Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2003     ISSN 1096-1453     Volume 7, Issue 1


Quality Online Education - new research agendas

Ian C. Reid, University of South Australia

Ian Reid is Senior Lecturer and Coordinator: Online Services in the Flexible Learning Centre at the University of South Australia. His research interests include the delivery of education in online learning environments, quality assurance and institutional strategy. More information can be found from his home page at


Quality assurance and online delivery are hot topics in universities, yet until recently discussions of each have had little to do with each other. These spheres of activity in universities may not have interacted very closely in the past. This paper describes current debates within quality assurance and online delivery policies within universities and proposes four themes as ways to consider these debates and their relationships with each other. Arising from this discussion are possible research agendas that are likely to increase in importance as universities' use and reliance upon online technologies increases and as the stakes for ensuring quality are raised.

Keyword: web


Universities are investing huge resources in online education. They see these investments as strategic responses to the competitive environment in which they find themselves. Arising from these institutional strategies are a number of questions that are at present unanswered in any complete sense, ranging from definitions of quality in online education to the ways of identifying and valuing quality in institutional policy.

The use of online technologies in higher education is a relatively recent, yet a rapidly growing and ubiquitous phenomenon. Despite the importance of online technologies to universities, the rationales and justifications for their use are largely either unstated or taken-for-granted by university managers (Ehrmann, 1999). David A Longanecker, former Assistant Secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, also indicates uncertainty and draws the link between notions of quality and the impact of delivery technology: educational delivery models are "leading us to a very different concept of quality assurance than we've traditionally had - but I'm not sure what that is" (Pond 2002, p.186)

This uncertainty brought about by the use of online technologies and their concomitant impact on concepts of quality in universities indicates that there is a need to investigate the forces that bring about these substantial changes in university teaching and learning.

In recent times universities have been increasingly called upon to have demonstrable accountability measures in the form of quality assurance systems and processes. While accountability is not a new phenomenon for universities (Bergquist & Armstrong, 1986; Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1970; Goedegebuure, Maassen, & Westerheijden, 1990; Sheldrake & Linke, 1979), it is taking on new meanings in the current climate of the so-called 'information age' where universities are expanding their teaching environments into the online realm. This paper considers current literature in the areas of quality and online education policy, focusing on online education in universities, and synthesises a number of themes for future research.

Quality online education

This paper considers two discourses, which until recently have had little to do with each other. The first is the discourse of online delivery in universities, which I will call the online discourse. This involves the changes in universities brought about by the use of online technologies in teaching and learning. The second discourse is that of quality in university education, which I will call the quality discourse. This second discourse involves policies and processes for quality assurance in teaching and learning. These two discourses will now be briefly delineated and related to each other.

The online discourse

Attempts to harness online technologies for educational aims have tended to focus on so-called 'instructional design' (Leshin, Pollock, & Reigeluth, 1992) whereby various instructional techniques are proposed to fit the 'learning styles' (Kirby, 1979) of students. These approaches have focussed on project-based innovations, but have not borne significant educational fruits (Alexander & McKenzie, 1998). As Lazerson, Wagener & Shumanis (2000) point out:

...for all the pedagogical innovations--even the advent of the Web--there has been precious little deeper reform. (p.13).

Another way in which the online capabilities have been harnessed is in the discourse of 'flexible delivery' (Nunan, 2000) which involves the use of technologies to provide learners with a range of flexibilities in terms of time, place and pace of learning. Associated with this are terms such as 'flexible learning' (Jakupec & Garrick, 2000), 'student-centred learning' (Sandholtz, 1997) and 'distributed education' (Lea & Nicoll, 2001).

This discourse is an archetypal modernist argument. It places the technology at the centre of both educational development and institutional strategy for change. While the use of online technologies in teaching are sometimes described by teaching staff as a 'solution looking for a problem', there is an inexorable pressure to use them. This pressure does not come only from university management. It also comes from young information technology-literate students, from commercial interests aiming to sell products, and from the modern milieu of promoting technological 'toys' as a symbol of success and progress. It is a discourse that focuses on possibilities, solutions and improvements. It talks of new methods and improved efficiencies for new outcomes. While university budgets strain to meet the demands of these technologies, there is not a great deal of reflection on the wisdom of the general direction.

The quality discourse

While quality is a notion that has accompanied university education for a considerable time, focus on it has recently accelerated, particularly in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. In recent years the quality discourse has moved from one promoting and encouraging quality, though grants to universities for innovations and investigations, to one of assuring quality through institutional 'benchmarking' and audits by external bodies. Most recently, a number of countries have established national agencies such as the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the UK (QAA), the Australian University Quality Agency (AUQA) and the New Zealand Universities Academic Audit Unit (AAU). An international umbrella organisation for these agencies, the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, has also been established. Through the work of these agencies, universities shape their activities and report upon them in order to demonstrate that they have quality assurance processes.

This quality discourse is one of containment and minimising risk. It aims to provide guarantees, not necessarily of quality per se, but of the carrying out of the atomised processes by which particular products are claimed to be produced. Thus it creates languages and activities that prescribe and proscribe, simultaneously maintaining the supposed independence of the institution under its gaze: the university.

Bringing the discourses together

While the online discourse aims to create new possibilities and outcomes, the quality discourse aims to place controls and limits on those possibilities and outcomes. This conflict has coexisted for three significant reasons. First, staff involved in fostering quality assurance and online delivery have usually been in different organisational parts of a university's structure. Second, while the online discourses operate principally at the institutional level, the quality discourse operates mostly at the national level. Third, each discourse is a recent development. Take, for example, the Australian situation. On the online side, the Australian Federal Government has reported on the extent of the use of online technologies in university teaching only recently (Bell, Bush, Nicholson, O'Brien, & Tran, 2002). On the quality side, AUQA will operate for the first time in 2002. The role of online delivery in universities is particularly emphasized in the initial documents produced by AUQA (Woodhouse, 2001), giving the agency the mandate to begin to consider how best to assure quality in this new arena of university activity and driving together, for the first time, these two discourses.

New research agendas are likely to emerge as these discourses increasingly impact each other for the first time.

Emerging themes

A number of themes, which connect these discourses, can be discovered within them. Four related themes are discussed in terms of the quality and online discourses.

Universities as businesses The corporatisation of universities, where they operate as independent businesses for profit rather than as public institutions (Ruch, 2001), encourages the use of techniques such as TQM (Aly & Akpovi, 2001; Lawrence & McCollough, 2001; Sheer & Teeter, 1991) and other measures such as customer satisfaction to consider issues of quality (Bensimon, 1995). This creates a tension between traditional collegial definitions of quality which employ the discourses of peer review and self-moderation (Taylor, 2001; Taylor & Richardson, 2001), and more managerial methods focusing on process and outcomes (Karmel, 2001).

These managerial approaches to quality rely on public goal setting (Patterson, 2001) and transparent audit procedures, described by Shore & Wright (2000) as a 'coercive accountability'. Strathern (2000, p.318) claims that transparency and auditing activity can have negative impacts since it overlooks the 'real' productivity of an organisation, and because it is unable to account for the 'real-time nature of social phenomena'.

Universities are doing more than merely functioning in a business-like manner. They are going further than measuring their bottom-lines and demonstrating their benefits to customers. They are adopting the business paradigm to create new purposes - to grow and create a new entity, the Enterprise University, where:

... the overriding objective is not knowledge, community service, national development or money and market share, but the prestige and competitiveness of the university as an end in itself. (Marginson, 2002, p. 113, emphasis in original)

Universities as entrepreneurs  As universities are called upon to compete for such prestige, the notions of quality that are invoked are normative and drive universities to seek new markets, and at the same time to increase income and to reduce costs (Marginson & Considine, 1999). Online teaching methods provide a powerful method by which these objectives may be met, although most university managers would accept that cost savings are illusory. In this environment, universities need to be able demonstrate that their product is value for money. Quality assurance of their product is seen by many as a key to universities' market advantage. A key signifier of quality in this educational market is the 'brand' of university education. Governments see a need to be able to place some form of control and 'quality seal' on university education. They see their national 'brand' - the reputation of their nation's education in the international marketplace - as a national asset that needs protection.

In the words of the recent Australian Minister of Education (Kemp, 1999)

Australia is part of a global community delivering higher education and the increased emphasis on quality assurance is a global phenomenon. We must have a national quality assurance framework that is internationally credible.

Quality assurance here is all about demonstrating to the international market that a nation's Higher Education is a good buy. There is a clear tension between online technologies being on the one hand a key tool for leverage in a global market while on the other hand increasing the risk of poor quality and thus undermining the national brand of higher education.

The commodification of knowledge In order to measure the success and profitability of university teaching, it is necessary to commodify the teaching interchange to allow financial modelling and control as a measure of quality. An inherent assumption in these processes is that the teaching process can be atomised and sequentially studied through a quality assurance process. This commodification is ideally suited to online delivery where content can be packaged and re-purposed, providing courseware modules for capitalisation. This is done through the establishment of a market for online content in the establishment of 'Learning Objects' either through for-fee repositories such as online publishing companies or through 'open source' stores such as the MIT Open Knowledge Initiative.

These new forms of knowledge production are a key component of the 'knowledge economy' - a new concept for education (Peters, 2001).

Globalisation As education is seen as a export earner in many developed nations, quality measures must be credible and demonstrable internationally to provide confidence in a nation's education in the global market. Thus quality is defined globally rather than at the national or institutional level and the task of quality assurance is to demonstrate that quality measures are congruent with those conceptions in a homogenous, global sense. Universities have responded by creating online international alliances, such as Universitas21 and the Global University Alliance, which aim to establish a new multinational institution to play on the global stage and thus transcend national boundaries. This new type of institution can only be produced by the use of online delivery to achieve global reach and to unite disparate institutions into a federated whole through 'virtualisation' where disparate organisations are 'joined up' (Wilkins, 2002) to create a new virtual organisation. These new global entities transcend inter-national competition by creating global educational institutions.

These alliances can be seen as responses to the globalised nature of education. The capability of online technologies to empower access to global markets (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997) and at the same time to open universities to global competition forces them into a global market - placing the university as both a producer and a consumer in the knowledge economy. It is the very borderless nature of online education (Australia. Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, 2001) that introduces the impacts of globalisation (Peters & Roberts, 2000; Porter & Vidovich, 2000; Taylor & Hyde, 2000) and thus introduces new complexities and problems for definitions of educational quality.

Future research possibilities

As the online discourse and the quality discourse develop and interact with each other, researchers within each arena are likely to benefit from contact with each other and their research activity is likely to overlap. Likely future research agendas that could emerge include studies of the development of policies for quality online education at the institutional, national or global level, the development of technological tools to embed quality considerations into online educational environments, and modifications to the process and product of quality assurance in universities brought about by online technologies. It is likely to be a fertile field.


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