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The quality-led rationale of digitalisation in learning and teaching slowly moves back onto the agenda of higher education institutions – accelerated and enriched by experiences resulting from the Covid-19 crisis. As Sandra von Sydow of Humboldt University of Berlin writes, to allow for systematic, evidence-based and ethical assessment of future increased use of digitalisation, evaluation and quality management need to come into focus.

Over the past year and a half, higher education institutions have proven to be extremely adaptable and thus highly responsible in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. The crisis-led digitalisation allowed the majority of students to continue their studies. Despite the great and concerted efforts behind this, one avoids to speak of this moment in history as a success for higher education. While the long-term impact of the crisis on the current generation of students, the future of higher education and society as a whole, cannot be clearly foreseen, its short-term impact is already immense. EUA has contributed to the analysis of the pandemic’s impact on higher education with publications and by providing opportunities for international exchange on practices and perspectives. This includes a focus group on the impact on internal quality assurance, with Humboldt University of Berlin as one of its participants. The results, summarised in this EUA report, suggest many similarities in regard to the challenges and responses of quality assurance at European higher education institutions.

But let us take a step back from the crisis. Quality assurance is a task for all members of the institutional community and quality management supports decision makers with evidence-based information for the detection of challenges, the selection of measures intended to promote quality, and the eventual assessment of their effectiveness.

Regarding post-corona times, how can digitalisation - a challenge in itself -  contribute to finding solutions in education? How can digitalisation support higher education institutions in their goal to sustain and continuously enhance the quality of learning and teaching and how does it relate to the institutions’ self-concept? The respective post-corona approaches of European higher education institutions to digitalisation will probably be more diverse than the responses to the pandemic. In September 2021, the 43rd Annual Forum of the European Higher Education Society (EAIR) will address these questions. Hosted by Humboldt University, it is entitled "Transformation Fast and Slow: Quality, Trust and Digitalisation in Higher Education".

Just as digitalisation does not simply happen, digitalisation does not automatically lead to quality. There is no doubt that deriving appropriate digitalisation measures that can be expected to contribute to achieving quality goals is a tricky task. The reasons for this lie in the complexity and context-dependency of quality in learning and teaching and student success, the specifics of individual study programmes and disciplines, the challenges arising from the increasing heterogeneity of the student body, and other goals of higher education policy, such as sustainability or internationalisation. Given this setting, established quality management focuses on student success in its different dimensions (foremost Bildung, competences, graduation rates, employability) and its determinants.

How can digitalisation relate to the promotion of student success? Which digital tools might be adopted or adapted to support students at different phases of their studies? For instance, relating to the entry phase to studies - what study orientation tools should be used to avoid false expectations with regard to study requirements? Regarding first-year students with lack of prior knowledge in the specific study field – should various digital learning tools and instructional strategies such as flipped classroom be used to reduce drop-out rates?

In order to detect a challenge and to find a reasonable proposal for its solution, quality management ideally draws on different data and information sources: in-depth statistical analyses and their contextualisation and interpretation along defined quality goals, own experiences as well as findings from practices of other higher education institutions and from research.

In the context of digitalisation, the “check” phase in the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is also highly relevant. This is due to the novelty or the hitherto not strong anchorage of some digital tools and technologies, the mentioned context-dependency for the development of quality, as well as ethical issues related to digitalisation. This involves the monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of the respective digital intervention. When assessing digital interventions, such as a student information tool on study progress as a supporting structure, issues arise around ethics and data protection, as do new possibilities of a more detailed monitoring of student success. A responsible approach that weighs the benefits and draw backs of using such data is needed. Well-designed quality assurance tools allow for the assessment of the effectiveness of measures implemented, and hence to critically weigh up and decide on the continuation. They also allow for further development or termination of a measure.  

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to digitalisation as a means to enhance quality. While the crisis has paved the way towards stronger digitalisation, higher education institutions now have to steer a balanced and quality-based course between keeping the momentum and preventing any unreflective dynamics. The future needs quality-led digitalisation at the service of Bildung, student success and well-being. This involves evaluating and monitoring these issues in close interaction with traditional issues of student success.


Sandra von Sydow
Humboldt University of Berlin

Sandra von Sydow is the Head of the Quality Management Unit at Humboldt University of Berlin in Germany.

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