Saying that something has quality includes the assumption that it is fit for purpose. The quality of a course of study should thus mean that the studies/training are suitable for initiating and completing a process of learning. Achieving quality in educational programmes is a demanding task, since this depends on the teacher, the learning resources and not least the learner’s own efforts. Norwegian institutions working with flexible and web-based training programmes have put considerable effort into quality in recent years.
In ancient Greece, the teachers gathered their students around them, preferably outdoors, and used dialogue as a key pedagogical approach. Later, teaching moved into the classroom, with the teacher behind a desk, and there it stayed for centuries. Today, classroom teaching is challenged by communication technology combined with innovation. This technology provides space for flexibility and individual adaptation.
The pedagogy – technology linkage
In face-to-face teaching we have the following line of communication: message – medium – interpretation. In web-based teaching the linkage is longer, for example: message – device – application 1 – application 2 – device – interpretation. This schematic outline shows that the communication pathway is longer, and that a firm linkage between pedagogy and technology is required to ensure high quality in web-based teaching programmes.
The national organisation Flexible Education Norway (FuN) has developed separate norms for quality assurance of web-based training programmes. These norms refer to, for example, quality management and quality development at the institutional level, issues pertaining to development of study programmes, and implementation of these studies, including tuition and assessment. To make these norms tangible and transform them into action, FuN is currently in the process of developing a quality manual for designers and teachers of web-based studies.
Planning of new training courses and study programmes starts with a defined learning outcome. What should the students learn? A simple example of a learning outcome from a course in Spanish could be “knowledge of the Spanish language” and “the ability to speak colloquial Spanish as a tourist”. The learning outcome can be specified even further. The learning outcome is the justification of a training course, and at the same time also the starting point when new training courses are to be developed. A general learning outcome at various levels in terms of knowledge, skills and competence is incorporated in the European qualification framework as well as in national frameworks.
Once the learning outcome has been described, learning activities must be selected that are attuned to the learning outcome defined. John B. Biggs has developed a model called “constructive alignment”. It is based on a constructivist notion of learning, and embodies a design for tuition based on learning outcomes. The model can also be used to develop relevant learning activities. Before the learning activities are planned, it will be useful to clarify who will learn, what they will learn, how a positive learning environment can be established, and what criteria will govern the choice of digital tools. A learning activity for the course in Spanish referred to above could, for example, be to present the students with one half of a dialogue and let them fill in the lines of the other person. This dialogue can be presented as a cartoon or as an audio file. The student can hand in his or her part of the dialogue as an audio file or as response bubbles in the cartoon.
The choice of learning activities implies a choice of technology and tools. The user interface will invariably be important. Explanations must be brief and unambiguous. Another challenge for the course developer stems from the different platforms that are in use. How can the presentation be made to function equally well on a PC, a tablet computer or a smartphone?
Forms of assessment
Forms of assessment are another key question when developing training courses. Continuous assessment is intended to encourage the learning process, and the final assessment shall result in a grade. In web-based training courses it is relevant to arrange digital examinations, the implementation of which involves a number of requirements that are different from those applied to invigilated examinations.
The quality supervisor will address all these issues and present recommendations, with grounds for each. This will be a useful tool for all those who work with web-based training courses.
We invite questions and challenges associated with the development of web-based studies, as well as proposals for topics that should be included in the quality manual.
Torhild Slåtto is the Director of the Norwegian Association for providers of Flexible Education Norway .