Throughout my career, the debate over academic quality has been filled with ambiguity and intensity. On the traditional side, the focus was on “input” metrics such as faculty, campus facilities, libraries, and students with high SAT scores. On the non-traditional side, over the years we have focused on a variety of ‘outcome’ measures ranging from skills to learning outcomes to evidence-based assessments.
Looking at the disruption of the traditional model of higher education through the lenses of Clayton Christensen, we can clearly see that the traditional version of “input-based” quality on campus is under serious threat. The information-rich society that surrounds the campus has robbed him of his exclusive position. Today, these same disruptive forces have been accelerated by the COVID crisis and the recognition of systemic inequality in higher education based on race and income. And this, in turn, has brought the question of the definition of quality to the forefront of discussions on education and training.
The “input-based” definition of quality is culturally linked to the Western European arts and sciences canon mentioned in a previous article. It has also been physically linked to the campus where specialized quality indicators – faculties, laboratories, etc. – were located by necessity. Any departure from cultural and physical input-based definitions of quality was immediately suspect and viewed by mainstream educators as inferior quality.
I have always believed in outcomes because when you assess learning, whether experiential or not, you are working with evidence. And I’ve been involved in these types of assessments, seeing them work time and time again for over five decades. But with COVID came my need to understand more deeply the very definition of quality and how to explain quality in a way that was not inherently biased towards the traditional input model.
Fortunately, as COVID has deepened our need to succeed with people we have historically failed with, disruption has also brought tools that help us do so. Conversations with two of my colleagues at the University of Maryland Global Campus, Chris Davis and Amin Qazi, gave me additional perspective on how to understand quality in learning – a framework for my experience. , If you want.
With hindsight, a generic definition of quality might look like this: “Does the product or service in question meet the expectations and needs of the customer? In this context, quality has a personal dimension. Christensen argued that each service was trying to “do a job” for the customer. And post-secondary education, taken broadly, is a wide variety of related programs and offerings that do various tasks for learners. Thus, the question for each institution is “What job do we do?” And for whom?”
This approach allows us to detach quality from inputs while dissociating the notion that there is only one definition of quality.
- If the educational work you do is primarily employment and career oriented, then success (and quality) would include all required certificates and diplomas and passing tests, all leading to employment and a salary commensurate with the promise.
- Or if the work of the program was to support a rite of passage and self-discovery through learning, then success (and quality) may well be found in the number of graduates.
- Or if the goal was a career in higher education and/or related fields, the number of graduates who went on to and successfully completed masters, doctoral and other postgraduate programs might be the right measure .
The claim is that quality is anchored to organizational purpose. And it dramatically revamps the quality conversation. In the next article, I will delve deeper into the concept of purpose and how, beyond raw indicators, such as those mentioned above, a “fair” institution would determine that it was achieving these goals through its practices with most if not all of its students. Let me know what you think.