Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quality is in the eye of the beholder

One of the key issues in the adoption of open educational resources in higher education is how to guarantee quality. When resources are shared freely on the net without the traditional publishing process of peer review and publisher approval, how can we know if that material is reliable or not? How can we build up processes for assessing the credibility of these resources so that teachers will be able to use them with confidence?

Stephen Downes has just written a highly relevant blog post highlighting some problems with the quality assessment of OER, in particular in the context of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). His article, MOOCs and the OPAL Quality Clearinghouse, is in response to the questionnaire on quality assurance and open educational practice as part of the Open Education Quality Initiative (OPAL). What really attracted my attention in the post was the idea that quality is not an objective attribute that is decided in advance by experts. The quality of a resource lies in the view of the beholder - how valuable is this for you?

There is not the presumption that (a) there is a single type of quality that applies to all participants, and (b) that this quality could be recognized by course facilitators. Accordingly, what we observe in a MOOC is that participants will cluster around different types of materials or media - for example, they may cluster around a discussion board, social network site, or virtual world. Quality is then indicated in different ways specific to those environments.

So in the open learning environment of the MOOC, where each learner has their own learning objectives and follows her/his own path through the material, the question of any pre-determined quality label is largely irrelevant since it is the process resulting from the resource that determines the quality for each learner.

'Quality' in a MOOC is defined not as the exceptional nature of published materials, but rather the richness and utility of conversation and discussions mediated by those artifacts and other activities. Hence, quality is determined post-publication, and even post-distribution, as an emergent property, and not aninherent property of the resource itself.

Downes' answers to the OPAL questionnaire raise a number of fascinating new issues about quality in open learning that need to be discussed further. One important aspect to remember, however, is that MOOCs tend to attract highly educated and digitally literate participants and the wisdom of the crowd will therefore work well. I'm not sure we can work in the same way with student groups who are less digitally literate and more accustomed to traditional teaching. I'm sure we do need quality assurance for OER but maybe we need to realise that in certain environments like MOOCs the need is not so great. I look forward to more on this.

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