|Quality Assurance & the Curriculum|
Quality assurance (QA) “refers to planned and systematic production processes that provide confidence in a product's suitability for its intended purpose. It is a set of activities intended to ensure that products (goods and/or services) satisfy customer requirements in a systematic, reliable fashion.”
“It is important to realize also that quality is determined by the intended users, clients or customers, not by society in general: it is not the same as 'expensive' or 'high quality'. Even goods with low prices can be considered quality items if they meet a market need.”
WHO ARE THE CUSTOMERS?
Undoubtedly, effective QA involves meeting the customer’s requirements. But, within the context of Lifelong Learning (whether that takes place within a training organisation or within Further Education and Higher Education) who is the customer? Depending on who we consider the "customer" to be, it is apparent that they will have different expectations of the curriculum and its component parts.
If we consider the students (or trainees) to be the "customers", we need to consider whether they are in a position to determine which factors are important to the effectiveness of their learning and ultimate achievement of outcomes. Cynics might suggest that consideration of students' opinions could lead to an emphasis on the social factors that contribute to the curriculum rather than on the academic factors. Disregarding such cynicism, we still need to acknowledge that students and trainees might be more concerned about "passing assessments" than guaranteeing achievement of specific learning outcomes. Hence, although we cannot afford to ignore their opinions (particularly with regard to the factors that comprise the hidden curriculum) nevertheless students are not best positioned to judge the quality of the learning outcomes (the destination) - though they will certainly have an opinion about the quality of the learning process (the journey).
We might consider the "commissioning organisation" to be the "customer. This is particularly relevant to workplace or vocational learning - or to the situation in which a customer-organisation may have a requirement for employees/ trainees to be trained to a specific vocational standard. In this instance, the organisation is in a position to judge the quality of the "destination" (outcomes) - but not necessarily in a position to judge the quality of the journey undertaken by trainees.
Awarding bodies, who validate achievement of learning outcomes by awarding appropriate certification, could also justifiably claim to "have their say" in the QA process. This can lead to establishing (sometimes) complex systems for validating assessment processes.
Where funding for education and training is provided by government, it is reasonable to expect that they should want to establish a framework of accountability (hence OfSTED, the Adult Learning Inspectorate and the Quality Assurance Agency for HE).
We might consider each of these groups to be "the customer" insofar as they are all "stakeholders" with an interest in either the educational process, the validity of the learning outcomes, or both.
In order to keep the customers satisfied, there is clearly a need to understand the customers’ requirements and expectations. These are likely to be clearly defined when the "customer" is a funding body, a franchising university, an awarding body, or a commissioning organisation. They may not be as clearly defined by the student-as-customer (who may not even realise what their expectations are – until there is a blatant failure to meet those unvoiced expectations.)
It should be apparent that the marketing function of a learning organisation plays an important part in QA, insofar as it both ascertains and shapes the expectations of potential student-customers. An important part of the marketing strategy is to obtain feedback from student-customers on their perceptions of all aspects of the curriculum, both official and hidden. This is often achieved by means of student forums and student satisfaction surveys. These are only effective if they are perceived to be meaningful: a perception that is shaped very often by the culture of the organisation (which is part of the "hidden curriculum").
The complex and interdependent nature of the various components that comprise the curriculum make it an increasingly difficult area to get right – but the success of students can hinge on more than just the effectiveness of lessons and tutors (trainers, lecturers, etc.). Some of the factors which impact upon the curriculum are shown here.
There is a multiplicity of factors that can affect the students' learning experience and their ultimate success. Student success is important – not only to the student themselves (because of the impact it could have upon their career and life choices) – but also their employing organisation (who may depend upon that employee's competence to deliver a quality product or service) – as well as to the training organisation (because education is becoming increasingly a results-driven service – and because new and “repeat business” can depend upon student recommendation and the organisation’s reputation.)
Within the education and training environment, QA is tending towards an almost exclusively results-and-inspection-driven model. Nevertheless, it would be wise to remember the aphorism, “No matter how often you weigh a pig, weighing it won’t make it any fatter.”
It is interesting to note that the inspection model is borrowed from industry - where it was first employed in the 1920’s following the advent of mass production techniques. Unfortunately, this Quality Control approach emphasised the testing of products to uncover defects. This is a model which, when applied in the context of education, does little to motivate those involved in the “production process” – being largely dependent (some might argue) on identifying the supposed shortcomings of “failing" schools and colleges – to which “special measures” are then applied.
The inspection-driven model also depends heavily upon drawing up a list of specifications – which define the required components that comprise the whole curriculum. What such an approach fails to appreciate is that (in education as in other arenas) the whole does not necessarily equate to the sum of the parts. All the components may be present but the overall educational experience still be lacking some “vital spark”. Conversely, in some contexts, some of the components may be diminished (or missing altogether) without the overall experience being unduly mitigated.
This is not to argue for complacency – it is important that education and training providers seek to cater for the diverse needs and expectations of their students and trainees – but it is a reminder that effective curriculum development requires more than a “check-list mentality”.
QA systems have an unfortunate habit of becoming bureaucratic and unwieldy – with each new recognition of a perceived weakness resulting in additional measures being added into the system. The resultant proliferation of paperwork is likely to make QA less rather than more effective.
It could be argued that the most effective QA is born of professionalism and inherent pride of the workforce in “doing a good job”. It is, in effect, more about personal pride than a proliferation of paperwork; more about people management than about process management.