More stuff about quality

This picture shows the damage done to the road when the Water of the Leith got out of control in the May 2006 floods. I took this on a sunday walk with the dogs. This illustrates for me that "Quality is about preventing damage in education,not about fencing it off afterwards."

This week and last we had two visiting speakers which focussed me in on quality again. John Milne from Massey university ran a workshop on eLearning Guidelines (an eLearning Collaborative development funded project). All NZ tertiary educators are invited to contribute to the guidelines and develop their own for practical use in their institutions through a wiki accessible from the eLearn website.

In response to a scenario we developed with a student who joined the workshop, we developed a couple of new and very important guidelines, and found several existing ones which were relevant.

The scenario was:
An off-campus multimedia student is using blended methods (mainly eLearning)in a course. The student has a dial-up connection at home and has difficulty getting on-campus access to the computers and software. Not all computers have the necessary tools/software. The student also doesn't have them at home and no access from home. The students are given training in using some software in the first week, then no further training and little support from the lecturer. There is no after hours support.

Some people in the workshop found the session a bit wishy washy, but it was a collaborative and consultative exercise which doesn't suit everyone. Some people just want to be told. Guidelines are guidelines not standards and as such need ongoing discussion be dynamic and continually evolving.

The other speaker was Professor Fred Lockwood, a very experienced academic in the field of open and distacne learning. I went to hear his talk at the university about quality and distance education. I recorded part of the talk and had his permission to use it, though he did seem bemused that anyone would want to listen to it.

In his talk he made several interesting points in the way of questions about what we do in distance/flexible learning. Reading between the lines and through his humour it was clear to me that he thought the university was deficient in many areas - he had just conducted a review of their distance programmes and was helping them with a distance learning strategy.

The points which I identified with were:
1. Learner needs and how important it was to pay attention to them.
2. The need to conduct developmental testing with realstudents and reward them with free fees for such courses, with new flexibly offered courses. Even something as a textbook recommended by a lecturer can be unsuitable in the opinion of the students. This is rarely done at OP.
3. Too much information was a common problem so that students who were expecting to study for 5 hrs a week ended up getting increasingly more stuff to read and hand in until they could end up studying well over the 5 hrs per week. In Fred's words, "good value for money getting 35 hrs a week of study..."

I brought Fred back to OP to speak with a small group (in the Council room with tea) including some managers and people from EDC and other parts of OP which was good. We had an informal discussion and some good points came out e.g. open courseware. Looking out for the learners - part-time, lifelong learners etc. It was a useful session but I wish I'd asked him to chat about developmental testing so the managers could have got the message.

Fred has also asked me to contact him about putting together a book proposal for something from NZ and across countries too for the Open and Flexible Learning series. Not sure whn I'll have time to do anything, but it would be good to coordinate something and collaborate to write a chapter.

Quality is very important in not only attracting students but also in helping with retention. Quality starts before students enrol (18% lost before they "register") and should continue all the way through with the resources offered, access, teacher support/facilitation and should meet learners' needs.

Unfortunately in the model we appear to be adopting, online and product is being pushed which is shoving us along the inflexible rather than the flexible path. If we were truly to meet learner needs, we would adopt a truly flexible model where learners negotiate their content and their assessments and the way they learn. We are trying this to some extent with the Design course.