Rethinking Quality

Posted by Tony Adam on Nov 23, 2020 3:25:09 PM

As academic departments work to create rubrics and other measurement tools, defining “quality” at the student performance level is especially elusive. Software can emulate these tools and faculty can enter results, but in a virtual environment are faculty meeting to discuss and assess the aggregate data? Or are they simply letting software compile a final score and trusting that overall students are successful or not successful?

How can colleges be assured that assessment reaches true marks of locally-defined “quality” when the instructors cannot fully guarantee that the student registered for the class is actually the student completing the assignments, as it would be impossible to proctor every quiz, research paper, and multiple choice exam in a virtual environment. Beyond assessment, how, again in a virtual environment, can the college assure that an objective of the annual strategic plan is met not only at a quantifiable level (we hit our target) but at a qualifiable level (the data is meaningful compared to our mission)? As Schindler, et al. have noted (, administrators should consider how “quality” can be classed and categorized, particularly in relation to the institutional mission statement. Is the aspect of “quality” exceptional? Transformative? Purposeful? Rethinking “quality” with those concepts in mind goes far in developing a quality environment.     

Before considering how to “rethink quality,” administrators must stop to consider how they define “quality.”  Many scholars, including E. Grady Bogue and Peter Ewell, have wrestled with the problem of defining “quality” over the years but admit that the term is elusive. The journal Quality in Higher Education is exclusively devoted to the topic of quality and quality assurance for colleges and universities, and articles regularly appear with varying definitions. Although educators recognize that quality and especially quality assurance have become more intentional, with a renewed focus on teaching and instruction at the undergraduate level, the nature of the evidence to prove quality and therefore quality education is still inadequately defined. In a virtual world, do colleges need to rethink their definitions of “quality” beyond “we know it when we see it?” Without national and even international standard definitions with which to work, how can colleges state with confidence rely that they offer “quality education?”

Some of the difficulty in defining “quality” comes down to accreditation and data reporting. Regional agencies have different standards and criteria for accreditation, and standards for program agencies add another layer to the mix. For example, SACSCOC, since 2004, has required institutions to submit a Quality Enhancement Plan as part of their Fifth Year Report, while the Higher Learning Commission since 2018 requires a Quality Initiative between Years 5 and 9. “Quality” is expected to be understood in a local context in either case. US Dept. of Education indicators do not speak to “quality” but rather to meeting established numerical targets defined either through collective research or peer review. State departments of education follow the federal pattern, and even statistical comparisons are difficult because of varying data definitions and reporting procedures. Whether preparing annual IPEDS reports or the plethora of state mandated data reports due every term or annually, administrators devotes significant amounts of time and effort to produce the required data. The usefulness of some if not much of the data is also questionable, as the data can be a year old and not relevant to current needs. Moving into the future, although some real-time data is essential for determining “where we are now,” “quality”  as opposed to simply meeting statistical targets must become paramount in decision-making .

Assuring and maintaining quality education in a virtual environment must remain a top priority for college and university administrators. Once definitions of “quality” are agreed upon, institution leaders can better utilize online platforms to demonstrate both internally and externally quality beyond quantity. Partners such as SPOL specialize in providing customizable, cloud-based platforms that meet your institution where you are. If you’d like to learn how SPOL can pivot your institution’s planning and budgeting efforts while reducing or eliminating other software and data storage needs, reach out to us today for informed conversation catered to your specific needs and goals.    


Topics: Continuous Improvement, Strategic Planning, COVID-19