Ellis, Cath and Folley, Susan (2008) Getting a grip on quality: validation and eLearning in a quality assurance culture. In: HERDSA 2008, 1st - 4th July 2008, Rotorua, New Zealand. (Unpublished)

In 1993 Roger Ellis warned that ‘University Teachers should get a grip on quality assurance
before it gets a grip on them’ (p.16). Despite this warning, a decade and a half later, academics
in the United Kingdom are well and truly in the grip of Quality Assurance (QA). In the intervening
period, a large body of scholarship has grown up around the culture of QA. Several scholars
have examined in detail how quality can be, and is, variously discursively formed and framed
(see Harvey & Green 1993; Barnett 1992) and many others use the problematic nature of
defining ‘quality’ as a point of departure for their further analysis (see for instance Vidovich
2001; Kohler 2003; Yorke 1999). Many of these scholars agree that the QA discourses which are
‘retrospective’ and ‘outcome oriented’, and therefore focussed on accountability and auditing,
are those which have come to prevail in the UK (see for instance Harvey & Knight 1996).
As Miliken & Colohan (2004) argue, “teaching and learning appears to be stultified by
government attempts to benchmark and assess teaching quality regardless of the impact on
professional autonomy” (p.386). John Biggs (2001) agrees, observing that many QA procedures
can be ‘two-edged’ in that they can have a negative impact on the student learning experience.
In his analysis, Biggs makes specific mention of the procedures for course and module
validation, arguing that they have a particularly stifling effect on teaching improvisation and
innovation. While this stifling effect is certainly having a negative impact on traditional face-toface
teaching strategies, we are concerned that it is even more acute in the case of eLearning.
Our showcase paper argues that the stifling nature of ‘retrospective’ QA strategies is having a
detrimental impact on the emergence of sustainable communities of practice in institutions in
the UK in the field of eLearning. It will begin by considering the requirements for validation, as
outlined by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and will then undertake a comparative analysis
of the discourses used to describe traditional face-to-face and virtual learning environments. We
illustrate our argument with some recent examples of documentation used for the validation of
both modules and courses. Our conclusions not only demonstrate how the QAA requirements
for validation are hindering the adoption of eLearning in the UK but also show how describing
eLearning in these documents puts the problematic nature of the whole validation procedure into
sharper relief.
As recent legislative changes start to take effect in Australia and New Zealand, our findings
offer some warnings for leaders in institutions in these countries to help them get a grip on the
discourses of quality before it gets its grip on them.

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