Quality Digital Education in 2022: Intentional Design Matters

Dr. Deb Adair, QM Executive Director

people holding gears together
“Online education needs to be mission-aligned as well as integrated in quality assurance — not as a separate activity but across courses, programs and pathways, and institutional goals for student learning.”

In my early days with Quality Matters (QM), starting in 2007, I would meet with institutional leaders who would describe their previous and current online learning initiatives as “the Wild West.” There was a lot of experimentation from early adopters but not much guidance or real understanding about quality in online education or how to consistently achieve it. This was the reason they joined QM — to adopt a pathway and structure to improve quality. 

Fast forward to today. There is a lot going on in the education field — change is happening around how education is being delivered and who is doing it. And more and more of it is happening online through experimentation with multiple delivery modalities. As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” It’s starting to feel wild out there again, yet ensuring a quality learning experience is more important than ever.

Over the last several years, we have been thinking about where and how QM can most meaningfully address quality in support of the mostly positive changes we are seeing:

  • Publisher texts increasingly replaced with open education resources
  • Corporations developing, offering and/or credentialing skills-based learning
  • Unbundling of degrees and other learning pathways into smaller, discreet, and terminal or stackable micro-credentials
  • Booming online learning platforms that offer learning opportunities from a variety of providers
  • Increasing participation in academic course-sharing consortia
  • Increasing momentum of competency-based vs. credit-based frameworks
  • Experimentations in delivery modality, including blending online with in-person — flipped, blended, HyFlex — and synchronous with asynchronous
  • Increasing reckoning of the impact of the digital divide and other structural barriers that serve to be exclusionary rather than purposively inclusive of all students

These trends raise a number of quality challenges, involving a variety of actors and many places where interventions focused on quality could make a difference. As we explore these trends, we see that the way quality is defined, improved, and assured (or not) varies according to who is responsible for it. The point at which these innovations connect to, or are part of, an academic degree, however, is where the primary responsibility for quality rests with the academic institution. That is why last summer we convened the Quality Matters Presidents Summit on Leading Quality — to engage in a robust conversation on a set of topics addressing the quality of student learning and how to improve it, which is QM’s mission. These senior leaders considered questions such as:

  • How to define and drive quality with system initiatives in ways that respect local contexts but exploit system efficiencies and effectiveness?
  • How to move beyond traditional learning models and drive quality to meet evolving expectations?
  • How to use quality assurance processes to improve the design and implementation of technology and human infrastructure on a continuous basis and at scale?

The broad answer to all of these is to design with intentionality, including the process to assure quality.

Regardless of the education model, technology, delivery modality, and supporting structures, the process for assuring quality is fundamentally the same. QM’s Continuum of Excellence in Quality Assurance (CEQA) model lays out the core elements of this process:

  1. Identifying appropriate standards (or metrics or goals)
  2. Creating a structured process to review against the standards
  3. Identifying gaps or deficiencies and rectifying them in a continuous improvement cycle
  4. Benchmarking the progress against institutional goals and relevant external references
  5. Institutionalizing the process through policies, practices, and resources that embed the process within the institutional culture

Creating this culture of quality is what is needed to ensure the sustainability and flexibility required for continued innovation in teaching and learning. As we look forward to 2022 and beyond, QM’s focus needs to be on customizing quality assurance processes to support the intentional design of learning experiences and we need to partner with academic institutions in this effort. 

Quality in course design is necessary, but not sufficient

As an innovation, online education is impacted by the same basic factors as in-person education, though the traditional learning environment has not been specifically designed for the online student. Those of you familiar with QM are also likely to be familiar with the QM “Quality Pie” — the factors affecting the student learning experience in the online classroom. These factors, which need to be intentionally designed for online learners, include course design, course delivery (teaching), course content, learning technologies, institutional infrastructure, faculty preparation and support, and student preparation and support. QM tools were originally developed to specifically address the course design factor because it was deemed both critical to online learner success and because, at the time, most online courses were being developed by faculty who understandably lacked course design expertise.  It was the place where a quality intervention was most likely to have an impact. As expertise in course design became more broadly available in the field, QM began creating tools and services to address other factors.

Now it’s time to look more holistically at how quality factors need to be aligned, integrated, and customized across the institution — including but not limited to a course-level focus — to intentionally design the student learning experience to address current and emerging needs. Online education needs to be mission-aligned as well as integrated in quality assurance — not as a separate activity but across courses, programs and pathways, and institutional goals for student learning. Regardless of the way an education is delivered, stakeholders expect and deserve quality. This point was underscored during our Summit by Dr. Heather F. Perfetti, President, Middle States Commission on Higher Education: “You now see the phrase ‘regardless of modality’ throughout our standards, and institutions are leveraging their work with QM as one mechanism to show the tie back to meeting accreditation standards.”

Quality processes in valuing learning acquired elsewhere

In the education landscape today, there are many more non-academic actors providing educational opportunities. Some of these, such as online platform providers, are including courses and certificate programs from academic institutions in their curated portfolios. Others are providing learning experiences and issuing credentials that are recognized by academic institutions in degree pathways. In both of these situations, just as the case in traditional K-12 or college learning, the academic institution bears the primary responsibility for quality of the educational experience. 

Another quality challenge comes with the need to recognize, and accredit, the learning that students bring with them — the learning that happens outside of the classroom and/or outside of the institution. The conversations during the Summit made clear that this is an increasingly important role for educators. Dr. Vernon C. Smith, Provost of American Public University System, highlighted the importance of “respect and belonging and inclusion...for a diversity of experiences and lives.” It was clear from the Summit that this “new normal” will be critical for educators and requires practices and policies that maintain quality as we broaden inclusivity. As Dr. Aminta Breaux, President, Bowie State University emphasized, “It is up to us to figure out the solutions and share best practices. Don’t assume every one of us going through this new normal has everything figured out. We have never done this before.”

Connecting and curating the student learning experience

Improving the quality of the online student experience and student outcomes requires a broader focus and a reconceptualization of the role of academic education. At a minimum, both K-12 and higher education institutions need to actively curate a learning experience intentionally designed for students learning online and those with prior, recognized learning from other contexts. As one example provided during the Summit, Western Governors University (with over 130,000 online students) leveraged design thinking to reimagine their programs as not simply a collection of classes, but as Dr. Mark Milliron, Senior Vice President and Executive Dean of the Teachers College, suggested, “a family of experiences from your first through final experiences with that student.” The complexity and richness of this approach challenges the structures and policies we have traditionally used and requires a different way of understanding, and evaluating, quality. 

Ensuring quality in intentionally-designed student learning experiences

Today’s “Wild West” landscape for digital education requires us to take a more holistic and inclusive approach to ensuring quality. Valuing, curating, connecting, and contextualizing student learning experiences, irrespective of source or modality, is a key part of the intentional design challenge and one that should be informed by appropriate quality assurance processes. As we learned from the Summit, the problems to be solved now — at least the ones solvable by education — are primarily structural and cultural. They are not technological. Once we have clarity on how we change our institutions to drive and support quality, we can find technologies to accomplish it. The quality assurance practices of our academic institutions will be pivotal in this effort. In 2022 and beyond, QM will contribute just as in the early days of the online learning “Wild West” — collaborating with institutions to adopt and adapt pathways and structures to improve quality.

Dr. Deborah Adair is the Executive Director and CEO for Quality Matters. Dr. Adair has more than 30 years of experience in higher education, teaching and administration, and non-profit leadership and management consulting. She currently serves as President of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) and has served on advisory bodies for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, the National University Technology Network, the Presidents' Forum, and Credential Engine. She has authored and interviewed broadly as an expert in quality assurance for online learning.