What Will it Mean to be a QM Institution in 2024?

Dr. Deb Adair, QM CEO

woman pulling back curtain to reveal road extending to horizon
“We need to think differently about measuring value and explicitly signal quality in ways that inspire confidence within and without higher education.”

The biggest issues in education today aren’t about technology (hello, AI!), aren’t about innovation, and aren’t about the cost of education — even though these are the issues that dominate so much of the discourse in our field at present. The big issues are about trust and quality, two highly related concepts. This is true in higher education, in particular. Higher education is losing the public trust and, as part cause and consequence, suffering from significant legislative overreach. Many of the reasons for this are complex and beyond the scope of this article; however, one foundational reason is that we have not been able to demonstrate value in the shorter term. The more esoteric (although real) long-term societal value of higher education is no longer persuasive. The metric of interest now is the value of higher education for individual students in the near term. 

We need to think differently about measuring value and explicitly signal quality in ways that inspire confidence within and without higher education. Institutions have relied, perhaps overly so, on institutional reputation, built on the traditional campus experience, as a proxy for quality. Today, this is an increasingly weak signal, especially for digital learning. With the Department of Education focusing now on measures of financial value, it will be up to higher education institutions themselves to be equally transparent about measures of quality and to showcase the work already underway at many campuses. 

The CHLOE 8 Report shows us the efforts institutions are making toward quality; however it also reveals that institutions are not talking about this with their stakeholders — a finding that was termed “quiet quality” in the study. It’s time for institutions to be talking meaningfully to all stakeholders, including students, about the value of higher education and the quality of the learning experience they provide. At QM, we’ve long understood that communicating “quality” is complex and the discussion quickly becomes too nuanced for consumers. Over the years, we have seen institutions point to their membership with QM as a signal of their commitment to quality. Now, we intend to help institutions provide a clearer, and more accurate, signal of this commitment as a distinguishing feature of the value they provide to students.

From the earliest days of Quality Matters, the definition of a “QM institution” has been elusive and even self-appointed based on membership status. This is not to say the title is without meaning. In iterative surveys of the QM Community over the years, members tell us in overwhelming numbers that the biggest reasons for joining and engaging with QM are to be a part of the quality movement in online/blended learning, to demonstrate commitment to quality online learning, and to benefit from QM’s reputation for high-quality online education. This sense that QM institutions are committing themselves to quality digital learning is a feature that distinguishes them from other institutions.   

It is increasingly important to recognize, however, that that meaning isn’t understood by stakeholders outside of the QM community, or even consistently used within the community — causing confusion for external stakeholders and sometimes frustration for the most engaged institutions. To this point, I offer a bit of QM lore: in early 2008, at the very first formal strategic planning meeting of the QM program (our name at the time) attended by representatives of charter member institutions, we presented the approach to serving the community as a membership-based model with fees for selected services (i.e. professional development workshops and course reviews). Anyone could become a member and could choose how they wanted to engage. A representative from a community college that was committed to an ambitious plan of getting every course QM-Certified was furious that we were not requiring the same commitment of everyone. After all, this school had invested significantly in achieving QM-Certification for all of their courses. The idea that they would be a “QM school,” just the same as other schools — regardless of the demonstrated commitment to quality — was too much to bear. So much so that that representative stormed out of the room in anger and disappointment.

Since then, the QM community has grown and the engagement in quality assurance has evolved and matured. Many institutions have developed robust and impactful quality assurance practices — only some of which include curriculum-wide QM-certification for their online courses. Given the variety of approaches to ensuring quality, it isn’t possible, or even desirable, to develop a classification of QM schools based on specific levels of engagement with professional development or course review. This is especially true now, as QM is working to support members where they are with a 360-degree view of quality, centered on the student learning experience. In spite of all this, we must continually explain to stakeholders (e.g. accreditors) that a QM membership is not a guarantee of any kind of quality processes. We need another kind of quality signal, beyond QM membership, to recognize these varied quality practices that elevate those institutions engaging in them.

A Way Forward

In 2024, QM will begin developing and piloting definitions, criteria and review processes for an institutional award of quality for digital learning. This award will be centered on the student learning experience, with a student-centered focus on quality in teaching and learning. This 360-degree approach to quality starts with the intentional design of quality assurance plans aligned to strategic institutional goals, proceeds with practices that specifically support online learners, and concludes with evaluation and improvement processes. A particular challenge — one that QM can support — is that this must happen within complex institutional contexts. The following hallmarks define the scope: 

A QM institution providing a quality digital learning experience has…
  1. Explicit and robust use of quality standards for online education, directly aligned to institutional goals for student success.
  2. Processes for the design and development of quality online courses and programs that are actively and meaningfully informed by quality standards.
  3. Demonstrated commitment to instructor preparation, inclusive of all online faculty.
  4. Academic and support services designed and executed in ways that fully accommodate online students.
  5. Quality measurement and evaluation processes that are student-centered and actively drive continuous improvement.

Early in 2024, we will take the first steps toward the establishment of this new designation with an abbreviated scope for the specific context of academic course sharing. In our first pilot, those institutions offering online courses to students at other collaborating institutions will be eligible for recognition within that context. More pilots will follow as we expand recognition to the full scope of these quality hallmarks for a QM360 designation of quality. 

The community is ready for, and stakeholders are demanding, more transparency about the learning experiences we are providing students. We all have a role to play in addressing the decline in public trust and student confidence in higher education. It’s not enough that we know that many institutions are committed to robust and impactful quality practices. Now is the time to move beyond our “quiet quality” efforts and emphatically demonstrate it.