Global research team discusses quality models in online and open education around the world.


After researching dozens of online learning quality guidelines around the world, a team of international researchers have outlined recommendations to improve those models and propel online and open education into the future.

The study and its recommendations, undertaken on behalf of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) and in formal consultative relations with UNESCO, was conducted by a research team coordinated by the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) and aims to serve as “guidelines for communication, dissemination and valorization activity on quality standards in open and distance learning with stakeholders.”

According to the study’s authors, providing an overview of current global quality standards in online and open education, as well as providing recommendations to ensure quality moving forward, is critical for all higher education institutions today as online and open learning gains international momentum.

The rise of the open education movement, the growing development of open educational resources (OER), MOOCS, “increased internationalization, and widening recruitment and upscaling of reaching students are drivers [of online education],” states the report. “Hence, how, where, and when students learn, how institutions structure programs and services, and how these services are structured are global challenges.”

The report emphasized that “improving quality of student experiences is more than ever extremely important.”

(Next page: 11 recommendations on improving online and open education)

Characteristics all guidelines should have

The research, which analyzed more than 40 quality standards models or guidelines from organizations (i.e. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, EADTU, The African Council for Distance Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation Agency, etc.) found that though the guidelines differed in terms of specificity and benchmarking procedures, there were critical foundation characteristics that were included in all quality guidelines:

Multifaceted: Systems use multiple measures for quality, and will often consider strategy, policy, infrastructure, processes, outputs and more to come to a well-rounded view of holistic quality.

Dynamic: Flexibility is built in to systems to accommodate for rapid-changed in technology, as well as social norms. For this reason, they rarely refer to specific technological measures, and rather concentrate on the services provided to users through that technology.

Mainstreamed: While all the quality tools surveyed aim at high-level quality improvement, this is intended to trickle down throughout the institution and be used as a tool for reflective practice by individual members of staff in their daily work.

Representative: Quality systems seek to balance the perspectives and demands of various interested stakeholders, including students, staff, enterprise, government and community.

Multifunctional: Most systems serve a “triple function of instilling a quality culture within an institution, providing a roadmap for future improvement, as well as serving as a label of quality for outside perspective.”

11 recommendations

To further quality measures for online and open education, the report’s authors detail 11 recommendations for consideration and adoption by national and international online and open organizations (more thorough detail of each recommendation can be found in the full report):

  1. Mainstream e-learning quality into traditional institutional quality assurance: requires disaggregation of the common components of e-learning quality systems and integrating each of these into the appropriate part of the quality assurance process. These are: e-learning as tech-enhanced learning, as a mode of provision, and as a driver for innovation.
  2. Support the contextualization of quality systems: According to the authors, “Many of the quality systems we studied make socio-economic-cultural assumptions that are not equally true in all contexts.” For example, the assumption that students have access to high-bandwidth internet; the existence of a multi-stakeholder, participatory governance environment; that students have personal computers; and academia universally speaks English or a national language.
  3. Support professional development, in particular through documentation of best practice and exchange of information: All reviewers of quality measures must be able to understand terminology within the measures. Also, better documentation and reference materials could be achieved by stakeholders through the creation of an e-learning quality resource hub, a best practice database, and a compilation and registration of professional development programs and training materials.
  4. Communicate and promote general principles (the general guideline characteristics listed above): This promotion can occur through training reviewers on the principles, promoting the principles to distance education institutions, and working with stakeholders toward international adoption.
  5. Assist institutions in designing a personalized quality management system: Several of the quality systems reviewed provide eligibility checks (e.g. UNIQUe), quick checks with self-evaluation (e.g. E-xcellence) or other similar tools to allow institutions to determine their eligibility to use the tool in question. “However, quality-service managers from several of the schemes still mention that queries from institutions that are not appropriate or not ready for the schemes remains a recurring problem,” notes the report.

(Next page: Recommendations 6-11)

  1. Address unbundling and the emergence of non-traditional educational providers: A diversified (unbundled) landscape will likely require internationally recognized standards for provision and providers at each unbundled level, backed up by appropriate inspection and compliance bodies regulated by law.
  2. Address quality issues around credentials through qualifications frameworks: “Global coordination of recognition needs to allow for a variety of qualification-types while at the same time keeping systems harmonized enough to allow for some level of standardization,” says the report. Actions for stakeholders to improve the recognition of open learning credentials might include working with the hosts of regional and national recognitions conventions, as well as incorporating the idea of credential quality into all quality assurance systems at the institutional level.
  3. Support knowledge transfer from open and distance learning to traditional quality systems: The authors believe that the experiences of open and distance learning institutions in implementing and using learning analytics, as well as other tech-based solutions for the enhancement of quality, has clear learning value for the rest of the education and quality assurance community.
  4. Support quality assurance audits and benchmarking exercises in the field of online, open, flexible, e-learning and distance education.
  5. Encourage, facilitate and support research and scholarship in the field of quality.
  6. Encourage, facilitate and support implementing quality assurance related to new modes of teaching.

For more information on the review of current online quality models and guidelines, as well as methodology and further recommendation, read the full report, “Quality models in online and open education around the globe: State of the art and recommendations.

Add your opinion to the discussion.