Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The buzzword is currently Quality Education – what is quality all about?

The concept of quality and the process of assuring that quality is maintained are very important in the educational setting. However, quality is non-referential concept. This means that it depends on the point of reference that we take when we define what we mean by quality in educational processes.  Concepts associated with quality are often confused especially when the term quality assurance is used. Quality assurance is first and foremost, a process. Any process by definition of first principles have input(s) and then produces the output(s). The outcome of the process is therefore important to determine if quality (the objective) has been achieved or not. Therefore quality cannot be directly related to a standardized process and universally applied at the different levels of the educational system. In one scenario, quality can be linked to the number of students successfully passing a final exam and graduating from the University. In another context, quality can be linked to indicators such as external audit reports and the grades being achieved by students. 

While quality measurement through quantifiable variables can be straightforward, quality in the process is much more difficult to measure. For instance, quality of the instruction or teaching is very difficult to measure through quantifiable techniques. As a consequence, we find that feedback forms will be used for students to judge their perceived quality of the instruction, very often by agreeing or disagreeing with one or at most a few statements.  However, experience, field practices and research have shown that most of the time the filling of such questionnaires are mainly done in a rather subjective way by the students. A consequent number of them just fill in to get it ‘done’ or because it has been ‘imposed’ on them. When a student is not allowed to register for the coming semester because he has not completed the feedback forms for the courses he took in the previous semester, then the whole process of quality assurance through feedback is flawed.

In a recent workshop at the University of Mauritius with renowned international education specialists, the emphasis of the Financial Secretary was on quality education. Yet the term quality being mentioned repeatedly without having a clue from the policy makers what they mean by quality in a contextualized situation. For a Financial Secretary, for instance, quality might well be to produce more graduates with less money, while for an educational manager, quality can be reasonably defined as having fewer but more competent graduates with more investment in resources.  Quality and access to education are clearly two complementary elements of the educational landscape but in many situations they can become contradictory. Some people argue that opening access to under-qualified learners will automatically have an impact on the quality. 

The same argument is used when it comes to increasing intake. Again, without the existence of a unified framework to define quality in a contextualized multi-tier setting, quality will always remain a flawed concept and false debate around the educational landscape. Issues of quality in educational processes normally arise in terms of the content, the pedagogical approach used, the delivery of the course as per established rules, the facilities available, the skill of the facilitator and students’ satisfaction and performance. Another factor which is also very important with regards to quality education is the quality of students’ learning itself which gives completely different indications from students’ performances. Quality of students’ learning is often obvious in the competencies they develop rather than the tacit knowledge they acquire and reproduce in examinations.

The Open University of ....... Mauritius

In between the year 2000 to 2005, the concepts of open learning and technology-enhanced learning were on the political agenda of the government. The first such initiative in terms of technology-enhanced learning was the very successful initiative called the Mass Computer Proficiency Project (CPP) that was targeted at making mass training in basic information technology in a bid to sustain the strategic objective of making Mauritius a cyber-island. The initiative was later enhanced, but within the same goal through the Universal IC3 (Internet and Computing Core Certification) in 2005. The pedagogical philosophy behind the CPP and IC3 courses was based on the “learning-by-doing” approach and “learning IT through IT” which meant that contents were made available in digitized form comprising of multimedia and hypermedia elements. At the same time during the 2000-2005 period, the government came up with the idea of an open-learning institute which would be fundamentally absorb the Mauritius College of the Air. The idea later evolved into that of an Open University in 2005 but it never came into operation, until a revamped bill was presented in 2010 in Parliament. A study of the bill reveals that the third public university of Mauritius is essentially a University on its own with more or less the same structure and functioning. The only or major difference is that this university will focus on flexible learning, open learning through distance learning and that this university is supposed to have a ‘thinner’ structure than the other two public universities. The question of distance learning as it regains momentum when the concept of Open University is debated retains the attention. Why do we not call “Open” universities as “Distance” universities instead? Is open learning same as distance learning? Of course not! But many of us will no doubt find an automatic association of open-learning to distance-learning and vice-versa. The other term that is often associated with open learning and distance learning is lifelong learning. While distance learning reflects more to the mode of delivery of content and the delocalized and asynchronous type of interaction between the learner and the teacher, the terms open, lifelong and flexible learning mainly reflect of mode of education. The mode of education is often confused with the mode of delivery of learning content. The mode of delivery of content for open, lifelong and flexible learning can very much be traditional face-to-face classroom-based lectures while the mode of delivery for distance learning can be printed manuals, digitized content on CD/DVD, websites and so on.

Open learning basically puts the emphasis on two major concepts, namely that of access and flexibility. This means that access to education and training is provided to those, who in a traditional setting would not be in a position to afford (financial, professional or social constraints) getting to full-time education or to attend scheduled classes at well-defined specific times. Access is also related to those who lack formal entry requirements on courses but who have years of working experience which can be used as recognition to compensate the lack of formal entry requirements to their desired study field. Open learning also provides the flexibility to those who want to study at their own pace and who only want to get a certain specific knowledge about a specific subject without the hassle of official enrolment and sitting for exams. Over the recent years, open education has taken yet another dimension, that of free education, but mostly in an informal mode of learning. What has emerged as open educational resources, are basically courseware released by known universities like the MIT and Open University of the UK, where anyone can ‘enroll’ without the payment of any fees and follow the courses on their own. 

Open Universities are mainly appropriate where the base market is quite large as such universities become cost-effective by making economies of scale. India, Malaysia, South Africa, the UK and Canada, for instance, have successfully implemented such initiatives. Moreover, the customer base of these universities more precisely the UNISA (South Africa) and IGNOU (India) span internationally. The cost of access to these universities is also quite low compared to other traditional universities. The funding mechanism of these universities need to be also effective, unless they are fully funded through public funds, which in the longer term and difficult economic situations may prove to be less sustainable. Mauritius, on the other hand, with respect to its size, geographical location and economic capability will definitely face much bigger challenges than the other open universities. 

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Quality Assurance and OER in Courseware Development (Part II)

This perspective of viewing quality poses a problem for bringing innovation and creativity in the learning process. Quality is a non-referential concept and quality assurance techniques that are applicable in behaviorist learning environments are not compatible in socio-constructivist ones. The quality framework that can be applied depends on the learning design approach to be adopted. Quality assurance needs to be an ongoing and iterative activity and student feedback on their own learning (problems encountered, things that were easily understood, communication problems and other related issues) contribute towards making them better learners and develop the required competencies.

The issue of quality in OER-based courseware development process relates only to the content development phase on which the author has no particular control. This is where most of the concerns related to quality assurance lies. Traditionally speaking, reliable sources of academic information were only books, and published research (journal articles and conference papers) as well as from the academic’s philosophical perception of things (academic freedom). With the democratisation of access to content and the removal of publishing constraints via the web, reliability of information presented in content has been of great concerns to educational authorities. In this context we wish to highlight a very simple fact that out of ten consecutive searches that were tried on different topics on Wikipedia returned a number of resources which warned on the top about the reliability of the content (information) being presented to the user. Furthermore, most searches done on Google for particular information would most likely return Wikipedia as one of the top 5 sources. 

The fact that OERs came into the limelight more or less with the emergence of Web 2.0 era (contrary to the Learning Objects Concept) contributed to the significance of the concerns regarding QA issues. Therefore academics and instructors using OERs need to have a well-established set of guidelines that would provide a framework for the search and use of freely available content from the Web. De-facto trusted sites like the OpenLearn platform, Connexions and Curriki, just to name a few would greatly help but it is in fact very difficult for an institution to control such activities of their staff. One possibility would be for OERs to form an integral part of the institution’s courseware development policies rather than being used on piece-meal basis by individual academics. 

It is important to note that peer-reviewing has over the years proved useful in research-related quality assurance systems. With the concept of collaborative editing through wiki technologies, the concept of peer-reviewing has been very much the motor for those promoting an approach based of OER development through communities of practice. However, the issue that remains contradictive is the impersonation issue. While there are ways to counter this, sites like Wikipedia and others will definitely encounter difficulties to enforce identity checks for its users. One recent article on the web also mentioned the declining number of people who were involved in ‘watching’ of pages and their content on Wikipedia. 

One possibility to counter the above problem is therefore to completely rethink (re-engineer) the pedagogical approaches used when designing courses using OERs. When courses are fully content-oriented, it is obvious that quality assurance processes will focus mainly on the content being used and presented to the users. However, if the content is not the central focus, but an element in a broader pedagogical scenario, then the whole quality assurance issue takes a different perspective.

The concept of project/activity-based learning that focus on the development of a set of skills and competencies by the student through socio-constructivist models can be useful. Quality assurance will in this case be a process that ensures the learning path of the learner will lead to the desired outcomes. In doing so, using a variety of available contents on the web which are labelled as OER is not a problem as the learners will develop higher order cognitive skills where they can synthesize, argue and discuss on the contents rather than adopting them to be factual information. However, again as was mentioned earlier, this different perspective can be disruptive to the traditional organisational processes of QA.

Quality Assurance and OERs in Courseware Development (Part I)

Open Educational Resources provide instructors with an innovative way to conceptualise courses. The philosophy behind it is that courseware development becomes a distributed and a split 3-phased approach. This means that the development of content can be done by anyone, anywhere and at any point in time, thus becoming the first phase of the process. The instructor involved in the use of OERs has practically no control over this phase but has access to a range of tools than can give him access to content having been developed in that phase. A simple example would be to use a search engine to look for related content or to access OER repositories. 

The other phase would be to build-up the course from the content available manually or through the help of courseware building tools. The third phase would be the delivery and dissemination of the course content in a face-to-face classroom or via an Elearning platform. The instructor might have control on both phase 2 and 3 or on only one of them. This approach being an innovative way in itself, is set however to be a “disruptive process” in well established traditional educational systems. Issues of quality in educational processes normally arises in terms of 

  1. The content
  2. The pedagogical approach used
  3. The delivery of the course as per established rules
  4. Students’ satisfaction and performance
The issue of quality assurance (QA) has increasingly become a priority for Higher Education institutions. As universities compete to attract more students, but also to attract financing through various projects, quality represents one of the main criteria for ensuring a significant share of the educational market (Abdous 2009, p. 281). Guaranteeing quality, however, is not always an easy process, first and foremost because the very concept of "quality" is disputed and many different, contextual definitions are used (Mihai 2009).  
The main barrier to such an innovative way to reconceptualise the educational process in traditional universities are the quality assurance procedures that need to be 'strictly' followed. In a traditional lecture, quality is believed to be maintained if the lecturer spends 3 hours in the classroom irrespective of what he does or not. This is proved by the log book in which he signs. In another context, quality is maintained if students' results follow the normal distribution and if academic/administrative records related to the course are duly kept. Furthermore, quality is considered maintained if feedback forms are given, at the end of the semester, to students who fill in most of the time in a subjective way.