All that glitters is not gold: Current trends and future challenges for quality assurance in the fields of open learning and eLearning

March 29, 2016 by Antonio Moreira Teixeira   Comments (0)

As open education and eLearning mature and become mainstream across the world, the discussion on quality assurance emerges with a renewed importance, strength and impact in our field of practice. Although there are significant variations in how this topic is addressed in each regional context, there's an underlying feeling which is shared by all stakeholders. It relates to the urgency of establishing effective processes that positively discriminate appropriate practices in online learning, as not all that glitters is gold, to use the famous Shakespearian quote.

EDEN has always paid close attention to this discussion and has contributed throughout the years to the development of an European expertise in this topic. Most notably, the EDEN 2003 annual conference, held in Rhodes, and the EDEN RW6, which took place in Budapest, in 2010, both focusing specifically on the topic of quality assurance in open, distance and eLearning, were major milestones in the consolidation process of a European quality culture in open, distance and digital education.

In the current context and given the strategic importance of this discussion, EDEN has been called by the professional community to play an even more active and leading role in this discussion. We recognise the relevance of this movement and as a consequence, new significant initiatives related to the topic of quality will be announced in the coming months.

In today's post, I've invited my good friend Ebba Ossiannilsson, who is also a member of the Executive Committee and an EDEN Fellow to share with us her views on this very important discussion. Ebba is a well-known expert in the topic of quality assurance in open education and eLearning and has a large experience world-wide.

In her post, Ebba identifies the current trends and future challenges for quality assurance in our field and presents a brief conclusion of the study on quality models conducted in the framework of an initiative lead by our partner ICDE.





Quality is in the eye of the beholder


By 2030, approximately 414.2 million students will be enrolled in higher education worldwide, which is a substantial increase from the 99.4 million in 2000. Moreover, because online, open, and flexible education is becoming mainstream, the importance of quality learning outcomes for learners cannot be overestimated. The demand for open and online learning will increase due to several factors, including globalization, demography, democracy, digitization, technological development, mobility, inclusion, sustainability, and employment. Furthermore, students will seek education that accommodates personal learning and personalization, as well as equity, accessibility, and lifelong learning.


Quality, however, is in the eye of the beholder and often depends on whose voice is heard and in which context. Many stakeholders have an interest in the quality of open online learning, including learners, academics, institutions, and the national bodies that oversee quality assurance. It is well known that quality is measured according to the nature of quality interventions and their level of maturity.

The Qingdao Declaration, China, the first global declaration on the use of ICT in education, in 2015, states the right of every individual to education. Education for all is on UNESCO’s agenda from 2015 to 2030. Open education is also an integral part of the European Commission’s initiative to boost innovation in the labor market to ensure the global competitiveness of Europe.

On behalf of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), a research study on quality models in online and open education was conducted by Ossiannilsson, Williams, Camilleri, and Brown (2015). According to the Secretary General of ICDE, Gard Titlestad, the report on this research was widely distributed and in time for Global Education 2030. Regarding this report, he stated:


The report paints with a broad brush the landscape of quality in online and open education—and its challenges. Illustrating quality in online learning is as complex as the reality of online learning itself. It addresses new needs, such as quality in MOOCs and Open Education Resources. It shows that one size does not fit all, that more than ever, improving the quality of student experiences is extremely important, and it warns against the implementation of quality models that restrict innovation and change. These are all important issues to reflect on and discuss.

The research provided insight into the quality concept, the aspects of quality, and the report describes a selected number of models in relation to certification, benchmarking, accreditation, and advisory frameworks. It can therefore serve as a guide and inspiration for building quality frameworks.


On one hand, the findings showed that no single model fits every educational context, and there is no international model of quality. On the other hand, the findings also showed that there is no need for new schemes to ensure and evaluate quality. However, the findings revealed a huge need for knowledge building, knowledge sharing, and capacity building for quality in open online learning and education, as well as coordination among stakeholders.

More and more learners are taking the lead in open learning, particularly in making their own choices, especially now that ICT has made it possible to learn at home through the self-paced, flexible schedules offered by OERs and MOOCs, which are led by researchers and universities. Furthermore, the trend is towards quality enhancement rather than quality assurance, that is, the emphasis is on process-based quality enhancement rather than on norm-based accreditation. Accreditation is achieved through a formal process of recognition or licensing operated by or on behalf of a regulating agency, whereas certification is acquired through recognition by a non-statutory organization, such as a group of universities or member organizations. On the national level, accreditation has value and can be necessary. However, in open online learning, certification by a prestigious association has high value, and it can be integrated into quality assurance. Through certification, the institution conducts a self-evaluation to start the benchmarking process on either institutional or program levels. This process requires high commitment to fulfilling an action plan. Any self-evaluation should follow the quality enhancement model, which consists of planning, doing, checking, and taking action.

The quality enhancement model


Before implementing the model, it is important not only to know the nature of quality interventions but also to understand the holistic conceptual approach. To ensure quality in open online learning, three areas should be considered: management; the course (i.e., curriculum design, course design, and course delivery); and support for students and staff. Crucial indictors of quality are possibilities for learners’ self-directed learning, taking ownership, and orchestrating their own learning. Examples are flexibility, interactivity, accessibility, personalization, transparency, and participation.

Quality areas in open online learning (Ossiannilsson, in press)


Most international models today are implemented from the learner’s perspective as the center of the learning process. Not only current trends but also future challenges in education will have a learner-centered approach to quality. The research study conducted for ICDE included the characteristics of quality systems: multifaceted, dynamic, mainstream, representative, and multifunctional. Moreover, the principles on which quality systems are based should include whether the course and program content are contestable, debatable, context-bound, generic, or subject-based. Open learning should promote both personalization and openness to cultural diversity.

Finally, everyone working in the field of learning and education is responsible to ensure and enhance quality. At the end of the day, quality depends on not only knowledge and skills but also values and attitudes in daily actions and contexts.


Ossiannilsson, E. (in press). Benchmarking: A Method for Quality Assessment and Enhancement in Higher Education: Implications for Open Online Learning. In: T-L, Chen, & M, Wang. Learning, Design, and Technology: An International Compendium of Theory, Research, Practice and Policy. Springer.
Ossiannilsson, E., Williams, K., Camilleri, A., & Brown, M. (2015). Quality models in online and open education around the globe. Oslo: The International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE).



Ebba Ossiannilsson is the Vice-President of the Swedish Association for Distance Education (SADE) and is a staff member at the Lund University in Sweden. Ebba has served in the EDEN NAP Steering Committee and is a member of EURODL's Editorial Board. Ebba has been involved in international and national projects and networks in the areas of open and distance learning, OER, MOOC, social media, learning analytics, mobile learning and open education in general, with a special focus on quality. Read more here.