Quality assurance of e-learning in higher education

Due to the COVID19 crisis universities and schools were confronted with new challenges. Suddenly, it was impossible to have face-to-face classes to educate students and schools were closed for several months. At universities the term was held online completely which was a big challenge for both; teaching staff and students. At the University of Kiel there were many who did not enjoy this new form of studying and teaching and one could say that the quick change may presumably be the reason for the negative mood against e-learning.

E-learning is still considered as something futuristic that may exist but is rather seen as something that is “just out there” with no one believing it to become of any practical use. COVID19 changed the view towards e-learning and might be the beginning of a new era in education. E-learning is nothing new in higher education. In 2009 the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) published a paper that focused on the chances of e-learning and forms that should assure that the learning quality was as high if not even higher than in face-to-face classes. Considering that eleven years ago there already were attempts of integrating online classes into higher education it is odd that most German students and teachers did not have any experience when it comes to e-learning before COVID19. Admittedly, it seems far off to use e-learning when face-to-face teaching is possible. There are still problems when we have to rely on the internet as not everyone has a stable internet connection and we have to consider that not everyone has flexible access to a computer or other digital hardware. It seems like e-learning is a luxurious form of studying that not everyone can enjoy equally, yet. Technologies are changing quickly and thus their accessibility for everyone is difficult to rely on.

However, COVID19 forced higher education to actually use online classes and there are advantages lying in it that prove that e-learning should be integrated more into higher education. At the same time it is important to assure quality standards in higher education. E-learning should not be seen as a simple tool to play with to make education look more modern. Instead it should improve learning results for students. For this reason the ENQA created a paper to present what e-learning can do for higher education and what indicators need to be considered to assure the quality of learning. When used correctly; e-learning can contribute to a higher standard in education. The ENQA is mentioning that through using the internet to lecture students there will be less problems for those who study abroad as they are not restricted to a certain place to attend their classes. At the same time e-learning is creating cheaper education and many students can attend a lecture without bothering about the size of classrooms. Instead of many different classes with different focuses on a topic there could be one big class which would guarantee that every student is on the same page as everyone else. As promising as it may seem to be able to have all students on the same stage of knowledge one has to ask if that would not mean that there would be restricted views on topics which would limit discussions on topics in higher education that are important for new ideas. Higher quality in education does not necessarily mean that every student learns the exact same thing in the same time as others but how can we measure the educational quality of e-learning?

Successful education is linked to many factors. The teacher and the teaching methods used by him or her are as important as the study programs and the equipment of the learning environment. On the students’ side it is important to look at characteristics to interact with them to see if topics were understood. Using e-learning can make the communication between teachers and students difficult as it is harder to sense whether students work well with the presented topics or not. Facial expressions cannot be read by teachers as easily as it would be the case in a classroom which makes it hard for them to create their lessons and lectures. By that the quality of learning can easily be affected. Either the teacher goes on too fast in his lecture or he or she becomes insecure and moves on too slowly which also reduces the outcome of the term’s learning results. Furthermore, teachers are used to certain teaching methods that are not always suitable in online classes. It may be possible to give a presentation online but this does not mean that it is suitable for the topic. E-learning is a challenge for higher education as it forces teachers to rethink their teaching and to evaluate their teaching methods. The evaluation starts with whether the class is suitable to be held online or should rather be given in face-to-face classes. Besides, the technological skills the teaching staff has is rather important for the success of an online class. The last term forced all teachers at universities to handle online classes without considering that the challenges were different for the teaching staff. Those who were insecure in this new way of teaching could not teach the class suitable as they did not know how to use online classes or were unwilling to change their usual teaching methods.

To prevent the explained situation the sometimes poor technological skills of teachers or other factors limiting the quality of online classes university management needs to work closely with the staff and needs to constantly evaluate the situation. COVID19 came out of the blue and there was little time for preparation but to make e-learning a constant part of higher education more investments and communication are necessary. E-learning is not a new thing and this year’s situation would not have to be this stressful for neither the teaching staff nor for the students if universities in Germany had worked more on integrating e-learning into higher education in the last years. The mistakes that were made last term had their reasons but to be able to assure the quality in online classes changes have to be made for the next terms. If the university management does not evaluate the teaching situation and believes that former face-to-face classes can be transformed into online classes without educating teachers and taking possible problems into account there will be bad online teaching which lessens the outcome of classes.

The idea of e-learning is to give further opportunities to higher education. Not every lecture or class can be held online but if possible online classes can help students studying more effectively and can make access to education easier. To reach this goal it is necessary to work on e-learning methods and to work on possible problems. Teaching staff needs to be educated and it cannot be taken for granted that all students have the same access when it comes to the internet. When considering these issues there is a chance that online classes might become a constant part of universities. However, it might happen that online classes will only be used during the recent situation and will be neglected when everything has gone back to normal. If so there will be no progress in e-learning at German universities as only few would take the necessary steps to improve online teaching for using it constantly.

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