are concerned about quality of students admitted.
- We are concerned about the qualifications of faculty.
- We are concerned about the management of processes within a program – assessment rubrics, appeals, academic integrity, and academic governance.
- We are concerned about the rigour of marking.
- We are concerned that the outputs match the intended outcomes of the course.
- We are concerned about quality of students admitted.
- While formal quality assurance processes have increasingly focused on the student experience, they often do not stress student engagement as one of the key drivers for quality.
- Often quality reviews do not consider whether the program is innovative, flexible, effectively using technology for learning, teaching, analytics and assessment or engaging students with practical applications of the content.
- Quality assurance is limited in its capacity to look at the impact of learning over time – on careers, on habits of lifelong learning, on community involvement and benefits.
In re-thinking the approach to quality, we should ask ourselves:
- The How? How do the students experience their learning?
Is it the best experience it could be, given the resources available to the institution, the faculty member and the learner? Were real attempts made to engage the learner with other learners worldwide, with experts worldwide and with their faculty member?
- The How? How do faculty experience their teaching?
How satisfied are faculty members with their conditions of practice? Are faculty provided with the learning opportunities they need to provide to truly engage learners? Do faculty feel that they own the learning agenda and their teaching? Do faculty feel that they have a genuine voice in the governance of programs and courses?
- The What? Focus on outcomes in more depth.
What matters most is what the student can do or understand now, which they could not do or understand when the program or course began.
- The So What?
Focus on impacts of the learning in practice, not just immediately, but over time (e.g. in the workplace, in the community).
- The Then What?
After the learning has occurred, what changes are made to the design, deployment and delivery of the program the next time it is offered?
We need to move to a much more experiential and outcome-based view of quality if it is to be the engine of transformation.
We need to ask deeper questions about technology and quality
A wise colleague once said: “If technology is the answer, we must be asking the wrong question”!
Many are clearly enamoured by the promise of technology and the opportunity it provides to change how we teach, how students learn, how we understand the ways in which student learn, how we assess and how we leverage global knowledge.
Technology can and does make a difference. The challenge at the institutional level is to ask deeper questions about the nature of teaching and learning and the strategic opportunities such investments afford. Three simple observations may help us position the question “so what” with respect to technology:
- Technology can support and help learning, but we do not yet have a learning engine that learns for us – we still have to do the work.
- Technology can provide “big data” and analytics – but someone still has to make decisions and take appropriate action.
- Technology can support teaching, but cannot replace the human work of engagement – machine and artificial intelligence are tools for engagement, but what students look for is genuineness, support, clarity, responsiveness, understanding, and advice from their faculty members (and sometimes tough love!).
Technology can help with all kinds of aspects of learning, but in the end, the key is relationships:
- Relationship between the student and the knowledge base;
- Relationship between the student and his or her faculty member;
- Relationships between the student and other students;
- Relationship between the knowledge and skills being developed by the student and the real world uses or applications of that knowledge;
- Relationship between the faculty member and the knowledge base;
- Relationship between the faculty members and his or her peers in that discipline;
- Relationship between today’s knowledge and the creation of tomorrow’s wisdom; and
- Relationship between the faculty member and those who can support the work of teaching and learning for that discipline.
A real quality assurance system for post-secondary education should focus on these relationships, not selected inputs and some outputs.
So what do the students (the customers) want in terms of quality?
- Quality programs which have meaning and value;
- Quality faculty members defined by how engaged the faculty member is in supporting the learning needs of students;
- Flexibility in how, when and where they study;
- Affordability; and
- Recognition of their learning (past and present) by post-secondary institutions and employers.
Students are not demanding the application of technology; they are seeking greater flexibility in how, when and where they study and technology is one enabler of this. This is an important point - technology is a component of a solution to the challenge of providing flexibility.
Flexibility is the key to our future. It could involve:
- Faster, better, smarter assessment of prior learning using competency-based and outcome-based assessment rather than the current cumbersome comparison of one course with another.
- More ready acceptance of learning undertaken in the workplace – professional development programs, short courses, expert knowledge programs – as credit worthy.
- An international transfer credit system in which credits offered by one institution are immediately accepted by any other accredited institution.
- A national e-portfolio in which students carry their learning outcomes, credits and others in their personal file.
- Reducing the residency requirement (number of credits which must be earned within an institution so that it awards a credential) so as to encourage unbundling and promote flexibility.
- Much more substantial use of open educational resources and a national MOOC system for the “gateway” courses, which almost all degree and diploma programs require.
- A national credit assessment agency for all undergraduate first and second year courses so that anyone in Canada (whether or not they have a high school diploma) could challenge for credit and be assessed whenever they are ready.
To Become “Unstuck”
To become “unstuck”, we should stop focusing on technology or institutions, but instead focus on what it is that students need and want.
- If we want to have a quality, flexible and affordable system, then we need to create a quality assurance mechanism that encourages and enables flexibility.
- If we want to commit to learner mobility, then quality should focus on the student experience and ease of transfer and credit recognition, not place barriers to mobility.
- If we want to be truly creative, we will want to develop assessment systems, which can be called by the student anytime, anyplace so that they can work at their own pace.
Quality requires re-thinking all aspects of our approach to learning from a student point of view.