Quantity vs. Quality in Open and Distance Learning

ICDE Conference Overview and Welcome

Welcome to Tianjin, China! I’m attending the International Council for Open and Distance Education World Conference; with over 1000 participants from around the world, including Canada, Pakistan, Iran, Australia, Indonesia, and many more countries.

The conference began with an opening ceremony – with speeches from dignitaries from several organizations. The theme that emerged from their speeches was that open and distance learning allows for providing and promoting education for all. A truly international experience, with translation headphones at each seat so that we can hear in our own languages.

I’ll be blogging my notes and reflections throughout the conference, to document my learning and to share with you.

Interesting ICDE facts: the first ICDE conference was hosted in Vancouver Canada 75 years ago; UNESCO has partnered with ICDE for 75 years as well. This year is also the 25th World Conference (ICDE hosts several regional conferences as well).

The Quality vs. Quantity Conundrum: Does Technology Help?

The opening keynote is by Professor Asha Kanwar, President and CEO of Commonwealth of Learning. She is sharing on The Quality vs. Quantity Conundrum: Does Technology Help? Below are my notes on her presentation.

Context of Higher Education Online

She began with the context of higher ed – that demand is exploding and emphasis on quality is growing. 150.6 million tertiary students globally expected to rise to 263 million in 2035. To do that we’d need to build 4 new universities serving 30,000 every week between now and 2035. The rising demand for higher education means that there are new providers – including cross-border, online, and for-profit. In 1988 there were 10 open universities in the Commonwealth countries; now there are 28 open universities. The next wave of open universities will happen in Africa. Asia has over 70 open universities, 13 of which are mega-universities. In 2010 30+% of students were taking online courses (Going the Distance Report). The highest growth globally is in Asia with 17.3% growth rates. (Ambient Insight). There is a surge in international mobile students – top three destinations are the U.S., U.K., and Australia. Top three countries sending students abroad are China, India and South Korea. The costs of higher education have risen dramatically above inflation; this problem isn’t just American. In the U.S. there is a trend towards greater accountability; a greater focus on quality is on the horizon. World Declaration on Higher Education 1998 included a focus on the quality of teaching; but the 2009 document has many comments on quality assurance and cultures of quality. 117 countries had quality assurance systems in the 2010s; 65 countries in the 1990s. Quality assurance systems have been strongly influenced by traditional higher education. We need quality assurance that considers new methods of distance learning. She suggests that student mobility across borders will strengthen the quality assurance movement. There is a growing prominence of rankings as well. Trends in the quest for quality include more accountability and regulation, more regionalization and internationalization, more focus on outcomes, more focus on quality assurance.

Developments on Quality Assurance

Next she shared developments on quality assurance in the Commonwealth countries.

  • In the 1960s and 70s the focus was on standards: quality of study materials, usability, the interactivity
  • In the 1990s, the discussion was on how quality assurance might be adapted for developing countries
  • In the 2000s, there was a convergence of external and internal quality assurance methods

An example from a resource-poor area is at Kyambogo University, Uganda, distance education is supplemented with weekend face to face sessions. If a student doesn’t show up for two consecutive weeks, the instructor gets on her bicycle and travels to the students’ home to find out what is the problem.

Quality assurance in distance education is booming; but doubt about quality is growing.

Problems with ODL include a call for no government employment for ODL graduates; which is a paradox in the countries where ODL was set up by the government. “When will the ugly duckling of ODL become a swan?”


Any resources developed with public funds should be shared freely. Issues with OER include: who is responsible for the quality of repurposed content? What is the role of QA agencies? What about the integrity of the institutions content?

Issues specific to OER includes: accessibility, localization, technological barriers, discoverability, interoperability.

MOOCs – this developed partly out the OER movement; the first MOOC developed at the University of Manitoba in 2008 (contrary to popular press reporting). Stanford’s free course in artificial intelligence in 2011: 15% pass rate. 72% of the professors teaching the MOOCs said that they didn’t think the students should gain credit from their home institution.

Issues: can one size fit all? Student verification and academic integrity? Is a peer reviewed assessment acceptable?

What are the implications for quality assurance? Will QA need to provide more facilitation than regulation? Will it need to shift focus from higher education to lifelong learning?

MOOCs have the potential to help us with quantity; OER has the potential to help us with quality.

Leave HE after 1 year (UK) (full time: 7.4%; part time: 35.1%; 44.7% open university).

Technological Possibilities

Learning analytics can help us learn what is happening. Predictive systems can provide an early warning systems to predict an upcoming drop out. Recommender systems can be built to notice where many students struggle in the content and provide additional resources and learning experiences.

The distance learning tends to be a lonely figure; online social networks can provide peer and tutor interactions to supplement OER. Learners have initiated study forums – Facebook forums for students to share independently of the learning.

How can the learner be involved in the quality? Norway study shows that institutional leadership and academic staff felt QA was helpful; but students “don’t know”. (Stensaker et al 2011)

Students are more concerned about the nature of new knowledge, the ROI of time, money and energy, and the value of credits gained.

How can we involve learners in providing feedback for quality? i.e. Amazon.com user ratings; social media such as tripadvisor. These tools could help us evaluate the quality of ODL.

Technology itself won’t help us. But technology + ideology may help with a paradigm shift. The ideology important is where a learner in a partner in the learning; the teacher is a facilitator. Institutions need to be more relevant to the needs of the 21st century and include the culture of caring as well as a culture for quality.

Reflection: A broad perspective on the issues of quality – different angles and considerations of quality – my take-away is the student/learner perspective. How do we find out what students are thinking and make appropriate adjustments in a timely manner?

2 replies on “Quantity vs. Quality in Open and Distance Learning”

  1. The evaluation and continuous improvement of the quality of teaching and learning in higher education is an issue of sustained concern. While most universities are implementing systems of quality assurance, there is substantial variation in the principles underlying these systems. La Trobe University has developed and implemented a university-wide system of quality assurance that ensures that each subject is systematically reviewed and enhanced by those teaching in the subject. While it incorporates compulsory student evaluation of teaching of each subject the result of this student evaluation is not the focus of the quality assurance system. The focus is on ensuring that those teaching the subject, reflect on and make recommendations for further improvement of the subject. Outlines the quality assurance system, the principles on which it is based and describes and analyses the processes engaged in during its development.

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