The Quality Challenge of Digital Education: Enabling Education Providers to Make it Work

Mark Brown, Eamon Costello and Prajakta Girme, Dublin City University.

This paper is set against growing concerns about the quality of new online learning models arising from the COVID-19 experience of emergency remote teaching. It explores the thorny question of defining quality and enabling an institutional commitment to continuous improvement for the next normal of digital further and higher education. The paper asks, what quality assurance (QA) standards and processes are required for blended, hybrid and online learning? Are our existing QA standards sufficient? Do they need to differ from those already in place for more traditional delivery modes? To what extent is quality linked to the mode of delivery? These questions raise a further question, what does a quality student learning experience look like in the post-COVID-19 digital era? Three recent projects frame the conversation around these quality-related questions. Firstly, the paper draws on a review of institutional self-assessment tools and instruments for digitally enhanced learning and teaching (DELT) undertaken as part of the Digi-HE project led by the European Universities Association (EUA). This project sought to promote institutional self-assessment as a key part of fostering a quality culture. Secondly, we report some of the findings from a critical analysis of QA frameworks from around the globe for blended and online delivery undertaken as part of a major study for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Another dimension of this study is an analysis of how national QA agencies in OECD jurisdictions respond to quality concerns about new digital education models. Lastly, we share insights from a current initiative in which the authors are leading the development of new National Statutory QA Guidelines for Blended and Online Education Providers in partnership with Qualifications and Quality Ireland (QQI). This initiative has engaged a wider range of Irish stakeholders, including students, in helping to shape these new guidelines. Building on these three initiatives, the paper offers a critical synthesis of the published research in this area, noting key trends and significant gaps in the literature. It also maps and compares 12 different QA frameworks published to support digital further and higher education. This analysis helps to identify some of the new risks and emerging quality considerations from a multi-layered contextual perspective. While there is no shortage of quality frameworks for blended, hybrid and online learning, the research reveals that not all of them are created equal, and there is a dearth of evidence on their value in fostering cultures of continuous improvement. Accordingly, we conclude by asking, how can we enable education providers to design for quality and make it work in offering a quality student learning experience?