I recently found on my bookshelves an old copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – a 1970s book in which the author, Robert Pirsig, reflects on what he calls the ‘metaphysics of quality’. I remember reading it shortly after I had started my first academic job and relating quite strongly to the viewpoint presented – that quality, at least in an academic setting, was inherently undefinable. I resolved to re-read the book after 30 odd years experience, although I must admit that I haven’t yet got round to doing this.
Coincidentally, my friend and colleague Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of Engineering at UCL has recently reflected in his thoughtful and eloquent blog on academic quality assurance and how to make it better. He comments on the hollowness of most UK academic quality procedures and argues that quality assurance should primarily be about what is delivered in a course rather than the processes of course approval and documentation. Perhaps wisely, he doesn’t attempt to define what quality means. I inferred from his piece that he was talking about courses in science and engineering where the focus is on content rather than courses in the arts and humanities which are really about developing a student’s ability to sift and analyse material produced by others.
However, in truth, I don’t think we can get away with discussing quality assurance without facing up to what we mean by ‘quality’. I am not at all convinced that we can really judge the quality of an educational experience (in whatever discipline) simply by looking at the content that is delivered. Maybe we can assess the quality of a ‘course’ as some abstract entity in this way but to my mind, separating the delivery of material from the material itself is losing the essence of university education.
A good lecturer brings material to life, adapting and tailoring her presentation dynamically to the audience. She tells stories – which may sometimes appear banal on paper – that relate technical concepts to situations students have experienced, news stories or other aspects of the subject. In short, she communicates enthusiasm and understanding of the subject and inspires students to want to know more. As Pirsig said, quality is undefinable but you know it when you see it; and lecturers who enthuse and inspire are the ones that will be remembered long after the detail has been forgotten.And, in truth, so long as the content in relevant, the details don’t matter much at all. After all, those of us in academia should not kid ourselves that our words of wisdom will be remembered for all times. Unless reinforced by experience, most students forget most of the detail that they learn in very short time after learning it.
For this reason, I am a wee bit dubious about Anthony’s proposals for academic QA. Rather than the waterfall approach where courses are specified and designed in advance then reviewed (tested), I prefer an agile approach. Material developed incrementally and adapted to the specific needs of the students and continuous peer review. Trusting the lecturer and helping them improve. Not just reviewing slides or exercises but sitting in lectures and observing what’s going on. Watching students to see how they respond (how many are asleep!) and talking to them about their understanding and their reading. Expensive, but maybe not that much more expensive than the bureaucratic systems we have created now.
I agree with Anthony that the present QA system is not fit for purpose and that it can be improved. But my view is, to slightly misquote the agile manifesto, individuals and interactions over processes and content may be the way to improve the quality of education and not just the quality of course material.