Pilot global quality platform for ‘non-traditional’ HE

A global quality platform to review non-institutional education providers is to be piloted by America’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation and its International Quality Group. The platform is aimed at protecting students and is a response to the explosion of non-traditional provision – including MOOCs – and increasingly international higher education.

In a nutshell, the quality platform – which will be piloted within the next two months – is envisaged as a voluntary, non-governmental external review of non-institutional providers undertaken by an expert team and based on self-evaluation, using standards that include student outcomes.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA, will facilitate its development but the platform will need to be operated by an existing or new organisation, said CHEA President Judith Eaton.

The quality platform was discussed at a webinar last week titled “Exploring External Quality Review for Non-Institutional Providers” and attended by US higher education professionals and officials but also people from countries such as Barbados, Belgium, Ghana and Israel.

Eaton said that non-institutional education providers – defined as “providers of education experiences operating apart from traditional colleges and universities” – had generated significant attention in recent years.

These providers had attracted millions of students because their courses were readily available, low cost and convenient, and offered a way to obtain some post-secondary experience. “They may have hundreds of offerings and the sector continues to grow.”

Governments and employers were very concerned about access, affordability and workforce development, were looking for additional solutions to these challenges and saw non-institutional education as part of those solutions.

“The issue of an emerging sector raises immediately for all of us in higher education questions about quality. Although we have many fine non-institutional providers and they have robust internal quality review practices, we’ve not seen evidence of external practices.

“This is why we start talking about the quality platform,” Eaton told the webinar.

The providers

There are different kinds of non-institutional education providers.

For instance massive open online course – MOOC – platforms such as Coursera, UdaCity, edX, FutureLearn, France Université Numérique, Open2Study, Veduca and Udemy offer online courses for career, general education or general interest.

The Khan Academy provides online education with free content and assistance, and private companies such as Straighterline and Pearson offer private, low-cost online courses that may be used for college credit. In a slightly different vein there are electronic tools to array evidence of the skills and achievements of individuals, such as Mozilla open badges.

Non-institutional providers generally offer education that is mostly coursework or modules, with a range of courses that could be career-focused or general education or general interest.

“Typically we’re not talking about offering credits for degrees, although we may be talking about certificates or badges,” said Eaton. “These providers are primarily online and typically they are free or low cost although we are starting to see some charges for certification.”

They may have course assistants rather than faculty, students attend episodically and providers have relied on the market for quality judgments – until now.

The quality platform

Eaton described the proposed quality platform as “a review, a process and a tool. An external review of the performance of non-institutional providers of education for their quality.”

She stressed that it would be providers, and not courses, that would be reviewed.

For instance in the case of MOOCs, while traditional institutions such as Harvard produce MOOC content, the quality platform would only review the the providers of that content – platforms such as Coursera that bring together offerings from various sources – on the basis that quality providers will in turn ensure the quality of their courses.

“A quality platform could help students and the public by both assuring and improving quality in this sector. It could provide reliable information to the public about a provider’s quality and assist students as they attempt to make decisions about undertaking offerings in the non-institutional sector.”

It could also have a consumer protection function, said Eaton. “We can protect students and society from sub-standard performers and performance among the providers.”

Universities and colleges too could benefit from quality judgments when considering whether to accept non-institutional offerings for credit, while quality assurance and accrediting bodies could benefit when reviewing institutions and programmes that were working with non-institutional providers. Governments and employers were other potential audiences.


The quality platform would develop standards, Eaton explained, with providers self-evaluating based on those standards. There would also be external review by peer experts and the public – in the form of an expert team – based on the standards.

Examples of standards were whether: learning outcomes were articulated and achieved; learning outcomes met postsecondary expectations; curricula provided opportunities for successful transfer of credit; and transparency was maintained and comparability established.

The external expert team – comprising experienced academics, professionals from the quality assurance and accreditation community, members of the public, students and representatives from business and government – would review providers based on the standards.

If the expert team decided that a provider met the standards, ‘quality platform provider’ status could be awarded. There would be periodic re-examination of the provider, and there would be transparency and comparability of reviews and their results, which would be made public.

“In other words, the quality platform would provide an external review that is typical of a voluntary quality assurance process,” said Eaton.

Non-institutional providers would need to volunteer for quality platform review, complete an application, provide and certify background information and submit evidence that quality platform standards were met (self-review) and engage with the expert team (external review).

“We will seek interest from various providers in testing the quality platform. We have several folks interested in working with us for the first pilot. Over time, as it continues to grow, we might see government taking interest. Certainly the field would demand it,” said Eaton.

It is envisaged that reviews would take “months rather than years. As we continue to have these discussions and we launch the first pilot, we’ll learn a lot more about the numerous issues raised.”

The pilot project would begin within two months, Eaton told University World News. Afterwards, the pilot would be evaluated and further pilot projects might be undertaken.

“We’re putting a process out there and there are a number of options available about who would take on the process and do the work, including quality assurance and accreditation bodies.

“But first we want to know, do the standards work? Does the expert review approach work? Do we have the right issues? How do we improve the review? Will the quality platform yield reliable information about the quality of non-institutional providers? Is this doable at all?”