I find that in the never-ceasing stream-of-consciousness that represents my current and evolving thoughts on technology-enabled education, the theme of quality is a constant. In all sectors of the education enterprise, there seems to be a consensus that quality (whatever that might represent) must be an essential component of learning content and experiential process. Even before I thought to quantify the characteristics of quality in education, I had a strong sense that there were indeed characteristics to be measured. But as Hamlet might say, “aye, there’s the rub!” The challenge is in determining what those characteristics are before we can begin to consider how to measure them.
Which brings me to my second Shakespearean reference in as many paragraphs. In Act IV, Scene 1 of his play The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote the following lines:
“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”
Yes, there are two definitions to the term quality. The first, which I used in the context of learning, is the idea that quality is a measure of how good or bad something is. The second definition as used in The Merchant of Venice is that quality is an attribute of something, and in this case, Bill is describing an attribute of mercy. Reread the passage above, substituting the one instance of the word “mercy” with the word “learning.” Now consider the line “it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” It doesn’t take a great shift in mental perspective to think of quality not as a measure of the learning experience, but rather as an intrinsic attribute that blesses both the teacher and student alike. All we need to do is optimize conditions for this attribute to be revealed.
There are several components to learning that may function as a blessing–or as a curse if poorly executed, and the following are just a few:
- The facilitation of the relationship between teacher and student
- The manner in which content is organized and made available
- The kind of support provided to teacher or student when technical difficulties arise
- The ability to leverage additional tools that may enhance the learning experience
What level of resources or commitment of effort does it take to optimize these conditions in any particular learning environment? I probably needn’t point out that there has been much relevant research performed. But it is important to remember that we can lose sight of the big picture when we dive into the weeds of data, and that it is always a good idea to revisit key principles on a regular basis. Probably the biggest of the big picture views is the concept that the entire institution must be aligned from top to bottom and side to side on the core mission of learning. In fact, the institution should commit itself to the ideal of being learning-centered. (While I won’t explore the implications of terminology here, I will point out that there is a significant different between being learning centered as opposed to being learner or student centered. See the work of Terry O’Banion with the League for Innovation in the Community College.)
Quality as an attribute provides a basis for agreement on a common philosophy regarding the learning experience; “it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Once this is understood and adopted as a foundation construct, then we may begin to articulate the idea of quality as a measure of the learning experience. This is where we enter the world or metrics and assessments with the intent to execute an effective feedback and improvement cycle. Fortunately there are tools that may assist us in this process:
- OLC’s Five Pillars of Quality Online Education
- The Quality Matters standards for online learning
- The ISTE standards for pedagogy in the digital age
- The IMS Global standards for learning technologies
While these tools are extremely valuable on their own, I would never recommend adoption as an excuse to breathe a sigh of relief as though the quality question has been answered. These tools may be integrated in whole or in part into the overall governance and strategic planning process that subsequently drives day-to-day decisions regarding how learning activities are conducted. Human intelligence in the learning enterprise is still the prerequisite to data-driven decision making. Or at least it should be.
One of the reasons that it’s difficult to answer the “quality question” is that quality can be categorized in multiple ways, each with multiple considerations. The following diagram depicts a possible model.
Quality of Online (or Technology-mediated) Learning
The four columns represent the categories in which we might assess quality attributes.
- Framework – Here we consider the quality of technology infrastructure and support across an institution. How well equipped, for example, is the academic technology group in order to provide exemplary levels of service to the various end users?
- Content – The quality of course design process has a direct impact on the actual materials and media that both educators and learners will interact with during the duration of a particular course. You might think of the difference between a well-curated academic journal and a tabloid pseudo-news publication.
- Experience – When we think of the quality of faculty and student end-user experience, we need to consider both the end-to-end experience as a service as well as a product. What will students say after they have taken the course? The answer often comes back to how they felt about what they experienced throughout.
- Design – Program design quality includes components of the three other quality measures, but it is also an overarching theme that spans an entire program of study rather than individual courses. This means that individual course quality measures “interact” in the learner’s mind–so a single poor experience might negatively impact the whole program experience.
The horizontal themes are representative of characteristics that are common across all the quality attributes.
- Ethics involves topics from intellectual property policies and considerations to online harassment and bullying.
- Resources addresses the way in which institutions provision their online operations, hopefully positioning themselves for success.
- Constituents is all about audience: who is participating, and what is important to them.
- Measurement is the ever-present need to understand how well we are executing to our goals at every level of the institution from leadership to department to individual instructor.
It’s at the intersection of each column and row that we might explore some questions regarding quality, such as what the ethical issues around the use of particular course content might be, or how we might go about measuring the user experience. Some of the questions might point to best practices that could be applied to most institutions under most circumstances, while others might be very specific to individual institutions, programs, or courses. I’ll be facilitating this discussion, in fact, at the Online Learning Consortium Collaborate regional conference in Las Vegas on June 10th this year, and the result should be a list of questions and considerations around those points of intersection in the diagram. I’ll follow up with a subsequent blog entry, so watch this space!