Adapting quality assurance to the grand switch online

The world has become more complicated with the unexpected coronavirus pandemic. New information technologies and capacities have emerged and been adopted in almost no time. Once regarded as a ‘gimmick’, remote education has become part of our lives with all the possibilities and impossibilities it has to offer.

In the process, the way universities provide education has also been affected and changed. The walls of universities have been demolished. What we used to know about the university was not only about how lectures took place, but also that it involved social proximity between the lecturer and the learner. Now it has become more flexible and complex.

In this new landscape where basic definitions are totally new, quality assurance and accreditation have become an important tool.

Quality assurance in the coronavirus age

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, quality assurance measures have been taken everywhere and new arrangements have been made.

In Turkey, as a preliminary action, the Coronavirus Science Board was established by the Ministry of Health. In line with the suggestions of the Coronavirus Science Board, the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) announced that formal education was temporarily suspended in higher education institutions and all programmes would be carried out using open and distance education.

The Turkish Higher Education Quality Council (THEQC) also closely followed developments arising from the pandemic. In the midst of this, staff are working in shifts during office hours and the council has been able to maintain all its activities by using online meeting tools with council members, commissions and national accreditation agencies.

As a modern governmental institution, THEQC’s nationwide processes and procedures are streamlined and accessible online with almost no paperwork required.

We have closely monitored the decisions, adaptations and new practices created by international quality assurance agencies during the pandemic. THEQC’s staff and council members have attended several international webinars and consultations.

In this way, we have observed that some agencies have adopted a flexible approach to external evaluation and accreditation practices, while others have attempted to conduct virtual site visits. These have informed THEQC’s approach to quality assurance at this time of great uncertainty.

Guidance for distance education

Given the transition to distance education in all higher education programmes, assuring its quality has become an urgent priority.

Although the ultimate goal is the same in both face-to-face and distance education systems, the two systems differ in terms of learning environment and interaction (learner-instructor, learner-material, learner-learner and learner-institution). In distance education, different approaches and methods are required for teaching processes to achieve their goals and for learners to acquire the targeted competencies.

Therefore, higher education institutions should approach distance education not only as a mere transfer of courses and other educational services into online environments, but as a differentiation in approaches and methodologies. “How can we implement more student-centred, performance-oriented and competence-based teaching processes within the context of distance education?” is the main question that should be asked in this differentiation process.

For that reason, higher education institutions should inform and train the teaching, administrative and IT staff who will contribute to distance education processes with this in mind, improve their distance learning management and content development sub-systems in accordance with these approaches and methods and organise training activities to help learners adapt to this new approach.

In this respect, the THEQC aims to guide higher education institutions on the components, principles and quality indicators of the quality assurance systems in distance education.

Through its guide, Distance Education and Quality Assurance System in Higher Education, higher education institutions are provided with a variety of support, including sections on:

• Distance education policy
• Infrastructure and accessibility
• Competencies
• Learning and teaching processes
• Professional human resources and support services
• Information security and ethical aspects.

This guide can be found in both Turkish and English for local and international stakeholders on our official website and online platforms.

As part of the second-largest higher education system in Europe, Turkish higher education institutions are keen to ensure the quality of their courses is on a par with the rest of the world.

THEQC aims to become a quality assurance organisation that can adapt to changing global dynamics while taking national priorities into account. It has therefore taken a major step in its internationalisation strategy by granting international membership during the pandemic.

By expanding its boundaries and connections to Europe with ENQA (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education) and INQAAHE (International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education) memberships, to the Asia Pacific Region with APQN (Asia Pacific Quality Network) membership, to America with CHEA-CIQG (Council for Higher Education Accreditation International Quality Group) membership, THEQC is now linked to the rest of the world.

With these connections and under the guidance of THEQC, we hope that new horizons are opening for Turkish higher education and its quality assurance work.

Professor Dr Muzaffer Elmas is the president of the Turkish Higher Education Quality Council, the national independent agency for quality in higher education in Turkey.