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Digital learning and teaching: Ensuring quality during the Covid-19 crisis

As universities across Europe move to online learning and teaching amid the coronavirus crisis, questions might arise about what steps may be needed to ensure quality. EUA expert Tia Loukkola explains that solid foundations are already in place – and have been for some time.

In an unprecedented move in the course of few weeks, universities across the European Higher Education Area closed their campuses in March. All teaching and student support services, as well as research for the most part, were moved online in response to the physical distancing measures adopted in response to the coronavirus crisis. In some cases, this move took place within hours. Therefore, it is not surprising that there have been occasional reports about some shortcomings, including about technical difficulties as both teaching staff and students get acquainted with the online teaching platforms or as the capacity of band width reached its limits. The move has been further strained by both staff and students, at the same time in many cases, adjusting their whole way of living and organising their domestic life.

The universities are, however, in general terms, better equipped for this transition than schools. Most universities have at least some experience in offering online teaching and blended learning has gained ground in recent years. The key challenge in most cases has, therefore, been related to extending the online offer to cover all teaching and, in this context, to the part of the curriculum that really does not bend into the online mode, such as laboratory work or other practical exercises.

Past experience in online learning and teaching has shown that there is no reason to distrust the quality of online education more than the quality of education taking place in a more traditional way. All modes of study have their pros and cons and can be of good or less-than good quality. In fact, one might argue that because universities started to experiment with online teaching in the past when quality assurance practices were becoming widespread, particular attention has already been paid to the quality assurance of online learning. This is reflected in the fact that there is a large variety of specific quality assurance tools for online higher education.

In Europe, the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG), which lay out expectations towards internal and external quality assurance, apply to all higher education offered regardless of the mode of study or place of delivery. This means that long before the current Covid-19 crisis, universities had already been obliged to have quality assurance processes in place for e-learning, in the same way as for other provision and, due to this, online provision is covered by the quality assurance agencies’ work.

A report on quality assurance of e-learning provision by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) confirms the applicability of the ESG standards to e-learning. It provides additional considerations as to the quality standards and aspects to consider when developing quality assurance procedures for e-learning. Similar additional guidance has been provided, for example, by European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU)). And, of course, there are different aspects to be considered when education is offered online. In the same way that there are different considerations for any learning setting: organising good quality learning through laboratory work is different from lectures or group work, not to mention work-based learning, among others.

At the time of writing, most European universities have already turned their attention to the end-of-year exam period and are seeking alternative ways to organise assessments. Ensuring fair and transparent assessment of student learning is a key part of any internal quality assurance system and, indeed, universities are issuing additional guidance in this regard. Equally, staff development to ensure their skills and competences in delivering online learning and ensuring appropriate student support services are key components any internal quality assurance system. The current crisis is underlining their importance even more.

In conclusion, the framework, policies, and practices for assuring quality of digitally enhanced learning are well established. Moving the operations online in such an abrupt manner may, however, have meant that these quality assurance measures were not promptly applied in all occasions due to a lack of time. As the first shock passes and especially if university campus closures are prolonged, the established quality assurance measures will kick in. In the meantime, it is encouraging to note that quality assurance agencies, university associations and other collaborative structures in many countries have taken initiatives to support individual universities in their efforts. Through collaboration and mutual support of all stakeholders in higher education, we will ensure that university staff and students can make the best out of the current challenging, and extra-ordinary situation.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Tia Loukkola

Tia Loukkola is the Director of the EUA Institutional Development unit. She is in charge of a variety of EUA’s activities dealing with improving and monitoring the quality of universities and their educational mission, as well as specific topics including quality assurance, recognition, rankings and learning and teaching.

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