• Rethinking Higher Education

    Peter Smith's take on opportunity and access in higher education, the unmet challenges that remain, and the future that lies ahead for those willing to tackle it.

Detaching quality from inputs while also unbundling the notion that there is only one definition of quality.

September 30, 2020
 

Throughout my career, the debate about academic quality has been fraught with both ambiguity and intensity. On the traditional side, the focus was on “input” measures such as faculty, campus facilities, libraries and students with high SAT scores. On the nontraditional side, over the years we focused on a variety of “outcome” measures ranging from competencies to learning outcomes to evidence-based assessments.

Viewing the disruption of the traditional higher education model through Clayton Christensen’s glasses, we can see clearly that the traditional version of “input-based” quality on the campus is in severe jeopardy. The information-rich society surrounding the campus has robbed it of its exclusive position. Now those 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 that, in turn, has brought the issue of defining quality to the forefront in education and training discussions.

The “input-based” definition of quality is tied culturally to the Western European canon of the arts and sciences referred to in a previous post. It has also been tied physically to the campus where specialized quality indicators -- faculty, labs, etc. -- were located out of necessity. Any move away from the cultural and physical definitions of input-based quality was immediately suspect and considered by traditional educators to be lower quality.

I have always believed in outcomes because when you assess prior learning, whether experiential or not, you are working with evidence. And I have been involved in those types of assessments, seeing them work time and 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 toward the traditional input model.

Happily, while COVID has deepened our need to succeed with people we have historically failed, 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 the learning arena -- a framework for my experience, if you will.

Taking a step back, a generic definition of quality might sound something like this: “Does the product or service in question meet the expectations and needs of the customer?” In this frame, quality has a personal dimension. Christensen argued that every service was attempting to “do a job” for the customer. And postsecondary education, taken broadly, is a wide variety of programs and related offerings that are doing various jobs for the learners. So, the question for each institution is “What job are we doing? And for whom?”

This approach allows us to detach quality from inputs while also unbundling the notion that there is only one definition of quality.

  • If the educational job you are doing is primarily job- and career-focused, then success (and quality) would include whatever certificates and degrees were required and passage of tests all resulting in employment and salary success commensurate with the promise.
  • Or if the job of the program was to support a rite of passage and self-discovery through learning, then success (and quality) might well be found in graduation numbers.
  • Or if the goal was a career in higher education and/or related fields, then the number of graduates who went on to and succeeded in master's, doctoral and other postgraduate programs might be the right measurement.

The assertion is that quality is anchored to organizational purpose. And that reorganizes the quality conversation significantly. In the next post, I will drill down on the concept of purpose and how, beyond gross indicators, such as those mentioned above, a “just” institution would determine that it was meeting those goals through its practices with most if not all of its students. Let me know what you think.

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