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In implementing a blended learning system, the management for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS) at Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (UNITAR) produced the Academicians' Manual as a tool aimed at enhancing the parity of learning experiences among students who are located at seven different study centres than from the main campus. The manual was designed in a way that the curriculum implementers may exercise their professional discretion within the framework of an established ISO 9001 system and the government's quality assurance system imposed on all private education providers as a regulatory policy. This paper discusses the experience of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS) at Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (UNITAR) in designing and producing the Academicians' Manual as a quality assurance tool in the e-learning environment. The manual was introduced in January 2007 and feedback was obtained through semi-structured interviews with Course Leaders, Tutors and Coordinators at the end of the semester. The interviews sought the curriculum implementers' view on the coverage of procedures, usefulness for the various actors and the impact on ensuring quality in teaching and learning. Based on the feedback gathered, the paper makes recommendations relating to the use of Academicians' Manual as a quality assurance tool for institutions employing e-learning systems. The most pertinent contribution of this exercise is that the design of a manual for curriculum implementation should provide for professional discretion which is central to the science of curriculum delivery.
Quality is a concept that has made its way from the manufacturing industry to the service industry in a relatively short span of time. In this highly competitive global market, the role quality assurance plays in organisations cannot be underestimated. As services such as higher education become more and more easily accessible to the masses throughout the globe, higher education institutions have to maintain the quality of their services as a means to survive in the global market.
The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS) is a faculty within Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (UNITAR), a private e-learning university. Under the Private Education Institutions Act 1996 (Malaysia, 1996a), all higher education institutions in Malaysia are governed by the Private Education Department (Jabatan Pendidikan Swasta - JPS). Ensuing The National Accreditation Board Act 1996 (Malaysia, 1996b), the National Accreditation Board was established in 1997 with the authority to issue approvals for private education institutions to offer programs, certify programs achieving minimum standards and to accredit programs of studies.
Apart from accreditation by the National Accreditation Board, UNITAR like many other higher education institutions in Malaysia, register with the ISO 9001 certification as a competitive measure. In January 2007, FHSS introduced an internal quality assurance system based on quality circles, namely the Program Committees and the Subject Committees to complement the two quality assurance systems.
Working within three systems of quality assurance, members of the academic staff were bound by procedures that were at times confusing, mechanical and duplicated. The top-down external quality assurance systems demanded the faculty to produce documented evidence of operations which can be quite tedious and time-consuming. The focus on fulfilling the requirements of both agencies (especially ISO9001, which focuses more on process standardisation) sometimes distracted the faculty from the quality of curriculum delivery as the actual business at hand.
As a step to coordinate these three quality assurance systems, FHSS saw a need to produce the Academician's Manual that provides a practical guideline for Course Leaders, Tutors and Regional Centre Coordinators to carry out their duties. The Academician's Manual was first introduced in the January 2007 semester and after two semesters, FHSS reviewed the Academician's Manual in order to survey the perceptions of the manual from the perspectives of Course Leaders, Tutors and Regional Centre Coordinators.
The purpose of this paper is to share the experience of FHSS, UNITAR in introducing the FHSS Academician's Manual and to discuss the perception and use of the academician's manual as a tool for quality assurance. At the end of the paper, the writers shall provide recommendations for enhancing quality in curriculum delivery of programs at higher education institutions. The findings of the survey may be useful to managers of distance learning programs and other higher education institutions in general, concerned with enhancing the quality of curriculum delivery.
Blended Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
In the global knowledge-based economy, the ultimate goal of teaching and learning is to produce knowledge workers and knowledge citizens who are able to act autonomously, think creatively and critically, as well as to participate in heterogeneous groups (The World Bank 2003). Many teaching approaches have been proposed that claim to produce these types of learning and they are invariably based on the constructive theory of learning. Some of them are informed teaching (Woods, 2000), differentiated teaching (Pratt, 1994), scaffolding or block building (Ornstein and Hunkins, 1997) and interdisciplinary approaches (Warburton, 2003).
In this teaching approach the focus of teaching is to cater for learner differences because learning is seen as a personal process within the minds of each individual learner. The teacher then plays the role of the manager of learning who manipulates the learning environment and guides learners through a personal journey of discovery. The teacher does not select a specific set of teaching content to be mastered by the learners, rather compiles a set of contingency plans for learners with different learning styles, needs and preferences. Assessment is focused on the learning that has taken place as a result of teaching rather than evaluating the performance of learners in relation to the cohort.
The Blended Learning model blends face-to-face teaching with distance education delivery systems (Montera-Gutiérrez, 2006). Many have argued that blended learning is a teaching-learning system that enables the delivery of individualised, personalised or tailored learning (Fox, 2002; Osguthorpe and Graham, 2003), which is in fact the goal of the learning-centred or the constructivist teaching approach described above. In other words, the blending of the two modes of teaching is advantageous to the teacher as he/she is more able to manipulate the learning environment and set the learners on a journey of discovery.
Having said that, the use of blended learning requires the teacher to be as skilled, if not more so, compared to the conventional system. The ability to make decisions in managing the students' learning is central to the delivery system. The teacher needs to be able to select and organise the teaching contents, develop teaching and learning materials for the face-to-face and online modes, design the face-to-face and online activities and design the assessment schemes. In order for the teacher to build those competencies, (s)he needs to have an in-depth knowledge of the learner and the learning process.
In short, teachers in the blended learning environment need to make a great deal of professional decisions in designing and implementing teaching. The description of teaching and learning practices above substantiates the claim that teaching is a professional activity as it possesses the marks of other widely accepted professions such as doctors, engineers and lawyers. The four basic marks of professional practices are; firstly the possession of esoteric knowledge, which leads to the second, which is the authority over the client, coupled with the third, which is autonomy and finally service to the community.
Therefore, teachers including those working in the blended learning environment, should act and be governed the way other professionals are. Quality assurance and accountability that is built-in within the notion of quality must be emphasised. In this regard, the quality of teaching and learning rests in the effectiveness of three main actors; the Course Leader, the Tutors and the Regional Centre Coordinators. The whole scenario is depicted in Figure 1 below.
The LMS supports upload of courseplans and teaching materials, forums and announcements.
LMS, Online Tutorials
Regional Centre Coordinators
Students at Regional Centres
Students at the Main Campus
NATIONAL ACCREDITATION BOARD ACCREDITATION
ISO 9001 REGISTRATION
INTERNAL QUALITY ASSURANCE SYSTEM
Figure 1: Blended Teaching-learning at FHSS, UNITAR
The FHSS Academician's Manual as a Quality Tool in the Blended Learning Environment
We have established tertiary teaching as a profession and therefore autonomy is one of the requirements. And there is a system of personal and public accountability in the professions, which is usually implemented through professional bodies. The LAN accreditation focuses more on assurance of quality and standards based on best practices for public accountability. However, TQM and the ISO9001 control quality by standardising procedures through approaches such as fitness of purpose, conformance to specifications, process control and quality audit/document control (Peters, 1999).
In terms of quality control, it may be quite simple to list down the key roles of the three actors to standardise processes and ensure compliance. Nevertheless, to focus on quality assurance is to preserve professional autonomy of the academia while introducing accountability. The balance between the two is taken as a crucial aspect of quality teaching and learning in the blended learning system such as practised at FHSS, UNITAR.
The FHSS Academician's Manual was introduced to provide a set of practical guidelines for academicians in performing their teaching duties within the frameworks of the Lembaga Akreditasi Negara (LAN) accreditation exercises, the ISO 9001 audits as well as the FHSS Internal Quality Assurance System (FHSS IQAS). As a practical handbook for curriculum delivery, the manual is meant to be used by the Course Leaders, the Tutors at the regional centres and the Regional Centre Coordinators.
The Academician's Manual is not a quality manual as known within the discourse of TQM where the focus is on quality processes. Instead, it focuses on giving the academicians ideas on ways in which they can perform their duties better while leaving room for the academicians to use their professional judgement. This is regarded as more appropriate for a complex and multidimensional process such as teaching and learning. Allowances were also made considering the fact that the subject areas taught at the faculty are varied in nature and controlling the processes is not desirable. However, the most important consideration in designing the manual was to suit it to the learning-centred teaching approach mentioned earlier.
The important features of the Academician's Manual are as follows:
The preface explicitly encourages the academicians to use their professional discretion in making decisions regarding teaching and learning;
There are statements regarding the use of the blended learning mode and the teaching-learning tools available to the academicians;
Matters concerning student evaluation, the grading system and the monitoring of student progress (particular to the faculty) is also articulated;
The manual provides a list of duties or responsibilities for each actor (the Course Leaders, the regional centre Tutors and Coordinators) before, during and at the end of each semester;
For each duty or responsibility, the manual provides tips based on established best practices;
The manual provides examples of documents as appendices in order to highlight documentation procedures in compliant with the LAN accreditation exercises and ISO 9001 audits.
The data gathered was from a survey questionnaire as part of the evaluation of the FHSS Academician's Manual. The first of three parts of the questionnaire requested the respondents to provide their details such as age, gender and their teaching responsibilities. The second part elicits their perception of the FHSS Academician's Manual (25 items) and the final part gauges their use of the manual in performing their duties (12 items for all academicians).
Due to the small number of subjects in the survey, the questionnaires were distributed to all Course Leaders in FHSS, regional centre Tutors at seven regional centres and seven Regional Centre Coordinators. The small number of respondents meant that inferential statistics could not be employed meaningfully. Rather, the data is analysed using descriptive statistics, which is deemed appropriate for our purposes. The data for the second and third parts of the questionnaires is analysed using group mean of the 5-point Likert scale, and the results are interpreted as follows: 1 - 2.33 = Low; 2.34 - 3.66 = Medium; 3.67 - 5.00 = High.
The findings of the survey are reported based on the perception and the use of the FHSS Academician's Manual.
Perception of the FHSS Academician's Manual
The survey found that the academicians were positive about the manual, with all items were regarded highly by the academicians except for item 17 as highlighted in Table 1 below.
Table 1: Perception of the FHSS Academician's Manual
The coverage of duties and functions in the FHSS Academician's Manual is comprehensive enough for the Course Leaders.
The coverage of duties and functions in the FHSS Academician's Manual is comprehensive enough for the Tutors.
The coverage of duties and functions in the FHSS Academician's Manual is comprehensive enough for the Coordinators.
The Academician's Manual is written clearly.
The Academician's Manual is written systematically.
The Academician's Manual contains practical information that is not stated in the university rules and regulations.
The Academician's Manual is comprehensive (combines information found in various documents).
The Academician's Manual contains important information that is not stated in the university rules and regulations.
The FHSS Academician's Manual fills up gaps in the documented procedures in ISO9001.
The FHSS Academician's Manual is appropriate as a preventive action in curriculum delivery.
The FHSS Academician's Manual can be used to benchmark effective curriculum delivery.
The FHSS Academician's Manual helps the Course Leaders in performing his/her duties more effectively.
The FHSS Academician's Manual helps the Tutors in performing his/her duties more effectively.
The FHSS Academician's Manual helps the Coordinators in performing his/her duties more effectively.
The FHSS Academician's Manual allows the Course Leader to use their professional judgement in performing their duties.
The FHSS Academician's Manual allows the Tutor to use their professional judgement in performing their duties.
The FHSS Academician's Manual allows the Coordinator to use their professional judgement in performing their duties.
The FHSS Academician's Manual is an important tool to support the sustainable growth of the university.
The FHSS Academician's Manual is an important tool to support the sustainable growth of the Regional Centre.
The FHSS Academician's Manual is an important tool to increase the quality of curriculum delivery by the university.
The FHSS Academician's Manual is an important tool to increase the quality of curriculum delivery by the Regional Centre.
The Academician's Manual is useful for the curriculum delivery in the e-learning (online and face-to-face) mode.
The Academician's Manual is useful for the curriculum delivery in the conventional (fully face-to-face) mode.
FHSS should continue to use the Academician's Manual.
The university should produce an Academician's Manual to be used by all faculties.
The findings tell us that the FHSS Academician's Manual is seen as having adequate coverage for the Course Leaders, Tutors and Coordinators. The academicians also perceived the manual as having been written clearly and systematically. It was also practical as well as comprehensive, containing important information not stated in the university rules and regulations and fills up the gap in the ISO 9001 documented procedures.
The manual was also found to help the Course Leaders, Tutors to use their professional judgement and perform their duties better. However, while the manual is found to help the Coordinators to perform their duties better, there is a mixed reaction on whether the manual actually allows the Coordinators to use their professional judgement in performing their duties.
According to the respondents the manual is an appropriate form of preventive action and can be used to benchmark effective curriculum delivery. They felt that the manual can contribute to the sustainable growth and increase the quality of curriculum for both the university and the regional centres. They regarded the manual as appropriate for both the blended teaching-learning mode as well as the conventional face-to-face mode. The respondents also were of the opinion that FHSS should continue to use the manual and agreed that there should be an academician's manual to be used throughout the university.
Use of the FHSS Academician's Manual
Data regarding the use of the FHSS Academician's Manual is presented in Table 2 below. Of the twelve items, items 2, 4, 7, 8 and 9 received medium response (2.34 - 366) while the others received a high response (3.67 - 5.00).
Table 2: Use of the FHSS Academician's Manual
I have read and understood the contents of the FHSS Academician's Manual.
I always refer to the FHSS Academicians Manual when performing my duties.
I still have to make enquiries from other sources in performing my duties even after having read the FHSS Academician's Manual.
I refer to the FHSS Academician's Manual only, and not the university Data Management System (DMS).
I use the FHSS Academician's Manual to complement other policy documents.
I often refer to the Academician's Manual throughout the semester.
I often refer to the Academician's Manual at the beginning of the semester.
I often refer to the Academician's Manual during the semester.
I often refer to the Academician's Manual at the end of the semester.
The FHSS Academician's Manual has helped me perform duties faster.
The FHSS Academician's Manual has helped make my duties easier to perform.
The FHSS Academician's Manual has helped me to improve my job performance.
The findings indicate that the respondents understand the manual but a moderate number of them only refer to it when performing their duties. Besides using the manual, they also refer to other sources such as the Document Management System (DMS), which contains the original documents from LAN and ISO9001 regulations. They use the manual to complement other sources of information regarding curriculum delivery.
In performing their duties, the academicians use the manual throughout the semester rather than limited to the beginning, during or at the end of the semester. The respondents feel that the manual helps them to perform their duties faster and with more ease, and that it helps them improve their job performance.
The findings of this research indicate that the Academician's Manual is an effective tool to enhance the quality of curriculum delivery in the context of a higher education institution employing the blended teaching-learning approach. This discussion shall be divided into two parts; the FHSS Academician's Manual as a quality tool and quality assurance in higher education.
The FHSS Academician's Manual as a Quality Tool
The FHSS Academician's Manual was designed as a quality tool that allows autonomy with accountability. The focus of the manual goes beyond internal and interface quality and works within a new paradigm as proposed by Cheng (2003). "Completely different from the traditional thinking, the new paradigm of education prescribes that students and their learning should be individualized, localized and globalized" (Cheng 2003: 208).
The findings show that the FHSS Academician's Manual has made many positive contributions in supporting the academicians to carry out their duties and responsibilities in a blended learning system. The strength of the manual is that it links the demands of the three quality assurance systems and provides an easy reference for the academicians to perform their duties before, during and at the end of the semester. The list of tasks to be done by the academicians provided in the FHSS Academician's Manual makes it an appropriate tool for quality assurance as it encompasses all the document control requirements by the various quality assurance systems that apply.
By having the manual, all academicians, including new ones would readily have access to a quick and easy reference in performing their duties. This would provide parity of experience for all the students regardless of the program they follow and their location. The manual compiles the expected tasks to be performed and creates consistency in the service. This is an important aspect of sustainable management as it could ensure continuity regardless of staff turnovers. By maintaining a certain degree of consistency in selected features of teaching as a service, the manual may also contribute to efforts towards creating a brand for the institution.
Wang (2006) cites five pillars of the Sloan-C Quality framework introduced by Moore (2002) which are learning effectiveness, access, student satisfaction, faculty satisfaction and cost-effectiveness. Within this framework, the FHSS Academician's Manual seems to be a tool that contributes to learning effectiveness as it outlines the duties of the academicians without infringing on their professional decision-making. This allows the academicians to design and implement curriculum delivery and individualise learning for the students, giving them more satisfaction in their job. As learning is more individualised, student satisfaction is expected to increase. With the locus of control in curriculum delivery brought closer to the academicians, there is likely to be greater cost-effectiveness.
Also from Wang (2006), The American Federation of Teachers (2000) proposes fourteen standards to be fulfilled in distance education under the Guideline for Good Practice. It appears that the FHSS Academician's Manual helps the institution to meet several important standards including maintaining faculty in academic control. As a matter of fact, the quality assurance systems that were in place at FHSS, UNITAR (the LAN accreditation and ISO 9001) focuses too much on accountability that the autonomy of the academicians was quickly eroding. The manual has managed to clearly define the duties and responsibilities as part of the accountability aspect, and highlight the professional discretions available to them. In the words of Doherty (1995), the manual creates a situation where there is autonomy with accountability.
Finally, McKay and Kember (1999) following Elton (1992), argues that quality systems and measures in universities can be divided into two categories; quality assurance (assurance, accountability, audit and assessment) and quality enhancement (empowerment, enthusiasm, expertise and excellence). External quality assurance systems such as the LAN accreditation and the ISO 9001 certification emphasise quality assurance whereas quality enhancement "usually tends to be the concern of educational or faculty development units or similar bodies" (p.25). McKay and Kember (1999) further argue that quality assurance and quality enhancement should work together and that "â€¦quality control measures in isolation may have limited impact if not accompanied by appropriate educational development initiatives" (p.25). The FHSS Academician's Manual can be said to bring about balance between quality control and quality enhancement as it emphasises on enhancing the quality of curriculum delivery based on the principles of empowerment, enthusiasm, expertise and excellence.
Quality Assurance in Higher Education
The quality movement began in the manufacturing industry (see for example Talaq, 2003; Legrosen, Seyyed-Hashemi and Leitner, 2004), based on the principles of Total Quality Management (TQM). According to Koslowski III (2006), the notion of quality as used in the manufacturing industries is "synonymous with statistical process control" to predict and eradicate defects in manufacturing (p,277). Nevertheless, in higher education the term quality remains elusive, ambiguous, relative, interpretive and contextually determined (Vidovich et al. (2000). For example, Koslowski III (2006) and Legrosen, Seyyed-Hashemi and Leitner (2004) mention five conceptions of quality in higher education; transcendent quality, product-based quality, manufacturing-based quality, user-based quality and value-based quality.
Talaq (2003) summarises the key elements of TQM as "management commitment, management leadership, quality culture, customer satisfaction, empowerment, teamwork, participation and involvement, employee commitment, motivation, prevention, continuous improvement, and ongoing training" (p. 204). The adoption of TQM principles in higher education has resulted in greater accountability and external scrutiny. According to Colling and Harvey (1995), higher education institutions generally may face up to five forms of external enquiry; academic audit, research assessment exercise, quality assessment, validation and external examiners.
As mentioned earlier, FHSS works within the frameworks of the national accreditation system by Lembaga Akreditasi Negara (LAN) and the ISO 9001 registration. The ISO 9001 is essentially a generic quality assurance system and should be applicable to all organisations regardless of size, background and type of business. There is a general agreement that the ISO standards are applicable for the administration of educational institutions (marketing, enrolment etc.). However, higher education institutions registering with the ISO 9000 series (ISO 9001/2/3) have experienced mixed reactions and controversies as to its suitability for assuring quality and standards in teaching and learning (see for example Bolton 1995, Doherty 1995, Becket and Brookes 2006, Vidovich et al. 2000).
The nature of teaching and learning as a complex, dynamic and multidimensional process presents the problem of defining quality and standards. Quality assurance in higher education is necessarily different from other services because of the need to balance between the professional autonomy of the academicians as professionals and the accountability to the public. Reciprocally, the academician-student relationship is that of a professional-client rather than service provider-customer. The approach to quality assurance should be more towards quality enhancement where the emphasis is on empowerment, enthusiasm, expertise and excellence, rather than quality assurance (McKay and Kember, 1999). The object of quality assurance is ultimately continuous improvement and not confined to process control and replication (Peters, 1999).
The FHSS Academician's Manual was produced by the faculty with quality enhancement in mind. The manual incorporates requirements of the various quality assurance systems but was not marked as part of any of the formal quality assurance systems. It remains an internal quality tool as part of the quality enhancement initiative of the faculty. As Doherty (1995) says, "â€¦although much help can be gained from the literature and from the judicious use of consultancy, there is no real substitute for thinking it through and doing it oneself" (p.5).
From the experience of FHSS working within the frameworks of LAN as a national accreditation body and the ISO 9000 series as an international standards system, there is a clear need for the academic department to take charge of quality and standards internally rather than be dictated by generic standards and quality parameters that disregard the uniqueness of teaching and learning as a professional activity. From our experience in using the FHSS Academician's Manual as a quality tool, there are several lessons to be learnt in terms of thinking, practising and assessing quality and standards in higher education.
Quality in Higher Education is Diversity and Excellence
There is little doubt that in higher education, a consensus about the terms quality, standards, customer, accountability and autonomy is a long way to come. However, it should be clear that in higher education the object of quality is not to satisfy the customer. As eloquently stated by Cheng (2003), "Even though the existing stakeholders are satisfied with the quality of education services and the education institutions are accountable to the community, education is still ineffective or "useless" for our new generations in the next millennium, if the aims, content, practices, and outcomes of education are irrelevant to the future needs and challenges" (p. 207). This is where the ISO9001 is regarded as limited for assuring the quality of teaching and learning (Fisher, 1993; Peters, 1999). "TQM in higher education appears to be a process for doing what we do better; but what we really need is to do something different" (Fisher, 1993).
Balancing Professional Autonomy and Accountability
As argued earlier, teaching and learning in higher education involves the academician as professionals who provide expertise to a diverse group of students, with the aim of managing learning as a personal journey of discovery in the minds of each individual learner. The diversity in input, process and output of education as a system (Becket and Brookes, 2006), and the need for diverse, innovative and creative processes means that process control procedures could undermine the quality of teaching. It is therefore imperative that the quality audits for teaching and learning should focus more on the reporting of quality enhancement initiatives (Colling and Harvey, 1995; Jackson, 1996; McKay and Kember, 1999).
As a professional activity, teaching and learning is complex, dynamic and multi-dimensional. It involves a great deal of professional discretion on the part of the teacher. In order to increase quality, the focus should not be to standardise procedures. Instead, it is to allow for the professionals to make professional decisions in the bid to personalise learning for each individual learner. Subsequently, a second requisite for increased teaching quality is that the quality assessor should be a peer who assesses the appropriateness of the professional decisions and the justifications for them rather than looking into compliance to procedures.
Quality is Own and Assessed within the Professional Community
As professionals, the academicians are also bound by accountability and therefore subject to internal and external scrutiny. Nonetheless, the notion of externality in the context of the professions is not external to the profession itself. Therefore, external scrutiny in cases of accreditation or validation exercises by professional bodies and government agencies where the auditor or reviewer is a member of the profession is more welcomed by the faculty as compared to audits by the ISO 9000 employing non-professional (i.e. non-academician) registrar or auditor.
Due to the uniqueness of teaching and learning, the quality assurance exercise needs to adhere to the principles of quality as a collective responsibility. Scrutiny of the teaching and learning process, whether internal or external, should therefore be carried out collectively rather than individually (Jackson, 1996). The audit activities should in turn be made accountable to the institution quality assurance system, supporting the notion of collective ownership of quality processes.
This paper has shared the experience of FHSS, UNITAR in using the Academician's Manual as a quality tool within an internal quality assurance system. The manual has managed to provide a practical guide for academicians to perform their duties within three quality assurance systems that were carried out by different agencies and had different purposes. It is important to note that the Academician's Manual is an important tool that focuses mainly on individual accountability of the academicians while allowing for professional discretion and growth.
Higher education institutions have to be mindful when taking part in the quality movement and not to take the idea of manufacturing style quality assurance wholesale. The purpose of quality assurance for higher education should be quality enhancement (improving the effectiveness of service) and not quality control (product standardisation). The methodology for quality assessment should therefore be self-assessment and accountability through peer review rather than compliance to generic specifications. To this end, the Academician's Manual is regarded as a tool that would enhance quality through self-assessment by the individual actors in the teaching and learning process and provide an avenue for quality enhancement that complements the various quality assurance systems that are already in place.