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How can we assure quality in online higher education?

  • 3 June 2020
  • By David LeFevre

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr David LeFevre, Director of the EdTech Lab at Imperial College and the founder of higher education platform company Insendi, part of Study Group.

Last month a subtle warning shot was shot across the bows of universities still struggling to manage the disruption caused by Covid-19. When the Minister responsible for higher education announced that UK students would be charged full tuition fees for online study, she added a caveat – the assumption of quality. If students ‘feel that the quality isn’t there’ she said, ‘there are processes that they can follow’ to seek redress’.

Yet the Minister was bullish about what had been achieved so far.:

We have already seen over the last few months courses being delivered online and virtually at an amazing quality and degree. And I know the efforts that staff across the sector have made to be able to facilitate that.

However, her caveat crystallises growing murmurs regarding the quality of provision.

Michelle Donelan was right about the effort involved. As someone who has worked on EdTech for 20 years at Imperial College and has helped business schools across the world develop hundreds of high-specification online courses, I am staggered by the scale and pace at which higher education globally has moved materials, teaching and student engagement online. Often, years of work has been performed in weeks and we have conquered personal and technical mountains to reach the point at which we are now. We all deserve full credit for an experience we will still be processing years from now.

And it has not just been universities. Schools have been at it too and many academics have been at both ends of the process – supporting their home schooled children by day and preparing online lectures and assessment at night. Congratulations are in order for all who have burned the midnight oil to support their students. The process has not been easy or perfect, of course, but teaching has not been abandoned. In the face of a global pandemic, that is an incredible achievement.

Given this, it may seem churlish to raise questions relating to the quality of these online courses so soon. However, the dust is already settling after the initial shock and students will soon appear to be less grateful and more demanding, particularly those planning to embark on new programmes in September. Indeed, research undertaken in April by HEPI showed almost a quarter of students were unsatisfied with current online teaching, and another quarter were unsure.

As universities begin to face up to the new reality of online teaching, or at least, blended learning extending into the autumn semester and possibly beyond, the chorus of concern is growing. Some doubt we can turn desperate measures into a more sustainable ‘enhanced’ model of education. And yet this is required, the credibility of students’ qualifications and of the institutions that provide them is at stake over the longer term.

So what is quality in online learning? And why has this become a topic of such discussion? After all the curriculum, the learning materials, the teacher and even the timetables have largely remained unchanged in this Covid-19 driven move to online. The issue lies in the methods adopted. The replacement of physical classes with video conferencing has been the dominant approach taken and we have all quickly learned that Zoom sessions, while a strikingly useful tool, provide a pale imitation of the full degree experience on their own.

The issue is perhaps most stark when specialist physical equipment is required as is the case with lab-based classes. However, whatever the discipline, lecturers in higher education these days rarely just lecture. Instead, the majority of classes comprise a sequence of different activity modes that a skilled educator organises in order to promote student learning. Teachers new to online teaching, as many currently are, find it challenging to maintain such sophistication in the absence of the familiar physical classroom. And classes represent just one component of the experience universities organise in order for students to achieve the objectives of their programmes. Project work, careers support, group work, assignments, assessments, pastoral care together with extra-curricular activities such as clubs, societies and the social nature of the university community all contribute to a rich, multi-faceted experience.

It requires care, attention, creativity, technology and skilled staff to effectively render these elements in online format. And also time. In the past, pre-Covid-19 world, the courses and training I helped to develop were usually the result of strategic choices and months of engagement with teachers, content, students and pedagogy. The challenge now is to take that knowledge and apply it across all subject areas, at speed and at scale. And there is another challenge too, perhaps the most fundamental of all. How can we ensure that teachers and students can have confidence in this process?

Ensuring quality in online education is not primarily a question of IT support but of academic strategy and educational design. We have seen already that damaging clashes can arise if online education is believed to shortcut academic thinking. Education and educators need to be front and centre of the process and yet it is hard to get maintain focus when many of the key players often wish they were somewhere else, physically together with a social ease which currently feels like a distant memory. Yet our world won’t quickly return to old norms, so we owe it to our students to find new ways to maintain quality, embed best practice and to involve both teachers and students in that process.

Over recent years, the dominance of student-centred educational theory and the commercialisation of education have resulted in a growing emphasis on the student experience and, in particular, on measuring student satisfaction. The term ‘teaching’ has become a dirty word in some of the more dogmatic education circles. Recent initiatives such as online MOOCs are premised on students supporting each other and largely remove the teacher from the education process. However, when considering quality, teachers matter. Over the 20 years plus that I have been involved in the creation of online programmes, a consistent observation is that the teacher is pivotal to the delivery of a high quality, positive and sustainable experience for students. And, I’d go further. Teachers need to actually enjoy online teaching if online education is to really deliver the quality which will enable both students and teachers to last the course.

Right now, academics who have made the move to online teaching for the first time may find this thought unlikely. Some may imagine that online teaching can only be enjoyed by a minority of technophiles, and that online education should only be adopted as a necessity when participants cannot be physically present for reasons of distance or schedule. Ask those who have taken teaching qualifications how much time was dedicated to doing their work in an online context rather than in a lecture theatre or lab and you quickly realise why so much pedagogy is focused on a traditional in-person model.

However, the work of my teams, and that of many other teams is driven by a deep rooted belief that technology can enhance and improve the effectiveness of education. And when this is achieved, that the teaching and learning experience will actually be more enjoyable for both students and their teachers. There is nothing more rewarding to an EdTech specialist like myself to see a new light of enthusiasm and possibility in the eyes of a teacher who gradually discovers how to do this well and the power of this of a technology-enhanced approach.

So how can our sector move towards a higher quality provision and a technology enhanced approach? The process cannot be achieved in a matter of days or weeks. However, the present disruption may last long enough for many institutions, or at least departments within institutions, to reach the point that they can proudly stand behind the quality of their online courses. At Imperial College, we are considering this task in three stages – stabilise, enhance and innovate. The first few weeks following campus closures were all about stabilising matters as best we can for students, largely by moving to video conferencing, and overall this has been successful.

Now, most institutions are in the grips of another, equally enormous challenge; making the move beyond video conferencing. Enhancing the pedagogy of the online courses so claims of quality can be made with confidence. Faculty and professional staff now need to take action to determine a format for this second stage, one that can be rapidly designed, developed and implemented across the institution. The challenge is to identity pedagogic adjustments that can be made quickly but to significant effect. Student expectations will lead to a demand for new pedagogies, imaginative technical solutions, innovative teaching techniques and online support structures. Technology and support teams will be stretched to breaking point and faculty will necessarily, and rightly, play the leadership role in this work.

But even now, when all are coping with mountains of pressing tasks, consideration should be given to the longer term and to innovation. Forward thinking institutions will emerge well placed with new powerful capacity in technology enhanced education. Many of us will not again witness such a period of disruption, innovation and opportunity. Institutions need teams who can look ahead, thinking hard about how the mission and values of a university can be expressed online to inspire and empower students in the years to come. This will take ambitious thinking and creativity but, as the world moves on and adopts new norms, academia cannot afford to leave this to others.

Online education should not be seen as a threat to academic rigour and the craft of education. The path to true quality in online education is a navigable one. We formed the Edtech Lab at Imperial College to explore, in depth, what this mode of teaching might contribute to global education, and how to ensure it worked better. What we discovered was an appetite for doing online education well. Now we are on the edge of what former Universities Minister Jo Johnson has already called ‘an exciting growth opportunity’. ‘We have to be ready as a system to meet the demand’ he recently told an audience of academics and higher education policy makers, ‘the excellence we have had in traditional delivery of higher education will be replicated in time in these new ways of doing things’.

However, those who view the problem as one that can be left to technologists to solve will likely fail. Education is very much a human endeavour and solutions need to be people focused in nature. All actors in the teaching and learning ecosystem need to be fully engaged and educators need the strongest voice. To guarantee quality and outcomes which justify the significant investment of time and money required from students, it is the development of teachers to make the most of the potential of learning technologies which will be paramount.

So for now, I would encourage my academic colleagues and fellow online teachers to hold their nerve and keep going. The L plates very definitely need to stay on for a while – ideally forever – and teachers and students will need to stay open to what works best and what technological developments make possible. If we do that, quality will be assured and higher education will enter a new chapter with its most important qualities intact.

12 comments

  1. Kevin Henshaw says:

    Thanks.Enjoyed the Blog. We share many of those issues at Institutional and Programme leve. Just not sure where we star when it comes to measuring quality other than the usual ‘student surveys’?

  2. Tarek Zoubir says:

    As mentioned in the article and in my experience, a collaborative approach between discipline experts, instructional design professionals and other stakeholders is key to quality online courses. Part of the challenge is the investment required to do this at scale and for programmes that will not be wholly online (‘only’ blended) in a time when the online student experience is heightened.

    Toolkits and templates for course design and development underpin this collaboration – with a word of caution around discipline specificity, creativity and innovation.

    I think a good way to start is by exploring how some of these toolkits/templates can be adapted and made more accessible to those working in the blended space. With differing expectations when these tools are used by individuals, programme and multidisciplinary teams.

    An example I came across is the Online Learning Consortium Course Design Review quality scorecard: http://bit.ly/OLCoscqr

    Could this type of approach be encouraged for self, peer and/or student review? Does it ask for too much without investment in dedicated professional services?

  3. Stephanie Brooks says:

    Great article, David. Working with you and the Insendi team this past year could not have come a better time.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for the positive comments.

    I believe we should look to our colleagues in educational research departments for guidance in order to move away from the standard student surveys. This discipline has developed a large toolkit to apply to the problem of assessing quality. These departments could play a key role here by providing us with a dashboard on what is working and what is not as we progress through the current disruption.

    Best,

    David

  5. Hello Tarek,

    “Toolkits and templates for course design and development underpin this collaboration – with a word of caution around discipline specificity, creativity and innovation.” I couldn’t agree more toolkits and templates are required given the scale of the task and the speed with which we need to act, But it is the addition of discipline specificity, creativity and innovation that will drive quality.

    “Part of the challenge is the investment required to do this at scale ” – Yes, absolutely. And this is compounded by the current financial uncertainty.

    David

  6. Thanks Stephanie. Yes, the timing of our FOME alliance proved to be extremely fortunate!

  7. Tarek Zoubir says:

    Thanks David – “But it is the addition of discipline specificity, creativity and innovation that will drive quality.” I agree this is what will make a difference, the caution was to make sure off-the-shelf templates don’t dominate design and development.

  8. Cameron mirza says:

    Good read David. I would perhaps only add that to move through the phases of stabilise, enhance and innovate requires forward thinking leadership to support this shift and the policies to support innovation and experimentation around instructional design.

  9. Hello Tarek,

    “off-the-shelf templates don’t dominate design and development”

    Yes, completely agree. The adoption of formulaic, templated approaches may be expedient and necessary at the moment given the scale and speed at which teams need to act. But, as you suggest, we need to be mindful that this can often constrain the creation of a quality learning experience for students.

  10. Thank you Cameron.

    “requires forward thinking leadership to support this shift”. Good point. Given its importance, this could form the basis for a further article. And being forward thinking is perhaps a particular challenge at the moment given the volume of operational work and anticipated fiscal constraints.

  11. cameron mirza says:

    Happy to work on a follow up piece with you! I agree the volume of current work and fiscal issues are keeping many HEI leaders awake yet the good leaders will find a way to navigate a way through and build a compelling digital vision that is structured around students( including non traditional students) , staff and financial constraints. we hope!

  12. David Lefevre says:

    Thanks Cameron. Perhaps we could take this off line.

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