Quality issues around off-campus delivery learning – getting the foundations in place…

Off-campus delivery has had something of an identity crisis.  So many names have been used to describe distance learning; collaborative, distributed, flexible, blended, E for electronic, TE for technology enhanced, web-based, open, the list goes on…

The QAA have updated their Code of Practice (CoP) Section 2 (October 2010). If you didn’t know it, this is ‘Collaborative provision and flexible and distributed learning (including elearning)’ and addresses distance education. The document has not been blessed with the catchiest or most intuitive of titles and the QAA have further named it an ‘amplification’; the first time I’ve seen the word used to describe an update or revision. You wouldn’t think of the QAA as a trend setting organisation but there again, nothing can be relied upon these days. 

Part B of the CoP Section 2 addresses flexible and distributed learning; not part of the amplification process. To see the latest thinking in this area you need to look at the Commentary and Critique produced by the (deep breath) Quality Assurance and Quality Enhancement in e-learning Special Interest Group (June 2010). Appendix 5 provides the outcomes of the consultation survey carried out on members of the QAQE SIG, including suggestions for change.

At last, it gets interesting. Opinion is divided between those who see the use of technology for education as pervasive, with no need to disconnect the e from the learning either on or off campus, and those who want to separate out the message from the medium and treat them independently. 

I’m not sure mergence is the answer. There are too many different issues involved. These are less around the learning technologies and more around the different nature of the learning experiences. Creating stimulating interaction with content, collaborative group work and formative and summative assessment opportunities are all very much dependent on their context. Then there’s transition support, induction, support mechanisms and the processes of evaluation.  Add core issues around critical thinking and reflective practice, numeracy, literacy and competence with a range of digital environments, and you have an eclectic mix of requirements. Higher education is a complex art. What works well on campus is no guarantee for effective off campus delivery and vice versa.

The pre-amplified version of CoP Section 2 is from 2004. As we face the start of 2011/12 there is a real need for sector guidance which focuses on the quality issues around online delivery. For too long staff have been ‘left to get on with it’ when it comes to virtual learning environments often without the appropriate resourcing and support. This is a call for revisiting the issues around the validation of distance courses and in doing so addressing the need for quality assurance and ensuring the appropriate digital literacies are embedded into both the student and the staff experience.

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