Current events

Ensuring the quality of e-learning: Challenges at a time of growing supply

Ensuring the quality of online university teaching at a time when the supply is expanding globally, with such phenomena as massive open online courses (MOOC), was one of the central issues under debate at the European Foundation for Quality in E-Learning (EFQUEL) Innovation Forum 2013, which brought together international experts in the field at the Cibernàrium in Barcelona on 26 and 27 September. The theme of the meeting hosted by the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia, UOC) was Refocusing Quality in E-Learning. The speakers stressed the points to be taken into consideration in order to ensure the quality of teaching in a new environment, which is leading universities to change their mindset and approach, and affecting institutions, faculty and students alike.

The conference highlighted the fact that quality is not an end in itself but an ongoing process, and that the challenge of doing things well should be permanent and one of constant improvements. This requires constantly updating working methods. In opening the forum, UOC President Josep A. Planell reminded everyone that the institution "is wholly committed to improving the quality of e-learning" and that "for a university that seeks prestige, the concept of quality is fundamental". This aspect is essential in the case of e-learning as it is usually much more in the spotlight than traditional teaching, even though the risks that are run in both spheres are the same.

The forum and series of workshops looked at the elements that could help ensure high quality e-learning, taking into account that supply at present is geared towards a diverse and global audience. Notable among these elements are the availability of resources, the fact that lecturers develop the right strategies – which are different from those of traditional teaching – and, likewise, that students be at the centre and play an active part in the process, ensuring interaction with faculty and among the students themselves.

Sir John Daniel, president of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) between 2004 and 2012 and currently working on a number of international projects in the field, also attended the forum. In his speech, he stated that the growth of e-learning brought with it a series of challenges with regard to quality and, thus, he commented on the figures of a study of the US where it is expected that by 2014 around 80% of students will be enrolled on online courses, which would represent a 44% increase compared with 2009. This trend, which will probably be seen in the future in European countries, calls for the urgent need to debate the quality criteria of higher education as "the traditional response is inadequate".

Short-course education

Daniel also underlined that in the present context of changes in higher education, students should be "freed from the degree course" as the employment market currently needs workers with specific knowledge and skills that can be acquired on shorter courses, and he stressed that in the last ten years "the tools have been expanded so that students can design their own curriculum". He sees providing students with the skills that will allow them to gain access to the employment market as vital.

This new context also requires a response to the challenge of the recognition of e-learning. This aspect was covered in the paper presented at the forum by Guy Haug. With extensive experience in the field at international organizations such as the OECD, the Council of Europe and UNESCO, Haug highlighted the challenges for e-learning with regard to "ensuring an adequate acceptability of quality, internationalization and challenges in the revolution of teaching and students". Consequently, Haug called for "innovation" and research in this field, because, in reference to the criteria for determining the quality of e-learning today, "I don't believe that what we have now is sufficient".

António Teixeira, lecturer at the Open University of Portugal, also spoke about this in the conference's final session. Teixeira warned that "not everything that's new is a revolution in teaching, even though it may seem so" and he added that the debate on the quality of higher education "is not new" as much of what is questioned is part "of an old debate". Referring to the phenomenon of MOOCs, Teixeira commented that at present the US "dominates supply", even though, in terms of the students enrolling on them, a large number are from Europe.

He said that what the US is offering are MOOCs as a system of distribution and that the opportunity for Europe, in this case, is in providing quality teaching models. The expert also stated that the new scenario entails not only an organizational transformation in institutions but also a cultural change. He also defended the figure of the lecturer as an element that guarantees regulation in the learning process.

The forum ended with the presentation of the conclusions, which propose contributing to the European debate on quality of e-learning with key stakeholders and facilitating dialogue between institutions and agencies. They also called for the demystification of MOOCs and for the challenges of open education to be translated into challenges for the quality of institutions on a national and European level, and finally, for the provision of better frames of reference for the recognition of open education. The next EFQUEL forum will be held in Crete from 7 to 9 May 2014 under the title Changing the Trajectory-Quality for Opening up Education.

Related links