Is the OfS “actively monitoring” digital teaching quality?

The short answer is no. The long answer is "no, it is not".

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

I did raise my eyebrows a little when Michelle Donelan suggested to the Commons Education Committee that the Office for Students had a role in dealing with student and parent complaints. It really doesn’t, though if someone gets in touch with an issue there’d probably be a corresponding phone call to the Named Lead Contact.

OfS appears to be taking this idea and running with it, setting up six ways in which it is “actively monitoring” the quality of the learning that has been moved online due to Covid-19. Prepare yourself to rethink what the words “active” and “monitoring” actually mean:

What OfS saysWhat it means
directly engaging with universities, colleges and other higher education providers that have moved to Public Health England’s Tier 3, to ensure that they are communicating changed arrangements for teaching and learning clearly, and to ensure that they will maintain the quality of their provision that is accessible for allWhen PHE ask a university to move to Tier 3, we drop it a note to remind it to tell its students and not to make teaching suddenly worse for some reason.
engaging in this way with any university or college which moves to Tier 3 or Tier 4The same as the box above, but for Tier 4 too.
following up directly with individual universities and colleges where we receive notifications from students, parents or others raising concerns about the quality of teaching on offerIf someone raises a concern about a university we ring it up and ask what is going on.
requiring universities and colleges to report to us when they are not able to deliver a course or award a qualificationOur conditions of registration require providers to tell us about problems like this. We are still requiring it.
monitoring data on universities and colleges’ performance which may indicate issues with the quality of provision, for example drop-out ratesWhen we get data on student drop outs (probably December [HESES20] at the earliest), we'll look at it.
lanning to conduct additional student polling to understand students’ experience of teaching and learning.We're thinking abut doing another sample based poll to get the views of less than 0.1% of students.

Active monitoring of the quality of teaching sounds like a difficult job, that maybe you might want to designate somebody with an expertise in quality assurance to do on your behalf. Alas, the QAA hotline has not been ringing with requests from OfS to go and check out how providers are making sure that teaching quality and rigor remains.

If you work in an English provider you could be forgiven for forgetting that the QAA has this role – it will have been a very long time since your last inspection unless you have very recently joined the register.

The OfS notes it has statutory powers to take enforcement action if conditions of registration are breached. These conditions rely on either self-reporting by the provider in question, or data that arrives at OfS some time after the events in question.

There’s also a note that:

We are actively following-up on reportable events and notifications. Where we have significant concerns, we may investigate further, for example, by calling in evidence from a provider, or commissioning expert onsite investigations or reviews. We may also commission polling targeted at the students of a particular provider where our monitoring activity suggests there may be concerns.”

These are very slow actions, thought they are actions. If a student doesn’t feel that they have the teaching contact hours they feel they should expect these are not actions that would address these concerns in any meaningful (say, in the next couple of weeks) timetable.

Sorry to bang on about the QAA again, but the whole purpose of the old Higher Education Review process in England was to assure everyone that a provider’s own quality monitoring processes worked and would do their job if a problem presented itself. We don’t really have that kind of detailed assurance now – I for one am missing it.

And just as a very final point – why use “digital learning” (which for me suggests learning what to do with your fingers) rather than “online learning” as used by pretty much everyone else in the world?

We’ve had a note from Michelle Donelan offering support in very general terms for the principle of regulation, which includes another mention of the £256m of student premium funding which universities are meant to be grateful about having seen cut from £277m before somehow being used for student hardship funds and the widening access things it was originally meant to be used for (and the universities are being monitored against).

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