Quality assurance and online delivery are hot topics in universities, yet until recently discussions of each have had little to do with each other. These spheres of activity in universities may not have interacted very closely in the past. This paper describes current debates within quality assurance and online delivery policies within universities and proposes four themes as ways to consider these debates and their relationships with each other. Arising from this discussion are possible research agendas that are likely to increase in importance as universities' use and reliance upon online technologies increases and as the stakes for ensuring quality are raised.
Universities are investing huge resources in online education. They sec these investments as strategic responses to the competitive environment in which they find themselves. Arising from these institutional strategies are a number of questions that are at present unanswered in any complete sense, ranging from definitions of quality in online education to the ways of identifying and valuing quality in institutional policy. The use of online technologies in higher education is a relatively recent, yet a rapidly growing and ubiquitous phenomenon. Despite the importance of online technologies to universities, the rationales and justifications for their use are largely either unstated or taken-for-granted by university managers (Ehrmann, 1999). David A Longanecker, former Assistant Secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, also indicates uncertainty and draws the link between notions of quality and the impact of delivery technology:
... new educational delivery models are "leading us to a very
different concept of quality assurance than we've traditionally had
--but I'm not sure what that is" (Pond 2002, p. 186)
This uncertainty brought about by the use of online technologies and their concomitant impact on concepts of quality in universities indicates that there is a need to investigate the forces that bring about these substantial changes in university teaching and learning. In recent times universities have been increasingly called upon to have demonstrable accountability measures in the form of quality assurance systems and processes. While accountability is not a new phenomenon for universities (Bergquist & Armstrong, 1986; Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1970; Goedegebuure, Maassen, & Westerheijden, 1990; Sheldrake & Linke, 1979), it is taking on new meanings in the current climate of the so-called 'information age' where universities are expanding their teaching environments into the online realm. This paper considers current literature in the areas of quality and online education policy, focusing on online education in universities, and synthesises a number of themes for future research.
Quality online education
This paper considers two discourses, which until recently have had little to do with each other. The first is the discourse of online delivery in universities, which I will call the online discourse. This involves the changes in universities brought about by the use of online technologies in teaching and learning. The second discourse is that of quality in university education, which I will call the quality discourse. This second discourse involves policies and processes for quality assurance in teaching and learning. These two discourses will now be briefly delineated and related to each other.
The online discourse
Attempts to harness online technologies for educational aims have tended to focus on so-called 'instructional design' (Leshin, Pollock, & Reigeluth, 1992) whereby various instructional techniques are proposed to fit the 'learning styles' (Kirby, 1979) of students. These approaches have focussed on project-based innovations, but have not borne significant educational fruits (Alexander & McKenzie, 1998). …